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Ying xiong (2002)
The definition of "style over substance"
I wanted to like this film, I really did, but after seeing the rave reviews I had an ominous feeling of what I was going to see and unfortunately I was right.
Much like "Crouching Tiger..." and "House of Flying Daggers" this is yet another example of a very simple martial arts tale, the kind that was already tired and clichéd in Hong Kong cinema 40 years ago, but done on a larger scale and with a bigger budget. Yet once again this gets rave reviews here in the West when countless similar tales from the last 50 years get put on television at 1am and get given 1 star in the TV guides.
And why is that? Because it had a massive budget thrown at it and much more time and effort spent on the cinematography. In short it looks polished and pretty and, visually speaking, is more of the standard we expect from Western films as opposed to the usual cheap-looking Hong Kong cinema.
In essence that's the bottom line here. A typical low-budget Hong Kong film will sink with out a trace or receive poor reviews because it "looks" amateur to the Western reviewer. One that looks nice and has obviously had so much time spent on the cinematography, no matter how basic and clichéd the actual narrative content, will get great reviews simply because the director is showing off his skill. That speaks volumes about the snobby attitudes to cinema in the West really.
This film looks very pretty and is full of great imagery. But you'll find better martial arts action in any bog-standard kung fu flick with a 50th of the budget, and you'll get a deeper and more involved storyline in most soap operas. If you value style over content, you'll love it.
(I should point out that this review is based on the first 60% or so of the film. Maybe it suddenly gets deep and involved and fantastic after that, but I decided life was too short to find out.)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Brilliant achievement, bad film
I believe the story told in this film to be one of the best science-fiction stories ever to have been written, unfortunately the film tells this story very poorly.
An immense amount of time is given over to extended special effects sequences, very impressive and obviously a new experience to a 1960s audience. However, from a story-telling point of view, these are completely superfluous: spending 15 minutes or so showing a space-ship docking with a space-station doesn't really achieve much.
Completely the opposite attitude is taken to scenes of dialogue and character interaction; these are skipped over hurriedly by a director who is obviously eager to get on to his next visual masterpiece. A perfect example is the briefing scene at the moon-base: all the introductory chat is shown but as soon as the actual briefing is about to start (which would explain a great deal about what is going on) the scene ends abruptly.
A lot is made about the ambiguity and mystery in the film, and the fact that so much is never explained is often cited as evidence that the film is for 'intellectuals'. I don't hold with this opinion however, if you read the novel you will find that there is a very comprehensible story behind the film that is explained perfectly well (for instance, you will find the briefing scene intact in the novel).
The simple fact is that cutting out great chunks of storyline and key explanatory scenes does not an intellectual movie make. In fact so little is left behind that you can watch this film as many times as you like but you will never be able to work out what's going on, there is simply not enough there to work with.
The film is a fantastic technical achievement, and it does stand as a fantastic piece of cinematic history; unfortunately, it completely fails to put its story across to the audience. The novel is much better as you can actually get some understanding and enjoyment out of it, but the writing 'style' of Arthur C. Clark is incredibly dry and matter-of-fact and so the novel is not great either.
This is truly one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time, unfortunately neither Kubrick's film nor Clark's novel tells it particularly well. I would be thrilled for some director to have another go at making this film and give it the treatment it deserves. Unfortunately this will never happen as the act would be regarded as heresy by so many blinkered people.