Chinese movies, that is.
Then that must have been a film festival, you say ? Spot on ! Otherwise, can you imagine getting up at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning, crawling from under the warm covers of your bed, to get into your car, drive for three quarters of an hour through the splashing rain ... to watch a movie at 10 A.M. ?
If "worldmusic" is a term that defies definition but nevertheless rings a bell with anybody on what to expect, then I would like to call this a festival of "worldcinema". No Hollywood blockbusters, just small productions, often hard to find in the commercial circuit, the "cinéma d'auteur" like the French would say, the refreshing Third World-kind of cinema ...
So Sunday morning we went to that festival to see ... Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower" ! Hahaha ... so far for the previous paragraph !
Some of the wicked amongst you could argue that I went to see Gong Li. I will not deny it, but as having seen most of her movies equals saying I have seen more than a fair deal of Yimou's movies also, makes me opt for the latter as the prevailing argument to see this movie. Quite frankly, I'm not very much into all that martial arts / kungfu kind of stuff, so the fact that "The Curse... " was being cited as the third part in Zhang's wuxia 武侠 trilogy (after "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers"), was not really much of a incentive. The fact however that Zhang Yimou has released a new movie; the fact that Zhang teams up with Gong Li again for this movie; the fact that the "monstre sacré" of Hong Kong cinema, Chow Yun-Fat, co-stars with Gong Li ... that's what is important and that's what makes one wonder what result it will bring to the screen.
Okay, time-out for a second: did I tell you already about my other Crush, likewise with a capital C ? As powerful as Zhang's opening sequence with Jiang Wen and Gong Li in "Red Sorghum" may have been, I believe some of the scenes shot by Kurosawa in "Seven Samurai", starting with the opening raid of the bandits on the village, are unparalleled in world cinema, and ever since watching that opening sequence for the first time many years ago, I have kept watching the movies of the "Tenno", whenever there was a chance (which is not plenty, I must say). As a fan, it happened that on another filmfestival (also long time ago. Am I now growing old or what ?), I was able to watch one of his other masterpieces, "Kumonosu-jo" or "The Spiderweb Castle", but probably best known as "The Throne of Blood". You could also say it is unmistakably one of the best Shakespeare adaptations - "Macbeth" in this case - to be brought to the screen. I'll revert to this later in this post.
I didn't try to find out a lot on the movie before going to see "The Curse ...", I even avoided watching the trailers. So I admit to have been happily unaware of the almost Shakesperean plot, though the movie claims to be based on the Chinese drama "Lei yü" (雷雨) by Chinese playwright Cao Yu (曹禺).
For a very short summary of the plot, lets' rely on Oscar:
In the tenth-century Tang Dynasty, the Empress has begun an affair with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan, although the young man secretly loves Chan, the daughter of the Imperial Doctor. The unhappy state of the royal marriage has also led the Emperor to order his physician to poison his wife with a fungus that will cause her to lose her mind.
The movie-plot has enough tragedy to bridge the gap from Euripides over Shakespeare to ... euh, the Jerry Springer show. In the end, it's all again about the universal theme of Eros (seduction, love ...) and it's inseverable link to Thanatos (death). But before you come to that conclusion, what a movie you have seen from China's most famous director. Is it entirely satisfactory ? No, it is not, it is far from that, but have you been blown away ? Constantly !
Now the question is: what is Zhang had in mind and what is it the audience wants ? Do we want to be blown away or do we want to be dragged into a heart-ripping story ? If you opt for the latter, this is not exactly going to be your piece of cake. Though Gong and Chow act on the top of their art, the mere luxury and lusciousness of the settings prevent you from diving in. Like the commoners never were allowed to enter the realm of their emperor, the Forbidden City, so is empathy with the characters stopped at the door.
Once you get that over with, be prepared to enjoy a visionary of the image demonstrating his utmost talent. (Though I am aware it's a stretch to say this, it actually may make you long for August 8, 2008 and it's Olympic opening ceremony to come around the corner ... now !). At 45 million USD, "The Curse ..." is the most expensive Chinese movie ever made and it shows. From the palace itself, to the attack of the Darth Vader-meets-Ninja kind of guys, to the overwhelming final attack of the army entirely in golden armor on the palace: there is no rest for the eyes of the beholder of all this beauty.
So why was I mentionning Kurosawa then ? Because having seen his "Macbeth" adaptation and now "The Curse ...", I couldn't but reflect on the very different ways these two directors have handled their related subjects. While Kurosawa was said to be the most "western" of his Japanese contemporary directors, yet for "Kumonosu-jo", an adaptation of a western play, he turned to one of the most japanese art-forms to bring his movie to the screen: the Noh-theatre. Structured with the same rigidity, implementing all the required plot elements of any traditional Noh-play without diverting in any way from his base story, Kurosawa delivered a stylistic masterpiece, that draws it's strength from the inherent spatial limit of a Noh-stage. Whenever there is motion on the stage (e.g. in the almost claustrophobic settings of the rooms in the castle), it is a referral to bigger events taking place outside the scope of the screen. The murder on the king is almost entirely "visualized" by keeping the camera focussed on the facial expressions of Lady Macbeth, who is an a different room.The movie requires from it's audience an appreciation of an almost minimalistic way of filming, where the detail is taken to represent the bigger picture.
Compare this to Zhang Yimou's latest. Under the motto "To boldly go where no Chinese director has ever gone before", he has unladen every visual bravoure he has mastered. Where Kurosawa turned deep inward into Japanese culture to film his "Spiderweb Castle", Zhang Yimou seems to go the opposite direction. Have you seen those heaving breasts on all the women (firmly establishing the invention of the push-up bra in the Tang Dynasty ... not my joke, unfortunately, but had to tell it here !), have you seen those colours (not the imperial red and yellow from the Forbidden City as we know it, but pink and green and blue, besides gold of course, splashing off your screen): no chinese director at this moment except for Zhang could outdo Hollywood at it's own game.
All in all, it was a morning well spent. What I will remember after all visual artistry will have faded in my mind, is that a Chinese director, like a Japanese half a century before him, has again made a powerful statement on the hubris (the arrogance, overbearing pride) of man and how that invariably leads to sorrow, pain, death. This story, centuries old, could with ease be transposed to all those places in our world of today where tyrants in the east, south, north and west remain to be seated on their thrones of blood.
(to be continued ... after all, I saw two movies !)