Tag Archives: zhang yimou

The Great Wall – Review

3 Mar

I recently did a review for Zhang Yimou’s 2011 war drama, The Flowers of War. In that review, I mention that Yimou is a very respectable film maker who has an especially strong talent for filming what I believe to be some of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. His latest film is The Great Wall, a monster movie that involves protecting the Imperial City from creatures hell bent on destroying civilization as we know it. That combined with Yimou’s colorful and sweeping directorial style kind of made this a must see for me. Well, all I can say is that this film definitely looks great. That’s pretty much where the compliments end.

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William (Matt Damon) and Pero (Pedro Pascal) are two mercenaries scouring the East looking for “black powder,” which we now know as gunpowder. During their search, they end up at the Great Wall of China and are questioned about their intentions immediately upon their arrival. The two partners soon learn why the soldiers at the wall are so concerned about their motives. During a seemingly quiet afternoon, the wall is raided by alien monsters called the Tao Tie, whose goal is to penetrate the wall and continue on to the Imperial City. It doesn’t take long for William to come to a decision as to wether he wants to escape with Pero and another Englishman, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), or if he would rather stay and defend the Great Wall with the newly appointed general, Lin Mae (Jing Tian).

I was excited for this movie for multiple reasons. First off, I was pumped to see Zhang Yimou tackle a big budget monster movie and have his style painted all over the movie. I was also just pumped to see another monster movie from Legendary, which has pretty much become the monster movie company for America. In these ways, the movie does succeed. When battles start happening, I got really into it. The special effects look kind of cartoony, but for some reason, that didn’t really bother me. I was taken aback by Yimou’s use of color and framing scenes to make them look as epic as possible. One of these shots in particular happened in the very first battle where you can see most of the battle in one super wide shot. Another really cool thing are the different regiments of the soldiers and the uniforms they wear to identify themselves. Honestly, in terms of style and scope, this movie stands tall.

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Like I said before, that’s pretty much where all of the good stuff ends. The Great Wall really isn’t all that good of a movie despite having a really cool premise. My biggest problem was the characters. I haven’t seen such poor development and writing in a really long time. Any scene that didn’t involve a battle or special effect of some kind fell flat. Like completely, utterly flat. It’s incredible how an epic period piece featuring alien monsters attacking the Great Wall of China could be so boring. There are a few characters worth something, but that’s not saying to much. William’s partner Pero has a good amount of one liners and a story that at least attempts to go somewhere before that’s shut down by some idiotic decisions from the writers. Lin Mae is also a pretty cool character who feels the most human out of anyone else. The worst offender of characters not worth anything is Sir Ballard. If you were to take Willem Dafoe out of this movie, nothing would be different. He’s completely wasted here.

I was also really bothered by the acting in this movie, but part of this also has to fall on the writers. There was so much clunky and awkward dialogue in this movie which only made me more distracted during the down time that I’ve already complained was boring enough. Like I said before, the only exceptions from this are Pero and Lin Mae. They weren’t perfect, but they were better than the rest. Honestly though, I was mostly shocked at how flat and uninspired Matt Damon was. I didn’t know until the end of the movie that he was supposed to be European, and I still don’t know exactly where he’s supposed to be from. His accent is on and off throughout the whole movie, and the way he delivers his lines is cringeworthy. Aside from his weird accent, he uses this over the top tough guy voice that wore thin on me after the second line of dialogue he had.

The Great Wall is a very disappointing movie. Throughout its run time, I saw a lot of hope for potential, but nothing really came of it. I will say that this is a fantastic looking movie with cool creature design and some excellent use of lighting and costume design. Everything else from the characters and their development to the structure of the narrative is flat, recycled, or just plain boring. As a monster movie, it works at the most basic of levels. As a movie to be appreciated and viewed for something more than that, it’s a failure.

Final Grade: C-

The Flowers of War – Review

10 Feb

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Zhang Yimou’s newest movie, The Great Wall. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’m going to hold all judgement until I actually do, but I wanted to point out that Yimou is still responsible for some really fantastic and visually striking films that shouldn’t be ignored. The two that I’m most familiar with are Hero and House of Flying Daggers. In 2011, Yimou went in a sort of different direction with the historical war/drama film, The Flowers of War, a chronicling of the Rape of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This film has a lot of power behind the story, and the performances are to be praised along with the visual flair behind it. There is something holding the movie back from being a classic, however, and some of the detractions of his newest film can also be noticed here.

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in 1937, Nanking is completely overrun by Japanese troops, which puts every person in the city in extreme danger of torture and murder. Amongst these people are John Miller (Christian Bale), and American mortician hired by a Catholic church for his grim services, and a group of schoolgirls looking for cover wherever they can. One of the schoolgirls, Shu (Zhang Xinyi), runs into John on his way to the church, and he escorts her to safety there. While they are in hiding, a group of prostitutes, led by the beautiful and strikingly wise Yu Mo (Ni Ni), also find refuge in the church. These different people all have major differences in beliefs and practices, but they are soon forced to overcome these biases to protect each other when a representative for the Japanese, Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe), makes his and his troops presence known and essentially barricades them inside the church until he can figure out what to do with them all. Thus begins a daring escape plan formulated by the reluctant John and Yu Mo to get as many people to safety as possible.

Right off the bat, The Flowers of War has a subject that is very difficult to tackle. This is a very dark time in human history, so it must really be handled with care. Luckily, under the direction of Zhang Yimou, I think that it’s handled very respectfully and without any kind of exploitation. That doesn’t mean that there is no controversy surrounding this movie. One interesting thing to point out is that this movie is banned in Japan for reasons that are pretty obvious. This film definitely shows the horrors that were inflicted by the Japanese unflinchingly realistic detail. There’s also been some critics who have pointed out that this is another example of a “white savior” story arc. I’m not one to usually point this out, but I do see where these critics are coming from. The entire cast is made up of Chinese and Japanese actors with Christian Bale being the only western actor for most of the movie. While it’s fine that he’s in the movie, a lot of the film revolves around him protecting the people inside the church. That being said, unlike some other movies that suffer from this cliché, the supporting characters do handle themselves very well and show smarts and grit in times of suspense and intensity.

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When I think of the movies by Yimou that I really like, the first things that come to my head are the colors that highlight every scene of his movies. The Flowers of War is toned down a little bit, but don’t be fooled. This is a beautiful movie to look at and, even when something isn’t jumping out at you in a shot, just look at the framing and lighting. Zhao Xiaoding, who has worked as Yimou’s cinematographer on House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, returns for this movie and works perfectly with Yimou to frame and light this movie just right. There’s not enough that can be said about the visuals. There’s also great usage of slow motion photography and one particular tracking shot that sent shivers down my spine. Say what you will about anything in this movie, you have to give a lot of credit to the technical proficiency and artistry behind the camera.

While also being great visually, Yimou has shown his strengths at telling a story, and it works here for the most part. He gets the best out of his actors, for sure. Christian Bale and Ni Ni are fantastic, and the child actors are also put to great use and feel very natural. There’s a lot of power in the telling of this story, but it doesn’t really keep the power going for some parts. The film starts off very strong and just keeps building in tension and drama, but it starts to fall apart during the overlong third act. This is when the planning of their escape starts, which is all fine, but there’s a romance that forms and a lot of other unnecessary scenes of dialogue that could have been cut out or trimmed down. It just felt awkward having this slow down happen so late in the movie after so much has just happened. This is the film’s biggest detractor. It has a nice flow for most of the movie, but the third act feels so unnatural and weird at times that I started to check how much time left a little bit too often.

The Flowers of War is a really good retelling of a very dark time in human history. Zhang Yimou continues to show his strengths as a director and storyteller, even though the narrative starts to slump heavily during the overlong third act. The characters in this movie are very well rounded and it’s a beautiful film to look at. I can see people getting upset over the certain elements of the movie, but I think they should try to get past it, if not just a little bit, to see the greater story being told. This isn’t a classic, but it’s a valiant effort from a very talented film maker.

Final Grade: B+

House of Flying Daggers – Review

9 Oct

Sometimes there’s nothing better than watching a wuxia film where the characters fly through the treetops and can perform incredible moves of martial arts that seem to defy physics in just about every way. Think of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. These are just two examples of such a style, but ones that I think are the most impressive. The director of Hero, Zhang Yimou followed up that masterpiece with his 2004 film House of Flying Daggers, which is everything you must expect it to be. While it is a fantastic visual and auditory experience, the story seems a little bit behind with a boring second act that really doesn’t stand up to the first and third.

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At the end of the Tang Dynasty, the government is threatened by a rebel group of Robin Hood types who rob from the rich and give to the poor. They are both feared and respected and known by all as the House of Flying Daggers. After a new leader of the group rises to power, the local authorities led by Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Liu (Andy Lau) arrest a blind dancer, Mei  (Zhang Ziyi), who may or may not be associated with the Flying Daggers. As part of a conspiracy to find out who the new leader is and assassinate them, Jin pretends to be a wandering warrior who breaks Mei out of prison and vows to return her to the Flying Daggers. As the two travel further and further, they begin to for a relationship that was most unexpected, but also the soldiers who were meant to be on Jin’s side suddenly want him dead. As if that isn’t enough, Mei is holding on to a few big secrets of her own.

I would describe this movie as martial arts meets William Shakespeare. The way the story plays out and the kind of characters are involved kind of reminded me of the Montagues and the Capulets. All of the deception and forbidden love is also very reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy. That combined with gravity defying martial arts only adds to how cool this movie is. It is inevitable that I’m going to compare this movie to Yimou’s earlier work with Hero, so let’s just get it out of the way. Hero is the better movie all around. It has a better story, better visuals, and is pretty much just more memorable. That doesn’t mean that House of Flying Daggers is a disappointment though, because this movie is quite memorable in its own right. I’d love to see Hollywood just try to make something like this.

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I really can’t get over just how aesthetically awesome this movie is, even though it really came as no surprise. This may sound cheesy, but I can’t really help it. This movie is visual and auditory poetry. One scene in particular where Mei dances and beats the drums with her sleeve is the perfect combination of sight and sound. Every fight seems to have its own colors, sounds, and music that make them all unique. That and the way that the characters seem to effortlessly glide through the air only serves to make it all the more stunning. Finally, the score is so traditionally Chinese and occasionally thumps with a barrage of percussion that the action happening onscreen literally feels like it’s being high lighted. It is a sensory overload and I love it.

The only problem I really have with this movie is actually quite small. The beginning and end parts of this movie are both fantastic, especially a climactic fight scene that seems to begin in fall and end in winter. The middle, however, is kind of weird. This is where a lot of the excellently choreographed action scenes take place, but in between those is just a whole lot of walking around in the forest. This is where the visuals kind of lack compared to the rest of the movie, and the relationships between the characters don’t really have much depth until the third act when a lot of the secrecy is revealed.

House of Flying Daggers is an excellent example of the wuxia style of film making that I just love so much. I saw a post on Imdb where someone was complaining that it wasn’t realistic. Well duh. It’s not meant to be, so going into this movie expecting to see some true to life history would be a mistake. Instead, enter this movie expecting a visual and auditory experience that combines martial arts, fairy tales, and Shakespearean tragedy. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all. This movie is absolutely fantastic.