Thursday, August 05, 2004

Zoom with a view

A particular pleasure of growing up in Kerala was being able to perch by the edge of a field, during harvest time.

To dangle your feet in water and watch, as dozens of men and women, sickles inhand, bend, cut, straighten and bend again to the lilting strains of the Vadakkan Pattukal (The Southern Ballads).The ballads celebrated heroes of the Keralite martial arts form Kalari Payattu; we learnt the stories from listening to untutored, exuberant voicessing them to the accompaniment of the wind in the grass and the whistle of adozen sickles moving as one.

The most famous of those legends center on the invincible Aromal Chekavar and his treacherous cousin Chandu - a tale so pervasive, so rooted in Keralite consciousness that 'Chadiyan (Traitor) Chandu' is in our language synonymous with treachery of the most venal sort.

And then MT Vasudevan Nair came up with the story, and screenplay, for Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha (A Southern Tale of Bravery) that revised, for all time, the story as we knew it.

MTV did it by the simple expedient of delving beyond, beneath, the obvious; rather than center his story on what happened, he questions why - and in the process of uncovering motivation and context, he transformed a hate object into an authentic hero.

That film - which won Mammootty a national award for acting - was my introduction to revisionist history/legend as a possible tool of thefilmmaker. There have been others since then - some powerful, some commonplace (try Arthur, and Troy, for two recent examples of the latter).

Yesterday, I saw a brilliant example - Ying Ziong (Hero), by Zhang Yimou. The allegorical tale is based on the myths and legends surrounding Chin Shi Huang Di, the King of Qin, and set somewhere in the third century BC. It's the period of the Seven Kingdoms; a time of terrible strife and unrest, with the seven lords at perpetual war with one another.

The King of Qin assembles an enormous army, and sets out to conquer the other six kingdoms and unify China. Absolute monarchy is anathema to most; China (read Tiananmen Square) is no exception, then or now. Then, disaffected Chinese from the defeated kingdoms took the simple way out - hired assassins, tasked to take out the putative emperor, who in turn puts out a contract on their lives.

That is the backstory. The story proper begins with the arrival, at court, of Nameless (Jet Li), the prefect of a small province, who claims to have single-handedly defeated the three would-be regicides.

Nameless narrates his successive clashes with the assassins Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung); with each tale, he presents proof of his conquest; each tale, each fresh proof, earns him further rewards in the form of gold and lands and an increased proximity to the king.

And then the plot spins on its axis; the king, basing his read on what he knows of the trio, calls Nameless a liar, and narrates his own account of what he thinks transpired - prompting Nameless to revise his own earlier narrative.

This sets up the structure - a series of flashbacks, unraveling like onion skins, each fresh-sloughed skin, each fresh narrative, cutting closer to the actual truth. If you are thinking Rashomon here, bingo! Zhang Yimou has made no secret ofthe fact that Japanese master Akira Kurosawa is his single greatest inspiration; he even pays visual tribute to his creative totem in a spectacular scene where the Qin army unleashes a scarcely credible cloud of flying arrows in an attack scene that owes to the climax of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's adaptation of Macbeth.

The history of the assassination bid on the King of Qin is derived from the wuxia books that, during the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong's attempt to rewrite Chinese history, were driven underground; what Zhang Yimou brings to the table is his own revisionist version, starring the failed assassin as larger-than-life hero.

(For a more accepted version of the legend, check out The Emperor and The Assassin, a film helmed by Yimou's Beijing Film Academy classmate Chen Kaige).

The traditional architecture of martial arts films has been as much about the rivalry between different styles and schools as it has about good versus evil; on the evidence of this film (and on the basis of The Price of Zen, which inspired Ang Lee to make Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which in turninspired Yimou to make this film), the genre is growing up.

Yimou's film features the sword fights that are the staple of the genre - plenty of them, given that each fight is retold, in layered, constantly shifting flashbacks, at least thrice. But sword fights are not the essence of the film. Instead, Yimou dwells lovingly, almost obsessively, on the relationships between martial artists of the highest caliber and their surroundings - wind and water and rain and clouds and trees ablaze with Fall.

It is the Zen of swordplay; it draws parallels between martial art of the highest caliber and other art forms - calligraphy, music... Yimou seems to say, here, that martial arts is not about power and skill, but rather about intense feeling, self-realization (see the two sequenceswhere combatants square off, every sense turned inward, playing out every move of the battle-to-be in their minds) and finally, about the incredible poetry that can infuse a death-dealing art.

Action director Ching Siu Tung builds on his work in films like Duel to the Death to deliver stunning sequences. Unlike in Crouching..., Hero is more minimalistic in its use of wirework to produce anti-gravity effects.

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle skillfully captures the incredibly painstaking (reports say he painted horses black to match the color of thearmy's uniform) and stunningly spectacular set design by Tingxiao Huo. An outstanding score by Tan Dun rounds off an all-round contribution fromthe crew (check out the sequence where Nameless and Sky square off, to the sounds of a blind master playing an ancient string instrument counter-pointed by the tinkle and splash of droplets of rain onto the flagstones).

In a film that piles set piece upon set piece, it is counter-productive to pick any one for special mention; I replayed at least a dozen sequences over and over to further enjoy the complexities and if I had to pick just one, the Li versus Leung showdown in the 'blue' narrative, especially the water-droplet sequence, would be it.

Cast-wise, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen and Crouching star Zhang Ziyi as the tempestuous assassin-in-training Moon, are pitch perfect, bringing nuance to roles with multi-layered emotional subtexts. Daoming Chen as the King of Qin is imperial; the surprise is his brief, but skilful, swordplay sequence.

Li's mastery of kung-fu is a given and in the fight scenes, he delivers; his carved-for-the-ages-in-unyielding-stone face however leaves something lacking in scenes where he does not have sword in hand (more so, if you compare his role here with Chou Yun Fat's angst-ridden Li Mu Bai in Crouching...)

But it's cinematographer-turned-director Yimou's vision that is the real star. He takes his icon Kurosawa's signature flashback style and elevates it several notches with the use of color-coded flashback. Thus, each character is given a color scheme; each successive flashback has its own palette, and as the film develops, the succeeding layers of color take the tale further along its narrative arc.

When Nameless first narrates his tale, the palette is dominated by reds, oranges and related earth tones to signal imagination; when the king gives his own take on what he thinks happened, the palette turns to blues and related pastels tokening perceived reality; the third layer is all in white (truth); the final flashback is muted green for peace and enlightenment.

The overall effect is of watching not a motion picture, but a series of stunningly beautiful paintings flashing by in front of your eyes. The cinematography is lyrical, yes, but it has no intent to be subtle - rather, it splashes its colors over the screen with a passionate abandon; the impacton your senses is in turn heart-stoppingly tender and violently voluptuous.

Hero is far grimmer than Crouching, but it is at the same time more aesthetic, more sensuous, lyrical in its use of motion and stillness, of color and backdrop.

So why is this film - an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film - not out, yet, in the US of A? Miramax bought it even before completion, way back in 2002; Harvey Weinstein even talked Quentin Tarantino into lending his name to the film (QTpresents...).

Miramax and its European and Asian distributors have even gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that pirated copies do not saturate thelocal market ahead of the film's release. A New York Times report dating back a year said that at a preview of the film, the audience was asked to deposit cellphones, watches, lighters and every other item in which a camera could possibly be hidden before entering the theatre, to prevent surreptitious copying. During the showing, reportedly, roaming guards with night vision binoculars kept an eye on the audience.

Business sense dictates the film gets a release here. Crouching Tiger, budgeted at $15 million, earned $128 million at the US box office alone; Hero, at $30 million the most expensive Chinese film ever, has already earned $102 million in just a few European and Asian markets; given its amazing sweep and scope, it is a sure winner here in the US. So - why not?

Beats me, though there is some buzz that it might be released this year, ahead of Yimou's next, House of Flying Daggers. Meanwhile, bootleg copies of the DVD, brought in from Asia, have given the film cult status here. (I was browsing the film collection at the Union Square Virgin outlet the other day, when a fellow browser got to chatting and inter alia, told me about this film - 'It's the best of the genre you will ever see, getit!')

I did - on Amazon. And ended up with a somewhat funny experience before I actually got to enjoy the film. There was supposed to be English subtitling- the trick though was to find it. Every word on the jacket is in Chinese; when you use the menu option, there is a huge list of possibilities - all in Chinese!


I ended up spending fifteen minutes unraveling this unintended puzzle. Going through the menu, I selected the first item, checked to see if subtitling was coming through, went back, unselected the first item and selected the second, checked back... until finally hitting on the right option through much trial and frustrating error.

Tell you what - the effort was worth it; for pure visual poetry, this one has no equals that I know of.