Watched not one, but two, Chinese movies last night. Almost subtitled out.
The first, Little Big Soldier, was one I picked up from the library, and stars the inimitable Jackie Chan, who was still performing his own stunts (he was 56 at the time), and continues - if the out-takes are anything to go by - to notch up endless injuries, minor and major. Over the years, apparently, Chan has dislocated his pelvis and also broken numerous
parts of body including his fingers, toes, nose, both cheekbones, hips,
sternum, neck, ankle, and ribs. He almost died during the filming of The Armour of God, when he fell from a tree and fractured his skull.
The story is supposed to take place around 50 BC (if I read the
subtitles rightly) at a time when half a dozen major tribal forces in
China had dominated all other smaller groups and were fighting each
other for ultimate control. Chan stars in this film with Leehom Wang. Wang plays the General of one vast army, the only man left after an incredible slaughter in which not only is his army annihilated but the opposing one is too.Chan plays a farmer conscripted into the opposing army some twenty years before; he's been trying to desert and get back home ever since because he is the only one of his family line left.
Somewhat to his surprise, Chan captures Wang and intends taking him back to his homeland as a hostage in order to receive a reward that will fund his life as a farmer. The journey back to Liang is fraught with perils, of course, most nastily from Wang's brother who wants him dead so that he can take over leadership. The brother is a somewhat effete character who has a scary habit of shooting people with a small crossbow he uses with just one hand. His lieutenant is an ugly character whose face would give children nightmares. But besides these two and their cohorts, there is a girl who occasionally causes problems, a rag-tag group who try to capture the duo, a grizzly bear, a brutal gang of slavers and possibly some others I've forgotten.
The story has a serious undertone, and ends tragically (this is a bit of a surprise, but it fits to the underlying theme). Being a Jackie Chan movie it also has plenty of harum-scarum fights with all sorts of legitimate and not-so-legitimate weaponry, and plenty of humour between the serious-minded Wang and the optimistic Chan. The scenery is magnificent (China has some remarkable landscapes) and the story zips along at a rollicking pace.
The other movie is a different kettle of fish altogether. It's operatic in tone - or maybe that should be soap-operatic. The actors play up the intensity for all its worth, and until about two-thirds of the way through this intensity serves a reasonable story. Then suddenly it goes off the rails and becomes total nonsense. The film is The Curse of the Golden Flower, directed by Yimou Zhang who comes with some pretty good credentials in regard to earlier films.
The story concerns the Emperor (of China? - or just some part of it; I'm not sure). He has returned home after some sortie, and seems to know what everybody's been doing while he's away. His second wife has been having an affair with her stepson, though the latter prefers the daughter of the Palace doctor - who, incidentally, is slowly poisoning the Empress at the Emperor's behest. The Crown Prince has also come home (there's a major celebration in the offing), and is plotting something sinister, and the third son, who seems a pleasant and somewhat innocent young man, also has hidden depths. With a family like this you can barely win. And then the first wife turns up, even though she's supposed to be dead, and is discovered to be the mother of...Oh, for goodness sake! About this point it gets absurd.
You'd never watch it for the story, which has more than its fair share of flaws that the director slides quickly over. But by way of compensation he offers us one of the most visually-stunning films ever made. Remember the visual richness of The King and I, way back in the 50s? Well, notch that up a dozen times and you have the feast for the eye that is Golden Flower. From the moment it opens with a hundred or so servant women dressing in unison in the morning, it shows just what money can buy when it comes to filmmaking. This film was the most expensive movie ever made in China at the time, and it's obvious in every shot. Not only are there excesses of extras, all sumptuously dressed, but the major players all wear fantastic garments over the top of other garments, all of which are embroidered and bejewelled and dazzling in their colours. (It must have taken them half the working day to get dressed.) Then there is the scenery: this palace is startlingly beautiful in its colourings. The walls shimmer translucently, carpets abound in detailed patterns, furniture is carved to the max, lighting is full of colour and contrast. The main Palace set was the biggest ever built in China, and it shows, with its terraces and stairs and immense courtyards (the main one - the size of several football fields - is literally covered with yellow chrysanthemums not once, but twice in the final three-quarters of an hour).
As a Bollywood film must have its song and dance sequences, so a Chinese film must have its martial arts, and these are abundant, from the power-struggle between the Emperor and the Crown Prince at the beginning to later large-scale battles. One superb moment has Ninja-type characters descending on wires from enormous cliffs above a small settlement and landing on the roofs. At the end we have an extraordinary battle between three or four different armies (I got a bit muddled after midnight), each of them in full battle armour, and in such close formation that their weaponry seems as likely to cause friendly fire as to dispose of the enemy. Unfortunately this battle
arrives after things have got very silly, and itself seems rather daft. You've lost any idea of which army belongs to which character by this stage, apart from the one the Crown Prince is leading.
It's a pity such a film should totter on its weak story. Otherwise this would be a classic piece of better-than-Hollywood filmmaking.