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This movie has it all, betrayal, conflict and tragedy. I have to say that I couldn't live without it, effectively anyway. The political criticisms tear at the spine of the film and the beauty of it in such an intimate setting is outstanding. The use of such a rich, three dimensional setting defies what we have been taught by the mainstream as being beautiful and sets a standard on a budget that I would love to be aware of, that all Hollywood movies should aspire to. It shows us that film, real film that is, does not need $100 million to look good, rather the combination of a haunting setting in the middle of vastness and the equally haunting beauty of it's star, Gong Li, but at it's heart the house itself resembles a claustrophobic pot, boiling over the surface.
This is in my opinion, Zhang Yimou's greatest film, it is a triumph in film form and narrative. The haunting sounds of flutes, a significant visual and audio element that has a mythical quality due to it's importance to Songlian and becomes an unattainable item of the gods when it is removed from existence when it is burned, becoming a tragic reminder on the attempts to vanquish the personalities of not only Songlian but all of the concubines. It's slow burning nature may repel the masses but anyone who can get a copy, do so without fail, you will never regret it. I cannot stress the importance of this film, we may see it as a study on the oppression of women in China, but this is universal, we westerners once did the same thing not too long ago.
For me the cinematography is what sells the film, it is the best I have ever seen and ever will. If there is ever a film to promote the use of the three strip technicolour process once again, this is it. Long after you have finished your post film analysis, the light from the red lanterns will still be searing in your eyes.
Ju Dou (1990)
A strange one to judge
When watching Ju Dou it suddenly occurred to me that although Zhang Yimou is known for his political arguments the film seems to breathe through a warm and loving hope from Tianqing and Ju Dou. The political references and damnation of the treatment of women resonate but I found myself taking this hope theme and putting it out front. The beauty of the photography is unmatched, in particular the stunning shot of Tianqing working in the dye mill with the whole background illuminated with the suns reddened glare but there is the lack of visual plausibility, being the narrow minded baffoon that I am, the first thought to enter my head was that Ju Dou would never go for Tianqing, look how skinny and ugly the guy is! But the plausibility is increased once they get it together due to their quality performances, Gong Li's fragile "wolf" is probably one of the most mesmerising performances in history. It is truly hypnotic, and Li Baotian shows the contradictory nature of Tianqing, especially his tortured obedience in front of his "uncle" and his masculine dependence on Ju Dou that gives the film so much heart, despite his obvious lack of meat.
What isn't so great is the episodic feel that is helped none by the titles indicating the passage of time. Surely this could have been achieved visually, even on a small budget. Pacing feels a little disjointed, probably because the inciting incident happens quite a long way into the film, but maybe I got that and the act climax confused, note: must watch again.
Small discrepancies aside, my problem is with the narrative. Of course film can do more than to tell a story, but I feel that when you start one you should tell it properly and with skill. Of course, Ju Dou is one Zhang's earliest films and none of his later films that I have seen have suffered from this, but then again they do not portray a claustrophobic feeling so well in streets and houses as well as showing the vastness of the country itself. A visual metaphor for the people being close, feeling each other's pain and joy, with the money, the government for instance, far away, unable, or not wanting to see the plight of the citizens.
And on a final note, the uncle's mean streak and his black heart did not make me feel any less sorry for him in the middle of the film, which although adds a little hostility to Ju Dou, gives us another wonderful character in the film. No one is perfect.
I would highly recommend Ju Dou to all fans of Chinese cinema, especially those who prefer this to the action movies they produce by the bucket load in Hong Kong and are rarely any good unless they star Jet Li, or anyone who has a love of ambience in their movies. This achieves it ten fold.
Now I'm off to see Zhang Yimou's latest, 'The Road Home' in London. High expectations but not quite on the same level as Wong Kar-Wai's 'In the Mood for Love' released here on Friday October 27th. Looking forward to that too.
A film of both aesthetic beauty and immense heart
When I first saw Zhang Yimou's wonderful 'Raise the Red Lantern', I missed all but the last 30 minutes. This is the most regretful episode of my life for the film has now been deleted. My life was honestly changed as that half an hour was a real time anomoly, obeying the theory of relativity and breaking that particular convention by immersing me so fully that it seemed to last forever and yet, not long enough. 'Shanghai Triad' does not contain that one off quality, however, it is in itself a fascinating film. The colour scheme, of many Yimou films remains, his use of colour is deeply moving as it becomes sublime and almost 'old school'. You can see movies of the studio system being played out again but in a whole new style. Red is so prominent once again and for reasons we can only speculate. Personally I see the colour red as an exciting colour, it conveys to me a sense of a past in which I did not belong to, how I did not exist. The fascination I have in history pre-1982 and more importantly the early 20th century glamour and ancient history.
The splendour of the whole thing is beyond belief, it could almost have the production values of a Hollywood mainstream movie. It shows that perhaps you can create a better effect with lower production values. The Tang household is splendid, but it's vastness perfectly encapsulates a lonely feeling that puts you in the place of the child as well as any cliched point of view shots ever could. It is moments like these that prove Yimou's background as a cinematographer, he is a master of the visual, able to simply show a character's mood in an implicit sweep of camera and minutely fine detail within the mise-en-scene excluding cliche from his work completely. This is the sort of filmmaking we would associate with Ridley Scott, Scott is a visualist, he works with far darker tones than Yimou, which from a personal point of view, makes Yimou my prefered choice, but Scott himself blended both dark and light in 'Thelma and Louise' like Yimou has done for most of his career. The characters themselves have layers of light and dark which are conveyed well in all of their surroundings.
This comparison with Scott brings me to the point in Triad when the empathy shifts from the boy to be shared by him and Bijou. This does echo a bit of the Roy Batty syndrome which was probably the reason for 'Blade Runner's' limited success on it's original release, or so says Robert McKee. But Gong Li's performance is outstanding. She nails Bijou's nasty streak to a tee and then compels us to believe that she is more than that. Of course it is helped when the viewer feels that the situation she is in is a frightening one, not unlike mountaineering where one false step could end up in death, at what ever height you are at. Li is one of the finest actresses in the world, not to mention that her beauty is unparalleled. (Despite the fact that she is just four years younger than my mother) The film may not be seen as very moral but it is clear that it has heart as we feel so bad about the events that end the film. Li shows her hardness of character and complete vulnerability then finally her loss of control, shame and regret. This heart is not made of solid stone, rather a quite flexible rubber.
It requires a period of reflection, one that does not equal that of 'Raise the Red Lantern' but is the only film to have such a numbing effect since. By now though, I have Lantern in such a high regard that it borders on gaining a mythical quality as I have yet to see it in it's entirety. It's not every day that a heavily opinionated young man will be reduced to a pathetic single syllable, but when Triad is finished, many of you will be reduced to it too, lay back and just clear your head of anything other than the film, all that enters the head will be "Wow".