Director: Zhang Yimou
Writers: Zhang Yimou, Feng Li, Bin Wang
Stars: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang, Donnie Yen
The Story: 2000 years ago, at the birth of imperial China. A local prefect decides to eliminate the three assassins that threaten his new emperor. But when he is invited to the palace to explain how he did it, the emperor quickly becomes suspicious of his story, and his motives…
How it Came to be Underrated: Yimou, the greatest Chinese arthouse director of his generation, achieved unprecedented financial success with this all-star action epic, but that only increased the grumbling among serious critics that he had “sold out”. That’s a shame, since the movie has as much art and smarts as Yimou's straight dramas.
Why It’s Great:
- In the ‘80s and ‘90s, a lot of action films, especially Asian action films, were marketed as “balletic” or “poetic”. In most cases, this was an insult to the arts of ballet and poetry. It does a director like John Woo (Yimou's contemporary from neighboring Hong Kong) no favors to ascribe high-minded aspirations to his movies. He shows exquisite craft, but he has very little to say. Yimou, on the other hand, takes this challenge seriously. This is one of the few movies that actually attempts to incorporate the formal beauty and intellectual ambiguity of poetry into the action genre.
- If it’s an action movie, then action must resolve the conflict, right? Not really. Yimou fills his movie with thrilling swordplay, but he never lets us forget that the violence is tragic. As with Leone’s westerns, we get swept up in the action without ever really believing that it will solve anything.
- CGI has been such so miserably misused by American directors that it’s tempting to see it as nothing but a curse upon the artform. But rather than pretend that computer graphics look “real”, Yimou reinvigorates CGI by embracing its two-dimensionality, creating a unworldly, painterly effect that’s beautiful and often delightfully absurd.
- So who’s the hero? That question remains unanswered at the end. This is ultimately not a war of swords, but a war of dueling stories. History belongs not to those with military might, but to those who can best exploit the people's foolish longing to believe in heroic narratives.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The two early masterworks that made Yimou's reputation were Raise the Red Lantern and To Live. They're pretty great.
How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and it plays often on the Independent Film Channel.
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