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DANGEROUS BEAUTY: The Kung Fu Fantasies of Zhang Yimou

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012 | Posted by John R. Fultz

Ziyi Zhang as Xiao Mei in HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, Yimou's second kung fu masterpiece.

Ziyi Zhang as Mei in the masterful HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.

“Even without a weapon, the warrior can slay his enemy from a hundred paces. But the ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether.
The warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists.
Only peace remains.”

–The King of Qin, HERO

Back in 2000 director Ang Lee reinvented the kung fu film (or “wuxia film”) with his Oscar-winning CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Inspired by the great tradition of Chinese martial arts films, Lee brought solid storytelling, deft acting, and superb special effects to bring a new originality to the genre. The film set a new bar for kung fu flicks, where over-the-top action and supernatural elements blended seamlessly with high drama and solid scripting. Yet for Lee this was not the first installment of a new series, or a new direction for his creativity. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was his single entry into the martial arts film genre–he quickly moved on to other types of films.

In 2002 a film called HERO was released in China by well-established director Zhang Yimou, who was acclaimed for such “serious” (i.e. non-action) films such as RAISE THE RED LANTERN and TO LIVE. Two years later, HERO hit American cinemas (thanks to Quentin Tarantino championing the film) and established Yimou as the new reigning king of the kung fu flick. What Lee failed to do (i.e. continue exploring the fertile ground of his CROUCHING TIGER universe), Yimou did with style, finesse, and sheer visual bravura.

hero2HERO is one of the most visually arresting movies ever made — Yimou turns cinematic martial arts into a ballet of savage grace and mystical power. It tells the story of Nameless, a warrior embroiled in the struggle to unify China through bloody conquest. It is arguably the greatest role of Jet Li’s career, as he stars alongside well-known Chinese actors such as Donnie Yen, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, and the wonderful Ziyi Zhang–who is the link between what Ang Lee started and Yimou has embraced. Ziyi Zhang starred in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and her very presence in HERO is a testament to the inspiration that Lee’s work had on Yimou’s ambitious endeavor.

hero21Now there’s nothing wrong with the “grindhouse” style of kung fu movie. Some of my favorite films are from the tradition of clumsily-translated, low-budget masterpieces such as THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS and MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE. Yet what Yimou has done (inspired by Lee) is take this type of action-based movie to a whole new level of excellence. Solid characters, deeply felt emotions, tragic love stories, and bitter betrayal are the hall marks of Yimou’s wuxia films. All of these elements are set against the magnificent backdrop of Ancient China, where the director’s eye for natural beauty and skill with color themes brings legends to life on the screen.

Yimou’s films are slo-mo visual poetry, punctuated by bursts of supernatural combat and the sublime skills of mythical masters. The oldest themes of Love and Death play themselves out with the martial arts conflicts mirroring or enhancing his characters’ internal conflicts. At his best, he achieves a dreamlike quality that rivals — perhaps even supercedes — Ang Lee’s singular accomplishment in the same arena. Zhang Yimou’s films will steal your breath, make your pulse rate, and bring a tear to your eye, all while leaving you gasping for more. Yimou (unlike Lee) was not content to “remaster” the martial arts genre and move on. Instead, he filmed a trilogy of amazing, lavish, films that take the kung fu flick to weird and wonderful heights.

daggerjpegHOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004) was Yimou’s breathtaking follow-up to HERO. Once again the beautiful Ziyi Zhang returned, this time playing a central role. The story brings the sheer scale of HERO down to a more personal size, but amps the action factor to an even higher plane. The plot concerns a band of rebels (The House of Flying Daggers) and the capture of their leader’s blind daughter. The daggers, lies, and swords fly fast as wasps here, and the heart of the tale is a heartbreaking love triangle.

Once again Yimou relies on the stark beauty of natural sets and his powerful sense of color-staging to create a unique action film without peer. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau engage in a deadly game of espionage during the Tang Dynasty, and their culminating sword battle is one of the greatest fight sequences ever filmed. Yimou never forgets the supernatural grace of his subjects; the violence here is driven at first by political stakes, then by sheer survival, and at last by embittered hearts desperate for love and freedom.dagger41

Yimou’s third film in his masterful wuxia trilogy was CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006), set in the Later Tang Dynasty. It is no less lavish, no less gorgeous, and no less emotionally powerful. However, this time the director consciously holds back on the breakneck action, rationing it out sparingly until the latter half of the film, when he once again proves that he is indeed the modern master of martial arts cinema. The first half of the story is dedicated to imperial palace politics, complete with poisonings, betrayal, and forbidden romance.

flowerCROUCHING TIGER’s Chow Yun-Fat (a Chinese movie legend) plays the role of Emperor Ping to perfection, while the stunning Gong Li portrays the scheming Empress Phoenix. The film waxes Shakespearean in its depiction of a royal house divided by intrigue, secrets, and violence. Yimou had, by this point, learned to hold back on the fantastic wonder sequences of martial arts excess, and when they explode upon the screen they are that much more effective for the effort.

flower21Yimou’s trio of kung fu films are pure high fantasy at it’s best. This is not the actual ancient China that his characters inhabit, but the China of Legend, where martial arts is a magic all its own; where men and women spend their lives mastering the Flying Technique, defying gravity and mortality with the strength of their bodies and the force of their chi (spirit). Where Ang Lee’s warriors glided across rooftops and treetops, Yimou’s go them one better, balancing on the surface tension of a serene mountain lake during a vicious duel, deflecting a hoard of flying arrows with a spinning sword blade, or guiding a thrown knife unerringly to its target through pure force of will. Deadly combat has never looked so beautiful, graceful, or thrilling.

There really should be a name for this type of film, sitting as they do well above your standard martial arts movies. Perhaps this is the “New School Wuxia.” Whatever the case, Yimou has finally gotten the kung fu out of his system, much to the chagrin of his American fans. Like Ang Lee, he came into the genre and completely re-invented it. Now he’s moving on.His next movie is the historical drama THE FLOWERS OF WAR, starring Christian Bale. It takes place in 1937 during the Rape of NanKing. While the film may be more down-to-earth than any of his previous three films (his kung fu fantasies), I’m betting it will be no less visually amazing or emotionally powerful.

flower3It’s really too bad Yimou isn’t doing anymore kung fu movies…however, at least we have Tsui Hark’s DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME to carry on the tradition of New School Wuxia fantasies. So far, it’s the only movie of its type that can hang with Zhang Yimou’s superb creations. However, we do have Hark’s newest film THE FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE to look forward to (it’s already opened in China and New Zealand). Until then, if you’ve missed any of Yimou’s trilogy, get your hands on one of the DVDs and you wont’ be sorry. Hark’s wuxia movies look to be the next great franchise of new-school kung fu flicks, as the mantle of Master is passed on again.

dagger3Like the warrior who spends a lifetime mastering the mysteries of the sword, Zhang Yimou (like Ang Lee before him), has reached the ultimate stage of wuxia movie mastery, where the weapon (or movie) itself disappears, and the desire for combat no longer exists.

Although I would love to see more such films from Lee and Yimou, who could begrudge them for purusing enlightenment in the form of an ever-expanding creative freedom?

Besides, we still have these spectacular films to enjoy on DVD.

I recommend hi-def and a BIG screen.

hero32

All the images presented here are from Zhang Yimou's three wuxia films. ABOVE: Ziyi Zhang as "Moon", crying for the death of her master and lover in HERO. Her battle with Maggie Cheung's "Flying Snow" in that film is legendary.

15 Comments »

  1. Of Yimou’s trilogy, I’ve seen Hero and House of the Flying Daggers and loved them both. I definitely need to check out the third.
    Great article by the way.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 7, 2012 11:55 pm

  2. Ziyi Zhang = Biggest Crush Ever :)

    Flying Daggers is also a Top 10 movie of all time for me.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - February 8, 2012 12:35 am

  3. Bleargh. Not a fan of Yimou’s wuxia films, which are just plodding to me. I liked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but my preference is for the old Shaw Bros. movies.

    My favorite of the new wuxia films, though, is John Woo’s Red Cliff. That movie got me more fired up than anything I’ve seen in a good while. A wonderful comeback for a director that a lot of people were writing off after his disappointing Hollywood years.

    Comment by andy - February 8, 2012 3:09 pm

  4. Hey, Andy:

    RED CLIFF didn’t quite work for me…not sue why. I guess I felt that whole “plodding” thing applied there. In contrast, Yimou’s movies move incredibly fast–except for CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER, when he deliberately slows down the pace and really takes his time, letting the sets do as much work as the actors. It has a very different feel from the first two movies. Yet even in the “slower” of the three, there is still plenty of gorgeous scenery, masterful use of color, and eventually some rip-roarin’ martial arts scenes.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 8, 2012 4:27 pm

  5. Scott: You know it, dude. :)

    Ziyi Zhang was also in a really cool Korean movie called MUSA THE WARRIOR. She plays a Chinese princess captured by Mongol bandits…or something like that. It’s another one that I’ve been meaning to watch. (Directed by Sung-su Kim) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0275083/

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 8, 2012 4:33 pm

  6. And the soundtracks! Tan Dun and Shigeru Umebayashi — I have all four of them and listen to them frequently.

    Which version of Red Cliff did you see? The full five hour two-parter or the shorter theatrical version?

    I love Tsui Hark and, thanks to this article, just threw Detective Dee at the top of my Netflix queue. Thanks for the reminder!

    Comment by Joe H. - February 8, 2012 7:25 pm

  7. Oh, John you don’t have to tell me the films Ziyi has been in, I’ve seen them all… remember BIG crush ;) BTW Musa the Warrior is an awesome movie and I’ve never seen a spear used like that before or since, but as a role-player I can tell you I’ve had several spear specialists since seeing it.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - February 8, 2012 10:45 pm

  8. The final fight in House of Flying Daggers always reminds me of Frazetta’s “Frost Giants.”

    That’s my favorite of the high-gloss kung fu movies, although its not as well plotted as CTHD. The ending in particular is weak. Frost giants aside, it just kind of peters out.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - February 9, 2012 8:25 am

  9. As the author of several stories set in a world very heavily influenced by these films (indeed, my mental image of Yi Qin is strongly based on Ziyi Zhang), how can I not dive in here?

    “Hero” is one of my favourite movies, it repays multiple viewings. The acting is superb, as the same actors play different retellings of the same characters (the one exception, actually, being Ziyi Zhang, whose character is oddly pretty much the same no matter which version she’s playing; I suspect that’s deliberate since she’s pretty much a side character and portrayed as immatuer and unaware of the subtleties going on around her, but I know some who believe it’s down to the limitations of her acting).

    “House of Flying Daggers” is visually enjoyable but piles one a couple of plot twists too far, and “Curse of the Golden Flower” cannot be taken too seriously but is spectacularly OTT melodrama.

    I’d echo the praise for John Woo’s “Red Cliff” (the full 5-hour version, not the cut-down theatrical release, is actually worth it, and there’s a wonderfully good bromance running through it).

    There’s plenty more of this genre out there – check out the trailer for “Legendary Amazons” and tell me you don’t want to see that, for example.

    Comment by tchernabyelo - February 9, 2012 12:32 pm

  10. Hey, Jeff!

    I must respectfully disagree about the ending of FLYING DAGGERS. It’s utterly heartbreaking…

    Hey, tchernabyelo!

    I will check out that movie you suggested. However, I don’t agree that DAGGERS has too many plot twists…but all of this may be a matter of taste. DAGGERS turns out to be a love story disguised as an espionage story. The climax doesn’t hinge on some big spectacle, but on the tormented emotions and uncontrollable passions of two men in love with the same woman–and she is willing to die for ONE of them. It’s a beautiful and tragic ending, worthy of Shakespeare’s best tragedies.

    I agree that there is much melodrama in CURSE, but for me it works because things are so over-the-top and the royal intrigue is reminiscent of HENRY V or HAMLET. (Not so say Yimou is as good as Shakespeare, but there is definitely an influence here.) Besides, I like melodrama. :)

    However, it’s worth noting that ALL art is subjective, so what works for one person may not work for another. (Case in point: RED CLIFF is a formidable accomplishment for Woo, but it didn’t work for me.)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 9, 2012 1:15 pm

  11. Enjoyed your post, John. I’ll throw in couple of my wuxia favorites that are a little lesser known than Crouching Tiger: Iron Monkey, recommended by Quentin Tarantino, is good. Probably my favorite wuxia director is King Hu, who did the wonderful Touch of Zen and Come Drink with Me (Cheng Pei Pei is an awesome female action heroine). These two films don’t have the sophisticated martial arts choreography or special effects of modern wuxia films, but both have great scripts and great acting. I also recommend the Chinese TV series Laughing in the Wind (which you might still be able to find on Netflix). I was disappointed in Red Cliff, which I thought tried to squeeze too many characters and too much story into a film script.

    Comment by Affrit32 - February 9, 2012 6:45 pm

  12. John – oh, agree about the ending of Daggers, it’s well-done, and suitably tragic; and the core relationships in Curse between the various family members are, indeed, Shakespearean, it’s just that in the end the treatment of it veers to the histrionic. A little sbutlety here and there might have benefited it. Still enjoyable.

    Sorry you didn;t go for Red Cliff. I’ll admit I haven’t seen the shortened version, I avoided it deliberately as I feared it wouldn;t work.Cutting something by 40% or so rarely leaves a coherent remainder.

    Comment by tchernabyelo - February 9, 2012 10:54 pm

  13. I must respectfully disagree about the ending of FLYING DAGGERS. It’s utterly heartbreaking…

    Part of it, yes. But they tried to keep the rest of the story going too, and it should have been allowed to die once it was no longer relevant to the love triangle.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - February 10, 2012 1:00 am

  14. Really, really need to watch Iron Monkey again one of these days. (Which was directed by Yuen Wo Ping, who did the martial arts choreography for Crouching Tiger as well as The Matrix and Kill Bill.) I’ll also give shouts out to Dragon Inn and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain.

    Comment by Joe H. - February 10, 2012 11:14 am

  15. I just watched Zu for the first time just recently and enjoyed it.

    Another great wuxia fantasy is The Bride With White Hair.

    Comment by andy - February 10, 2012 1:25 pm


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