Director: Wong Kar-Wai
This is, specifically, the “redux” version we’re dealing with, cos that seems to be the only one easily available; the original international version, to say nothing of the original original version from the Venice Film Festival, may still be out there in dodgy form, but this seems to be the one Wong himself wants out there. Apparently it came about because he got a call from the film lab storing the film materials, advising they were shutting down the very next day, so if he wanted his stuff, he’d better get it right there and then… and the materials were apparently in such a mess that a complete overhaul was the only way to go. Which involved recutting, making the seasonal structure clearer, new music, and a completely different colour grade (which, apparently cinematographer Christopher Doyle isn’t thrilled by). Bordwell has a whole piece on it, and on the connections between the film’s various characters. The film was notorious for baffling its original audiences, and I can see why; you actually can piece the relationships together, but Wong doesn’t make it terribly easy, and the loose, semi-episodic structure makes everything just that little bit more remote. It’s kind of an anti-wu xia film in some ways, determined to take the usual sword-slinging characters and make them more recognisably human than mythic… although the extent to which it succeeds at doing so is, I think, arguable, and the film’s general approach is a highly aesthetic and artificial one that kind of further undercuts that. It’s so self-conscious in its “artisticness”—a tendency I’ve always gathered was kind of frowned upon by the Hong Kong film industry at large in those days; Wong might’ve been playing with big stars but he was never really accepted at home as one himself the way foreign critics fawned over him—that it becomes quite teeth-grinding. I may find more in it on a second watch, but that might be a while in coming.
Director: Ang Lee
As the 1001 Movies tells it, Lee’s intention with this film was to make the best martial arts movie possible. The extent to which he achieved this is, obviously, is a matter of individual judgement, but the ambition cannot be faulted, and—at least in my opinion—neither can much of the execution. Obviously a shitload of people felt the same back in the day, when it became a surprise megahit in the US where it soon became the highest-earning foreign film ever (is it still?) and took out Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (plus a Best Picture nomination, among several others), although I do recall back then some people were sniffy about its success; they were hardened Asian action fans who’d been watching films like this for years, and while the uninitiated were oohing and aahing at the flying swordfights and stuff, they were grumbling that Lee wasn’t really doing anything they hadn’t seen before. Which isn’t actually entirely unfair, I suppose, Lee wasn’t really doing much that was new even if most of the people watching this film hadn’t seen it done before. But he was doing these things with probably more resources than any wu xia film had ever had thrown at it before, plus the film did have the relative novelty of an already internationally recognised arthouse filmmaker being the director… indeed, on rewatching it tonight, I got a real sense of self-consciousness about the film, as if it knew it were the martial arts film (cf. what I said recently about Stagecoach and the western), which I suppose is how many people must see it. But also I was struck by how much of the story I’d forgotten, probably because there’s an awful lot of story to keep track of. In some respects you can sum it up as “sisters doing it for themselves”; Jade Fox has killed Li Mubai’s master for refusing to teach a woman his sword skills, and now her disciple has taught herself many of the skills in order to outdo her own master. But there is obviously more to it than just that, and CTHD excels where a martial arts film really should, i.e. the frequency and quality of the fights. Beautifully photographed, well choreographed, it’s not really surprising the film was the hit that it was; the time was obviously right for this sort of thing to go big, and I won’t complain about this being the one that did.
Another film in which not a lot happens, but in this case it happens three times. BOOM TISH!!!!! Actually, that’s being a bit unfair. Probably. Maybe. I haven’t seen anything by Hou Hsiao-Hsien before; the library used to have The Puppet Master on VHS, though I never borrowed it, and I know Millennium Mambo came out here on DVD, but otherwise he’s another director who doesn’t seem to have broken out of the festival circuit much (unless I’m wrong Flight of the Red Balloon is his only local theatrical release so far). Of course, I’ve probably missed TV showings of his films just because I didn’t know the titles; I know Hou is treasured by the cinephiles but I don’t know much more than that… I did recognise this one, though, when I saw it in the TV guide so thought I’d start rectifying my ignorance. I knew almost nothing about the film bar my dim memories of reviews saying it had three stories set in different periods and one was done like a silent film. That was about right, though I was surprised to see the “silent” segment (set in 1911) was filmed in colour like the rest of the film and the only “silent” signifiers were the score and intertitles. It was an affectation I frankly found off-putting and it pretty much helped distance me from the rest of the film (to be honest I pretty much tuned out in the contemporary closing segment)… and, really, not a lot happens three times; the first story (set in the late 60s) struck me as essentially slight and a bit aimless, though not without some degree of mild charm that I found absent from the other two stories, neither of which seemed to add any further substance. On the whole it struck me as a vague and empty exercise.