Two movies two days in a row. Yesterday: Memoirs of a Geisha (let me just add that the West Mall theatre was packed). Today: Huo Yuanjia/Fearless.
(possible spoilers for both films)
I have a predilection for Jet Li and his martial arts films. In fact, I have a thing for martial arts films, period; Jet Li gracing the film with his elegance and might only sweetens the pot.
On the other hand, I don't read popular fiction and I'm generally snotty towards films that are adapted from such books. Above all else, I'm very suspicious of Hollywood films that attempt to explore a foreign - usually Asian - culture, even if it's one that isn't necessarily mine.
Having said all that, I think it's quite obvious which film I loved and which I didn't quite like.
Problems I had with Memoirs: Its stupid, preposterous and Hollywood-ised ending; the way the film started in Japanese and then sporadically switched to English; the fact that the 99% of the film was in English; how obvious it was that Chinese actors were playing Japanese roles; and how the film didn't exactly have a point.
That last five minutes of the movie were so bad that it completely ruined whatever flimsy tolerance I had for the first 115 minutes. I have no idea if it's faithful to the novel, since I've not read the novel and I don't intend to ever, but whatever it is, it was retarded. Absolutely cliche and unnecessary. Of course I wanted some happy ending for Zhang Ziyi's character, but the way it was executed was just incredible, as in Not Credible. The Chairman had very little reason to suddenly go up to Saruyi and be all, "Oh I've always known who you are; I've always liked you. I was just afraid of how my friend would feel!" The film was building up towards another type of confession, one initiated by Sayuri and not the other freaking way round. Damn, I was pissed when that last scene happened. I didn't really want the film to end with her throwing away his handkerchief (yeah whatever), but given the ending that I actually got, I think I would've opted for the former. At least that is realistic.
If you want a film to be in English, then let the whole damn thing be in English from start to finish. I read somewhere that the director deliberately started the film in Japanese to give the audiene a sense of disorientation, that we are entering a foreign, secluded, insular world; but the feeling I got from that tactic was the exact opposite. When the characters suddenly started speaking in English for absolutely no rhyme or reason, it made me realise that it was a mere film that I was watching and thus the whole 'suspension of disbelief' thing was made that much more tenuous. And why is Japanese dialogue supposed to give the viewer a sense of disorientation?!
Oh wait, I forgot; the film primarily caters to American audiences! That explains everything.
Zhang Ziyi is one of my favourite actresses but her incompetence in English severely handicapped her. Hats off to her for trying, but the delivery of her lines was awkward at best. It felt like she was reading from the script, and the same goes for Gong Li and the young Japanese actresses. Michelle Yeoh doesn't look fucking Japanese at all and I didn't buy her as a geisha for even a second. Still, she had the best-sounding English amongst the principle cast so I suppose, just for that reason alone, I'm glad she was in the movie.
And last but not least: What the hell was the point? If the whole point was Sayuri pursuing the "man of her dreams" then I'm sorry, it smells of paedophilia to me! She was nine when she met the Chairman, for crying out loud. I mean, yeah, he's absolutely gorgeous, but still. He also mentioned, in a throwaway three or four words, that he had kids. KIDS! He was a FATHER when he bought young Sayuri that sweetened ice thing! It'd be somewhat understandable and halfway realistic if it was just an infatuation on Sayuri's part; we all go through that phase, I certainly went through it and hell yeah I understand; but for it to be mutual?
Like I said, how very Hollywood. I'm so disgusted. If I were Japanese, I think I would be quite insulted.
Good parts: Gong Li versus Zhang Ziyi. That's about it.
I think Gong Li was gorgeous in the film though. She did not look 40 at all, and I think she's even more gorgeous than Zhang Ziyi (whom I think is beautiful). Her English was slightly less awkward too.
On the other hand, I loved Huo Yuanjia.
Jay Chou's music video for the song of the same name - which he reportedly wrote in two days and for which he did not receive any money - kicked off the movie. Even though they didn't show the whole thing, it was a great start to an even more awesome and rewarding finish.
Now, I was kind of weaning off Jielun for a bit but now I'm just obsessed all over again. That song? Absolute genius. I can't think of any other way to describe it. It goes perfectly with the film, the lyrics are inspiring and profound, and the Chineseness, oh the Chineseness. He's done the Chinese thing before: Shuang Jie Gun, Long Quan, Shuang Dao, and now Huo Yuan Jia. Long Quan used to be my favourite of the lot; but now Huo Yuan Jia has taken its place. Love the pseudo-opera singing, love the lyrics, love the melody, love the tempo, love the contrast between traditional Chinese music and the rock guitars, love the rap even, love the chorus, love the whole song. I came home after the film and watched the music video over and over again and now the song is in my head.
More importantly, above all else, the film was amazing. It was more violent than your standard martial arts film (hence the NC-16 rating), it followed the stereotypical from-zero-to-hero storyline (future hero is extremely skilled in martial arts, hero-to-be beats every challenger and becomes the best, he gets cocky, he kills someone, something happens to his family, he goes crazy, he's saved by humble villagers, he's humbled in turn, he goes back to where he came from and makes amends for his mistakes, he dies an honourable death but not before sprouting words of pure wisdom 2 minutes before dying to weeping friends and admirers and disciples all surrounding him - yeah, we've seen this before), it had that trademark and copyrighted Hong Kong Movie Death Scene; but I loved every single second of it. It wasn't funny, it was very obvious, it even had some Rah Rah China Is Great undertones, but it was still the best film I've seen in quite a while.
I love Jet Li. I grew up watching his films, so it's no wonder that he's my childhood hero. To some extent, he's still my hero. He and Jackie Chan are famed for their skills in kungfu, but he's always been that much better in my eyes. He's elegant as opposed to Jackie Chan's technical, he moves like liquid, and he presents martial arts as what it truly is - a form of art. Watching him is amazing, and it helped so much that his acting was wonderful in this film too.
(Having said that - I'm sorry, but I don't understand what he was talking about when he was explaining the difference between 'wuxia' and 'gongfu'. Oh well, whatever.)
The opening scene was my favourite. It was explosive and the juxtaposition between Huo Yuanjia's martial arts and some random Europeans' display of fighting abilities was delightful. Perhaps it was xenophobic a little, but in the context of the film and the period in which it's set (1910 China), it was appropriate.
And it rejuvenated the whole Rah Rah Chinese Pride thingy in me. Have I mentioned that I tend to tend towards Chinese chauvinism?
Well, I'm not obnoxious about it and neither am I degrading towards other cultures but I am very proud to be Chinese. I know it's not cool to admit that, and some - most - people think it illogical to identify oneself with one's race, but you know what, I really couldn't care less. Being Chinese is important to me, pretentious as it may sound.
Martial arts is so fascinating. The philosophy behind it - an almost universal one - is so profound, and the film did fantastically in capturing it. But alas, I don't really get it yet; maybe I will, after reading Jet Li's essays on his official site about it.
He doesn't freaking look 40 at all.
And the best thing? The film wasn't dubbed! Oh, thank goodness for authenticity and mainland Chinese actors and a director smart enough to use mainland Chinese actors! I am sick of watching Chinese films with horribly-dubbed Mandarin dialogue that are both forced and unnatural, hence rendering the experience inauthentic. I'd rather read subtitles than to listen to horrible dialogue any time, any day.
Anyway, to sum up, Memoirs sucked but Huo Yuanjia kicked more ass than you can possibly imagine. The ultra-violent scenes - more graphic than anything else - were quite disturbing though, but they were necessary for our hero's transformation to be complete. Even the blind village girl cliche didn't bother me that much. It was a straight-forward, meaningful wuxia film. As much as I enjoyed Zhang Yimou's Hero, sometimes I don't mind going for something less subtle and more direct.
And yay for Jielun's song!