Although hardly a connoisseur of Chinese martial arts movies, I count among my most delirious cinematic experiences a Berlin Film Festival midnight screening of Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues in 1986. Halfway through the picture, the entire audience was on its feet, clapping and cheering as if at a rock concert. “It could be the next Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with women,” I enthused to an industry friend. “Forget it,” he replied. “It has subtitles!”
Fifteen years later, Sony Pictures Classics plans to have Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (in Mandarin with English titles) in at least 300 theaters by January 12 and is mounting a campaign for a Best Picture Oscar nomination. With its sumptuous sets and costumes, magisterial pacing, and expensive digitally enhanced aerial effects, Crouching Tiger was constructed to cross over—and not only from Asia to the West. It’s the Masterpiece Theater version of a wu xia (martial chivalry) movie; instead of punchy pop poetry, it gives us smoothly flowing prose—so smooth it borders on the soporific. The defining element of martial arts movies—what makes them kinetic and poetic—is their ellipticality. In great fight scenes, the cuts often coincide with the moments of impact. You feel the blows in your own body precisely because you don’t see them land on the screen. It’s the editing that sends you reeling. A rare blend of low and high art, Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time radicalizes the genre’s visual and narrative disjunction to the point of abstraction.
Studiously middlebrow, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon takes the opposite tack. Rather than leaping about in time, the story meanders along a linear route, plugging up gaps with character psychology and set decoration. But even on its own terms (writer and executive producer James Schamus pitches it as “Sense and Sensibility with sword fights”), the film is unsuccessful. Crouching Tiger‘s dramatic line is so blurry that the central character is only a bystander to the climactic fight between forces of good and evil.
Basically a female coming-of-age tale, the film revolves around Jen (Zhang Ziyi), an aristocratic young woman who longs to escape the confines of an impending marriage by becoming a freelance swordfighter. Jen has a gift that almost excuses her irritating narcissism. She can fly, as we soon see in a bravura extended fight scene that brings together four of the five leading characters. With the help of her teacher, the evil Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei, the great female action star of King Hu’s early films), Jen steals the Green Destiny sword, bringing her into conflict with its guardians, the peerless veteran Wudan warrior, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), and his comrade Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Li and Yu are on the verge of admitting their love and walking arm and arm into the sunset when the theft of the Green Destiny (the Wudan clan’s version of the Arthurian Excalibur) gives Li unfinished business to settle. He needs to dispose of Jade Fox and set the talented but misguided Jen on the path of righteousness.
The fifth wheel in the plot is Lo, a dreadlocked desert bandit with whom Jen has a couple of one-night stands. Played by Chang Chen (Happy Together‘s young heartthrob), he’s easily the most electrifying figure on the screen. Lo is madly in love with Jen, who’s torn between her attraction to him and her feminist desire for freedom. Or at least that’s what the film would have us believe. I saw it slightly differently. Jen treats Lo as carelessly as she does everyone else. Her sense of entitlement is so great that she treats all relationships as a form of slumming. By the final fade, Jen hasn’t even achieved the self-awareness of the Alicia Silverstone character in Clueless.
This isn’t the fault of the actress, but of the script and the direction. Despite scrupulous attention to expository detail, Lee fails to dramatize the conflict within Jen, or any of the characters. The other disappointment is Chow, who is more stolid than stalwart. Yeoh, however, is incredibly moving. She brings a host of subtexts into play with a single movement of her eyes. Veteran martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, who achieved long -overdue recognition in the U.S. for making Keanu fly in The Matrix, is responsible for the fight scenes. The opening four-way and the gorgeous treetop match between Li and Jen are intermittently breathtaking. If you snooze a bit in the hour or so that elapses between them, you won’t miss much at all.
Little known but enormously influential, the Zanzibar films were inspired by the May 1968 political uprising in France. They comprise the work of roughly a dozen young filmmakers who were allied in their belief that cinema was the medium with which immediate actions and emotions could be captured and transformed into history. Made on minimal budgets, the films were financed by one wealthy woman, Sylvina Boissonnas, who also cataloged and distributed them.
The series at the Anthology was put together by Jackie Raynal (the director and star of Deux Fois, one of the most sophisticated of the Zanzibar films) and Sally Shafto, whose monograph, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, is an excellent introduction. With the exception of Eric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse, the films on view hover between documentary and fiction, are unabashedly personal, and have a directness that, by comparison, makes the French New Wave look slick. They’re as much influenced by Warhol as Godard; indeed, Michael Auder’s Keeping Busy has Warhol superstars Viva and Louis Waldron living the life of wealthy jet-setters. (Auder used up most of his budget on plane tickets and four-star hotel suites.)
The headiest film, and the one which best captures the anger and despair of post-’68 Paris, is Patrick Deval’s Acéphale (the title comes from Georges Bataille), a potent combo of vérité street scenes, direct camera address, and avant-garde theatrics. Shot by Michael Fournier, Philippe Garrel’s bleak religious allegory Le Révélateur is visually stunning in its use of high-contrast black and white. These are not great films, but their immediacy and stripped-down style has influenced directors from Chantal Akerman and Jean Eustache to Arnaud Desplechin.
A similar devotion to film as the language of 20th-century history animates Samira Gloor-Fadel’s Berlin-Cinéma (Titre Provisoire). The film’s interwoven subjects—film history and the history of Berlin—are filtered through the perspective of director Wim Wenders with a little help from Godard and architect Jean Nouvel. It seems to have been shot largely at the beginning of the period of accelerated construction that followed the razing of the Wall. Thus, the bombed-out lots on the periphery and the wasteland at the very center—what Wenders refers to as the gaps that give the city its meaning—are still very much in evidence.
Wenders takes us on a tour of the city, the set for his epic Wings of Desire. We see him also directing actors and delivering a lecture on film and its inevitable obsolescence. At one point he discusses the difference between the films made by the Russian and the American armies in 1945. Careful study revealed that the Russian films were staged, but because they were shot in black and white, they seemed like documentaries. The American films, on the other hand, were not staged, but because they were shot in color, they looked to Wenders as if they had been made on a studio back lot. While Wenders’s comments are specific, Godard’s voice-over fragments provide a kind of meta-commentary. For Godard, the first films, because they were black and white, were a continuation of the printed page.
Shot in both black and white and color, Berlin-Cinéma is almost a ventriloquist’s act. It’s not a film that either Wenders or Godard could have made, but it’s hard to locate Gloor-Fadel’s voice within it. Oddly enough, that absence mirrors Wenders’s idea that film draws its meaning from the space between images. It screens as part of a Berlin mini-series that also includes Wings of Desire and Walter Ruttman’s 1927 classic Berlin, Symphony of a City.