“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.
HERO 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.
Now 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.
HOUSE 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.
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.
CROUCHING 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.
Yimou’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.
It’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.
Like 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.