House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Cliches, laboriously presented. Only a self-consciously retro and “pretty” chinese film could get away with some of this creaky stuff. a couple of exciting sequences, especially a fight and chase in a bamboo forest. but perhaps it’s time to ask the same question of Chinese filmmakers like Yimou that the popularity of Kurosawa in the 1970s/80s raised: How much do these costume dramas, calculated to wow western audiences with their scenery, scope, art direction, etc., prevent other more daring and significant films from receiving distribution and reaching larger audiences. I remember the first time I saw the Japanese film “Pigs and Battleships” about Japan immediately after the war—I was amazed because I thought Japanese film was all samourai’s and emperors. Of course, very few people have seen films by either Imamura or Kurosawa, but is it entirely cynical to wonder why Kurosawa in particular was chosen as a “global” film darling?

12 thoughts on “House of Flying Daggers”

  1. Zhang Yimou has done some daring stuff–most notably “Ju Dou” and “To Live,” both of which were banned in China (I think. Maybe “To Live” wasn’t banned. But I know Zhang Yimou caught a little heat for obtaining distribution rights without China’s permission). These are fairly good films, but lately Zhang Yimou has suffered from having a Tarantino on his back. Does anyone feel more than a bit put-off by Tarantino’s “stamp of approval” approach to distribution? “Hero” was sold to American audiences as “Quentin Tarantino Presents Hero.” He got top billing. Granted, “Hero” was in limbo for about 2 years before Tarantino brought it here (and he secured the original director’s cut). Hooray. But is Zhang Yimou in any different a situation now than he was years ago when he needed China’s stamp of approval before he was able to distribute his films? In other words, is this sponsorship or censorship? We know Tarantino’s fondness for ultra-violent, hi-energy, martial arts films. Which films will get exposure? Which films won’t? Will Tarantino push as hard for quieter, more daring, unusual, iconoclastic films? History has shown us yes, since Tarantino also brought us “Chunking Express.” But is Tarantino’s recent push for Yimou’s martial arts films having a negative influence on the way American audiences perceive Chinese cinema? Discuss.

  2. You didn’t like “Shanghai Noon?”

    I don’t get you about Kurosawa–it is probably an interesting study to see how/why he got lionized late in his career all around the globe, but his body of work continues to astonish me. The shifts in style and focus from “Stray Dog” to “Ikiru” to “Throne of Blood” to… you name it; I’ve only seen a scattered handful of his movies, and they each amaze in distinct ways. He recalls, in the way he adapts his style to distinct genres and source material (while also reworking them as cinematic, and not being too dully respectful), of John Huston.

    And I haven’t seen Zhang Yimou’s later work, although, as John says before he began lecturing us, the first couple films were pretty damn good. “Raise the Red Lantern” is the best movie about concubines that’ll never show up after midnight on Cinemax.

    The point about who gets marketed as global is interesting. I think of Kiorastami (sp?), the new hot Iranian director; of Ray, of Yimou. Or in our hemisphere, I have an ongoing disagreement with a pal here (Jeff Turner, who teaches theater) about whether “City of God” is made for American audiences at the exploitative expense of Brazilian conditions (his take) or is a brilliant exploitation of American cinematic flash translated and politicized for a different socioeconomic situation (my take); he wonders why Hector Babenco disappears while this film gets lauded.

  3. kurosawa is brilliant but the non-spectacular stuff was and is not part of the global kurosawa package. a similar phenomenon could be said to have happened with satyajit ray in india. ray is brilliant, the apu trilogy is sheer genius, but there were other interesting and great directors as well whose films were more “local” in their interests who never got a chance at that larger stage. and ray’s own middle-period films–about middle-class calcutta life–never got the attention that the big “humanist” masterpieces got.

    as for brazilian cinema, i haven’t seen a whole lot but walter salles’ “central station” is brilliant stuff. anyone seen it? i think i agree with mike’s colleague about “city of god”–can we have him blog in place of mike?

  4. Well, Arnab gets to be wrong about “City of God,” along with Jeff. I bugged him to post some comments here–but not in place of me. I know you don’t want that. You love me.

  5. finally got around to watching “house of flying daggers”. a miracle of set design, but that’s about it. i think sunhee liked it more than i did but she also wondered before we began whether there are non-period piece films being made in china. certainly there’s a lot of great contemporary taiwanese film that doesn’t go the historical costume drama/kung fu route. has anyone seen “yi yi”?

  6. Avoiding the current-day political climate (20th century political climate) has allowed some Chinese films to go worldwide and mainstream in the past ten years. Before that, before Raise the Red Lantern-style Gong Li period pieces, not many people had heard anything about mainland Chinese films for many years. Remember, the films still have to pass government standards before they can get released. Much easier to do that by going back in time severa lhundred years.

  7. mark, that’s a very good point. berating mainland chinese filmmakers for ignoring the contemporary period may be unfair–the question of government censorship is very real. at the other end of things, however, the ideology of a film like “hero” makes you think a little: the justification of a super-state which demands loyalty over freedom.

  8. I wasn’t intending to downplay the current crop of Chinese filmmakers (or berate them for not making films set in modern day). I was only pointing out the reason that current Chinese films almost HAVE to be period pieces.

    It’s unfortunate. However, for me, I actually really loved a lot of early Soviet era filmmaking. I kind of wish there was a Communist nation actively making films about life in a Communist country – and in a positive way – if only because it would be so completely strange to see in realtion to other films.

    I read a couple of critics who also pointed out the uncomfortableness of the political overtones of the formation of ‘China’ in Hero.

  9. mark, when did you forget how to read? my response was exactly an acknowledgement of your point–that you made me realize that i shouldn’t be getting all holier than thou about chinese filmmakers not setting films in the present-day.

    however, it should be possible to make films about contemporary china that aren’t overtly political or allegorical–say domestic dramas? maybe there are some of these that don’t make it over.

Leave a Reply