The Great Wall


Matt Damon steels himself.

(2017) Adventure (Universal/Legendary) Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Xuan Huang, Ryan Zheng, Karry Wang, Cheney Chen, Pilou Asbæk, Numan Acar, Johnny Cicco, Yu Xiantian, Bing Liu. Directed by Zhang Yimou

 

The battles that shape the future of humanity don’t always take place in plain sight. Sometimes they remain hidden away whether to keep people from panicking or because it suits the leadership of those involved to have those battles take place behind great walls.

William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are European mercenaries who are tasked with going to China to obtain gunpowder, a technology not yet available in the West. Along the way their party is attacked by a vicious iguana-like monster that William slays. As they venture further into China they are captured and taken before a general (Zhang). Most of the commanders including Lin Mae (Jing), the general’s right hand, believe these men to be thieves come to rob China of her secrets but the general is impressed enough with William’s feat of monster slaying that he refrains from executing them but the men are imprisoned as the army of the Nameless Order are on the eve of a desperate battle – one against an overwhelming army of those same creatures that William slew only in vast numbers.

The two Westerners are befriended by Ballard (Dafoe), a former Jesuit who has been retained by the general as a translator. The odds are against the army and if the monsters who are called Tei Tao break through the Great Wall, there is nothing between them and Beijing and from there they can go onto overrun the entire planet. William, recognizing that here is finally a war worth fighting, sways Lin Mae and soon the two are planning the final stand against the horde but William observes a means where the day might yet be saved.

Yimou is one of China’s most revered directors, best known in the West for his amazing opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics but among film buffs he has a resume that includes some of the most visually impressive films of the last 20 years. Given an astronomical budget by Chinese standards, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and the backing of a major studio it is not surprising that this was a movie I’ve been anticipating for the past few years. Unfortunately, despite all the elements in its favor the movie proves to be a disappointment.

The CGI creatures are unconvincing and look like CGI creatures. There’s nothing organic about them. We see entire hordes of them swarming like ants and the bird’s eye view of the swarm should be terrifying or at least intimidating but it comes off looking phony. If you’re going to fight monsters, they should at least look like they are actually alive and dangerous.

The chemistry between Damon and Pascal is nearly non-existent; the banter between the two sounds forced and unconvincing. Damon affects a bizarre accent that sounds like an Irishman who’d lived half his life in Nebraska. His Boston Irish accent in Good Will Hunting was far more authentic. I get a sense that Pascal is frustrated that his character has little or no depth to it and ends up being a generic second banana. They could have gotten a banana to play the role for all the personality the writers gave the part.

The color-coded armies that make up the Nameless Order are far more impressive and when Yimou is directing major battle sequences with soldiers bungee jumping upside down into the very mouths of the creatures the movie is far more thrilling. While he set design is largely muted, Yimou gets to go extravagant on his Forbidden City sets and he seems more comfortable with those.

This is a movie that fails to showcase Yimou’s visual sense to its fullest and inserts a badly miscast Damon in a role that seems to exist mainly to placate studio bosses unsure of making a movie made in China with a mainly Chinese cast as a tentpole; in fact, the release date was eventually moved to February after it appeared this was going to be a summer or Holiday release. That proved to be a wise move. Maybe someday a studio with a little bit more sense will let Yimou make an epic movie with a Chinese cast without having to insert a Western actor into the mix. I don’t know that American audiences are ready for that but they seemed to be all right with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A great movie will find its audience.

REASONS TO GO: Yimou has one of the most cinematic eyes in the history of movies.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overall is kind of a hot mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence of a fantasy/war nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lau and Damon played the same role in Infernal Affairs and the Martin Scorsese remake The Departed respectively.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Mine

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)


A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

Two out of three...

(2009) Comedy (Sony Classics) Honglei Sun, Xiao Shen-Yang, Ni Yan, Dahong Ni, Ye Cheng, Mao Mao, Benshan Zhao, Ran Cheng, Julien Gaudfroy, Shuo Huang, Wenting Li, Sisi Wang, Xiaojuan Wang, Na Wei. Directed by Zhang Yimou

People are fallible. We are prone to making mistakes and letting our hearts guide our actions when our heads should prevail. We often fail to recognize or foresee the consequences of those actions when we take them.

Wang (Dahong Ni) is the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of nowhere. Location being everything (even in ancient China), his clientele mainly consists of wanderers and nomads on their way to somewhere else – anywhere else but there. He has a comely wife (Ni Yan) who has been unable to give him children. Frustrated at both his wife and his lot in life, the miserly Wang takes out his frustrations on his wife and his staff, but mostly on the former whom he humiliates sexually whenever he can.

She responds by buying a gun from a Persian trader (Gaudfroy). Now, she exclaims, she has the most powerful weapon in the world at her disposal. She also has a lover, the cowardly and timid Li (Shen-Yang) who mostly wears pink and rarely does anything that his lover doesn’t approve of.

Wang doesn’t like this much, as you might imagine. So much so that he talks to the corrupt and jaded local magistrate Zhang (Honglei Sun) and persuades him to kill his wife and her lover, then make the bodies disappear – for a large fee. Zhang figures he can do better and so he kills Wang instead, hoping to get all of his loot – except he killed Wang before he could get the key to his safe…and Wang just won’t stay dead…

Yimou, the award-winning director of such movies as Raise the Red Lantern and Curse of the Golden Flower (not to mention the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), remade this from the Coen Brothers 1984 cult classic Blood Simple and overlaid it with his stylish and colorful visual sense.

He also chose to take the dark, noir-ish thriller that the Coens made and turn it into a broad comedic thriller. Purists are going to be horrified about that, and a lot of critics who loved the original had a hard time with the remake.

It certainly is a different film, although it strikes all the right plot points as the original, only approaching them differently and adding a subplot about a rival gang of thieves. The darker tones of the original are gone though; this is far more light-hearted.

However, Yimou has that distinctive sense of color and scope that make his films so breathtaking and awe-inspiring and he uses it to his advantage here. Although the noodle shop is grim and colorless, those that live in it wear brightly colored robes and carry on in an epic vista that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Ford western.

Sun gets the most of my attention; Zhang is laconic and somewhat low-key but he has a vicious side that reminds me of a cobra. Sun gives him that sense that something dark and nasty hides just below the surface. Playing a man who is dangerous is a difficult proposition; doing it without giving much away emotionally is even harder but Sun pulls it off.

The comedy is very broad and exaggerated, which while common with Asian audiences might be out of step with more subtle American tastes. Think of it as a Hanna Barbera cartoon without the intellectual undertones. It’s not for children though – but some of the set pieces would definitely appeal to less sophisticated senses of humor.

There is some bloodshed though – this isn’t strictly comedy – but considering how sexual the situation is there is almost no sexuality, which again illustrates the cultural differences between the Americans and the Chinese. This gives the movie a curiously sexless feel, and the sex did add a certain amount of kick to the original like adding jalapenos to a salsa.

I’m a big fan of Yimou but this one misfired for me. I’m recommending it mainly because the man always knows how to make a great-looking movie and this isn’t an exception but be advised that American audiences might have a tough time with the humor and the tone. If you can overlook that, you will find yourself enjoying the movie on purely a visceral level, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Yimou is one of the most striking visual directors of our time. Some broad laughs.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The noir tone of the original is sorely missed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the original was sent in modern (at the time) rural Texas, the remake is set in the remote desert Gansu province of ancient China.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The making-of feature is longer than the actual movie, but there are parts of it which are fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38M on a $12M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Illusionist

Curse of the Golden Flower


Even corridors are filled with color and light.

Even corridors are filled with color and light.

(Sony Classics) Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, Jay Chou, Liu Ye, Ni Dahong, Qin Junjie, Li Man, Chen Jin. Directed by Zhang Yimou

It is a well-known Western aphorism that it is lonely at the top. It is also true, universally, that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

During the Tang Dynasty in the 10th century, the Emperor (Fat) returns home with his son, Prince Jai (Chou) from war against the Mongols to celebrate the Chrysanthemum festival. However, all is not well at home. The Empress (Li) is very ill, despite regular doses of medicine. And, shockingly, she is having an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Ye), her husband’s son by his first marriage.

This is not just a dysfunctional family, it’s a homicidal one. The Empress isn’t just ill; she’s being poisoned with a rare Persian fungus which will eventually drive her insane. This is being done by the court doctor (Dahong) on the orders of the Emperor. It seems he is a mite ticked off at his wife.

In a move of self-preservation, she enlists the help of Jai to overthrow his father. He is at first reluctant, but when he sees the condition of his mother he is moved to vow that she will never drink the poison again. This sets the stage for an epic battle in the very hallways of the Imperial Palace, one of the most lavish and ostentatious ever known.

This is one of the most visually arresting movies ever, with bright colors dominating the sets and costumes. The palace is aglitter with Chinese art glass, crystal columns lit from inside in shades of red, gold, green and blue. Armies in gold armor clash with armies in obsidian. Assassins fly like wraiths through the air, throwing wicked curved swords to filet their victims. Pots of chrysanthemums fill a huge courtyard to the very steps of the palace. It is certainly a feast for the eyes.

It is also a soap opera on steroids. The story, taken from Thunderstorms, a 1933 play written by Chinese playwright Cao Yu, is full of juicy palace intrigue, forbidden love and terrible secrets. Chow Yun Fat, one of the most honored actors in Asia, plays the Emperor as a brutal man – not necessarily an evil one. His loyalty is to his throne, even ahead of his family. It’s a difficult role, but Fat handles it with grace.

Director Yimou is reunited with his longtime leading lady Li, who collaborated with him on such classic movies as Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou.  She is beautiful and regal here, but is most often called upon to express revulsion and shake like a leaf at the effects of her poisoning. Pop star Chou is solid as the heroic Prince Jai, put into an impossible situation.

There is a good deal more CGI here than is usual with wuxu films but it adds to the epic scope and awesome majesty of the movie. The detail is extraordinary and one must pay tribute to the artisans who worked on the set and costumes, most of which are authentic. Sure, there is some quibbling with historical accuracy (for example, the armor worn by the competing armies in the final battle were not the sort that Chinese soldiers of the time would have worn for anything other than ceremonial purposes; also, the architecture of the palace was more suitable to the 15th century although the interior is more or less accurate) but that’s all right; you won’t want to see this as a history lesson. Indeed, this is one of the most stunning movies I’ve seen from a visual aspect ever; Cecil B. DeMille would have certainly approved.

WHY RENT THIS: Out of this world visuals make this a stunning feast for the eyes. Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li are two of the premiere actors in Asian cinema today and they show why that reputation has been earned here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The soap opera aspect is a bit over-the-top in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The battle scene is extremely violent, and there is some implied incest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Imperial Palace exterior is the largest set ever built in China. The battle scene set there took over twenty days to shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The making-of documentary is particularly interesting in how the sets were constructed, the costumes made and the overall theme to the movie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Lymelife