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Zhang Yimou and over stylised films - Hero, House of Flying


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Dear All,

After watching Hero and House of Flying Daggers, (which I really enjoyed) I couldn’t help wondering what the exagerated use of colours was meant to be? Was it only to enhance mood, create ambience? Judging by his other films I suspecte that there is a deeper meaning that aesthetics…

Any of you clever people have anything to say about this? Also, anybody knows of any good books about the use of colour and its significance in Chinese society?

Thank you all



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I think that in Hero and HoFD, the colors are pronounced because Zhang YiMou's movies tend to be visual, (Raise the Red Lantern, for instance). It's a trademark of his. I wouldn't go so far as to say he has any special message; I think it's just a unqiue attribute he includes in his films so that people can instantly connect them to him. Color's important to all cultures, I'd assume, though I don't happen to know of any landmark books about their use in China. (My two cents on the subject, red's an important color, used for festivities/weddings/births/holidays, while white's for mourning and death.)

While I'm glad wuxia movies are finally being known, at the same time I'm afraid people are assuming that both Ang Lee and Zhang YiMou's highly stylized, Westernized (I think) martial arts movies are typical wuxia stories. There're not! At least, they're not like those I've read and heard. I wouldn't consider any of these movies that've come out so far 'typical' wuxia stories, not even Crouching Tiger, despite the fact that it's based? on a novel written by a famous wuxia author. Everything's waaaay too fantasized for me, and I think for most audiences familiar with martial arts stories. Unless it's a mythical legend of 神, 鬼, spirits and cloudsurfing, people don't fly :wall but may use 'qinggong' to vault and leap and jump superhuman distances, within reason. Plots also never put much emphasis on physical love :roll: but rather spiritual love.

Still, I'm glad these movies getting recognition. Now, to pull out some of that CG and wires, display real gongfu and get some non-bed related action... :wink:

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Everything's waaaay too fantasized for me, and I think for most audiences familiar with martial arts stories. Unless it's a mythical legend of 神, 鬼, spirits and cloudsurfing, people don't fly but may use 'qinggong' to vault and leap and jump superhuman distances, within reason.

I've read/seen plenty of marial arts stories/films, and in them people do fly. Sometimes the actions can be very imaginative. Actually I think the actions in CTHD are quite solid, and those in Hero and Flying Daggers are in line with the tradition.

Intense colours are just Zhang's signature (probably because of his cinematographer background). Personally I find it quite appealing. The director may be trying to express his ideas through the use of different colours (isn't this VERY obvious in Hero?), but as viewers we can just enjoy them without examining the meanings.

BTW, a couple of years ago I watched in an arts festival the stage production (ballet) of "Raise the Red Lantern", directed by Zhang, and it was very good IMHO.

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Imaginative feats are great, but silly ones aren't. Please don't get me wrong; I'm not saying exaggerated or stylized scenes are silly; they're graceful, powerful and beautiful and for the most part, I think they're ok so far. But they'll become silly if overdone or overused, and I think that's a very real danger at this point.

I'm certainly not saying there aren't stories/movies where Chinese characters fly, or for that matter morph, walk through walls, fly on clouds or have supernatural abilities. I enjoy these excellent stories too. 8) But my concern is that many people are getting the wrong idea: that all martial arts tales always involve convoluted plots and fantasical, stylized "wire-fu," because they don't. That's the response I've been seeing, which is why I say this. Like in HoFD, the ending fight is rather ridiculous if people don't realize that time isn't literal or linear here, and life and death aren't meant to be as simple as usual. Yet many don't understand and instead think that in martial arts movies, people never die and can fight for months... :roll:

I'd hate for an audience who has yet to experience the fun and adventure of the wuxia world to get jaded with what they believe is a typical example of the genre, when it has so much more to offer.

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vinhlong, I wish I had heaps of good wuxia pian to share...but if I did, I wouldn't have a problem with what's coming out nowadays. It would be just adding variety to an already strong genre, rather than defining these kinds of movies as totally contrived and fantastical. Movies can of course have fantastical elements, but I'd think they should be a small part of the plot; aka you still have a story if you take away all the pretty CG.

The very term 'xia' in wuxia is a (usually flawed) hero in a more or less realistic world to whom you can relate; the "knight-errant" figting for justice, something like a European knight, only independent. http://terebess.hu/english/lexikon/wuxia.html They've got their divine swords, special tasks and evil's butt to kick, but it's usually on a believable basis. Maybe I'm just too idealistic, but I still believe this kind of down-to-earth hero is the heart of the jiang hu/xia world.

The best I can do is recommend series, which I find better than movies anyway; they have a better chance of telling a full story. Of course, to have some quality wuxia movies would be nice too, since what's bad (or good, depending on your point of view) about series is that they can take a long time to finish. Another issue is that a lot of series aren't subtitled in different languages, and so aren't available to many people who don't already know some Chinese.

Most people have probably read/heard of Jin Yong's "Condor Heroes" novels; I found the old Hong Kong tv adaptation excellent. True, there's "flying," but in no way does it overtake the entire story, plus the feats are placed into reasonable contexts (special/rare martial arts techniques). There's also a beautifully done love-hate relationship in this story that I've yet to find in any other series/tv media.

Others I'd recommend for interesting plots would definitely include the Mainland's tv adaptations of the 4 Chinese classics (Journey to the West, 3 Kingdoms, Water Margin, Red Chamber). For idol drama fans Taiwan's: "The Legendary Twins" was very entertaining, and for some nice, realistic fighting (and Zhan Zhao/Justice Bao) I'd say try out HK's "The Legend of the Yang Generals."

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The favourite martial arts heroes in the west are still Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Neither is notable for the kind of magical style which seems prevalent in Asia these days, in fact in my opinion western taste is somewhat against that, and wants to find something exotic and mysterious in the movies rather than something overdone and flashy.

Crouching tiger made it big by use of feminism.

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...the kind of magical style which seems prevalent in Asia these days...

I'd almost say that's due to an attempt to draw in Western audiences, or maybe entertain an increasingly Westernized generation...things with almost no plot, and when there is one it's super-metaphorical and interspersed with dazzling CG and blind action...Legend of Zu, anyone? :wink:

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I actually can't see the link between the ridiculousness of drawing in western audiences and making nearly all their money in Asia.

I don't think Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and the likes went to Hollywood to draw in the Westernized generation in Asia. More likely they wanted to promote themselves to western audiences.

It makes sense to broaden the audience even though they already make nearly all their money in Asia...

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Draw in western audiences? - that's ridiculous. Most of these films (and TV shows) make nearly all their money in Asia.

(I was only talking about movies :wink: I've always preferred tv dramas over movies)...even so, drawing in western audiences doesn't mean pushing away Asian audiences, which of course they'd also want to target. What I mean is these movies have started adding elements which seem like they're only there to lure in a wider range of viewers. That's not a bad thing, if only their results weren't so detrimental to the quality of the movie, and making people think this the kind of stuff Asians normally enjoy watching.

I think a perfect example that these movies are definitely aimed at a not-purely Asian audience is the sex. Since when has sex taken more than a few fleeting, bashful seconds, if shown at all, in mainstream Chinese movies? They've done perfectly fine for many years without hardly any showing of physical love; I mean, a mere kiss is usually a rare thing! Especially being movies taking place in ancient Chinese dynasties when men and women kept respectful distances, for both Hero and House of Flying Daggers to include (needlessly :wall ) long, dragged out sex scenes seems painfully obvious that Zhang wants to lure in westerners and viewers with western tastes.

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The use of sex in the movies may well stem from Western influence, but I think sex in the movies is very popular in Asia now too. Zhang Yimou is probably unusual in the extent that he does try and draw in western audiences, which he has done successfully in the past by making them somewhat "art house" - sex is part of that.

Magical martial arts is entirley different. Whether you are "only talking about movies" or not, the fact that the same kind of thing is happening on TV proves it has very little to do with western tastes. I have often heard westerners say this kind of thing is "cheesy" - I seldom hear any negative reaction from Asians.

This stuff is modern, and it needs modern technology. I think that is where the confusion lies.

And actors go to Hollywood primarily to make money! Jackie very wisely tried to win the west over by clowning around with a black guy, not with magic.

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Magical, CG laden martial arts (or anything, for that matter) tend to be cheesy to many people, Asian or otherwise. "Magic" is exactly the problem: the basis of the wuxia genre isn't magic; it's quality of character. Wuxia's about righteous morals and personal skills that the protagonist tends to work his or her butt off to achieve, learn or obtain. Fantastical elements should never take over the plot. If Hero or Crouching Tiger were called 神话 (fantasy) martial arts movies, that would be okay. They can fly all they want. But we're supposed to take these movies seriously as wuxia films, and that's really a stretch.

Zhang makes wonderful stylized films, but a nice, traditional (little CG, solid plot, realistic) wuxia movie would satisfy a lot more Chinese viewers, pull in more cash :mrgreen: , and I believe interest a lot more outside audiences. That was my point from the beginning.

I agree with you that sadly, many tv series are also falling in with the CG and sex replacing real fighting skills and quality plots. It's a sad, sad thing...

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Actually there are two directors in every Kung Fu movie -- the Director and the martial art cheoreographer.

The fighting scene is made principally by the latter with lesser input from the former.

In CTHD, the martial art cheoreogrpaher was Yuen Wo Ping (Matrix) while that of Hero is Tony Ching. Read my introduction on different schools:


In fact, Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee know nothing about martial art. The different styles of fighting scenes in their movies were not orchestrated by them.

Wire-fu has been prevalent in the Kung Fu movies made in '70s, dispelled in the '80s and later resurrected again in the '90s.

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So what's your take on this Ian? If, as you say, wire-fu started in the seventies, was it anything to do with satisfying western/westernized tastes? Did it come about due to western influence?

It seems to me that recent developments are much more over the top than anything I have seen from an earlier time (which isn't much).

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Why is wire-fu more common nowadays as it had been in the late '60s and '70s?

I guess it is because the actors and actresses in most Kung Fu movies nowadays don't know martial art.

Girls like Zhang Ziyi only know ballet dancing even though she had acted in so many Kung Fu movies. (In fact, ballet dancing is more important than knowing Kung Fu since under the camera, you can't tell the difference of leg kicking between a ballet dancer and a Kung Fu master.)

Kung Fu movie is like women's fashion -- always changing.

In the early stage, the movies like those produced by Shaw Studio emphasized on wire-fu. But when some actors really know Kung Fu like Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan (strictly speaking he is an opera stuntman) emerged, the audience's appetite changed and loved to watch this kind of real stuff.

But when the audience got tired of ths real stuff, in the mid-'90s wire-fu became popular again.

Of course such trend is not influenced by western audience since Kung Fu movie has been only popular in the West recently.

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Here's my take on the situation, please attack it with any means possible, it's only a hypothesis:

Movies like Hero or House of the Flying Daggers are utterly expressionistic films. You can see that, among other things, in the expressionistic use of color.

You could argue that Chinese art in general tends towards a more expressionistic approach whereas western art favors realism (see Bazin). This maybe due to cultural and art historic reasons. China has always favored presenting ideas in art instead of copying reality. Calligraphy, bamboo painting and opera are all artificial in its nature. In the west, as well as in Japan, there seems to be a bias towards realism, especially in film. Bazin had the opinion that film, because of its ontology should be realistic. It IS the most objective art form we have. Painting can never be as real as film, so each should stick to its role (I am doing dangerous oversimplification here).

What makes all this interesting for me is that the expressionism of films like Hero seems to be different from old movies of that genre, like the german expressionistic movement of the 20s. Unfortunately, I can't say why, I just seems like that to me.

Does that mean we are witnessing the birth of the "New Wave of Asian Expressionism" in film?

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