Monday, December 13, 2004

Upon seeing two Chinese pictures

Kung fu films never did it for me. My appreciation of them extends to a little Bruce Lee, more Jackie Chan and the “Fistful of Yen” mini film at the end of Kentucky Fried Movie. And if it’s a choice between Hong Kong or the mainland, I tend towards the latter. So I was looking forward to Hero, the newly released Jet Li vehicle directed by Mainlander Zhang Yimou, who is one of the finest directors alive. I can’t think of another contemporary director who is better or has a more impressive body of work, whether compared to Yimou’s string of masterpieces with Gong Li or his smaller budget pictures he did afterwards.

Hero was not as innovative or even as clever as one might expect from Yimou. It was too much in the vain of Crouching Tiger. There were some pretty shots and some impressive sequences, but it was too heavy on the flowing robes and way too poetic. When it comes to swordplay, samurai pictures generally work best because there’s not much in the way of clanking swords. Duels are usually decided by the first or second blow. This picture did not follow the samurai way. Every shot of Jet Li showed him floating softly along a cable with his sword outstretched looking utterly ridiculous. Every thrust of a sword was bound to be met by a parry and counter thrust and then on and on, as if they didn’t want to kill each other. After awhile, the action sequences seemed to lack any decisiveness at all. And the effects didn’t know when to stop. It one scene, when a unit of archers fire a volley, it becomes a steady stream of arrows that penetrate stone walls and turned everything into a porcupine quills. When arrows start to look like fur, it is time to stop. Going a little over the top is fun, but when a picture goes too far the law of diminishing returns sets in.

The Rashomon-like structure of the story was interesting, but wasn’t enough to make it gripping. And I believe it was supposed to be set near the end of the Warring States Period – a nice touch – but little is done with that.

What does it take to make a damn good martial arts film?

Enter Shoalin Soccer, which I had seen the night before. If Hero missed the mark, Shoalin Soccer was right on the money. By far it was a smaller production, but the computer effects were clever, the dialogue and comedy was top notch, the meat was present and it had some pathos. It was a mix closer to the Bad News Bears and Tampopo than to Rashomon and Crouching Tiger. The way it dealt with shoalin was light-hearted and reverential, pitting it against the “science” of the villain who was so sinister that even his soccer team was called Team Evil.

There are some brilliant scenes in this movie, but they don’t make a big spectacle of themselves. They just happen. In one scene, the main character is kicking a soccer ball against a brick wall from a hundred yards way as if he was playing racket ball. And that was better than any computer effects in Hero. Somehow the Shoalin effects team gives their craft real gravity, and when they go further and further over the top, they are mindful to avoid those diminishing returns. The result is that the climax of the film is just as fresh and enjoyable as the first scene. There’s none of that audience numbing that action pics (like Hero) are so keen on using.

In short, I will forget about Hero by the end of the week. However, Shoalin Soccer, probably the best movie I’ve seen in a few years, will stick to me.

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