Two Lone Swordsmen: Hero by Zhang Yi Mou and Zatoichi by Takeshi "Beat" Kitano

"Always leave ’em wanting less," Warhol famously said, and American epic filmmakers have taken his words to heart. What the later editions of The Matrix or Troy—or the bloated 2 1/2 hour $10.25 nightmare of your choice—lack in ideas, drama, or emotional credibility, they make up for in sheer waste of time. In the East, by contrast, time appears to be not only precious but treated as such. These days, the best epics are short.

Zhang Yi Mou’s Hero squeezes an epic’s worth of action, characters, ideas and metaphors into 90 minutes and marks Zhang’s return to his early promised greatness. His masterworks Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) were moral melodramas and visual revelations. Zhang’s understanding of color as a metaphor for the emotions of a scene exceeded any contemporary director’s. His use of narrative color harkened to the master partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus). If Zhang’s stories owed something to Theodore Dreiser, pictorially he was an original. In both films, his doomed characters fought inescapable societal roles—metaphorized by tight framing, repetitive shots of claustrophobic interiors, and entrapping close-ups—and entrenched power structures. The plotlines might be archetypal, but Zhang’s nuanced characters and visual sophistication made them heartbreaking.

Then he went off the rails. After a half-decent attempt at contemporary neorealism, The Story of Qiu Ju (’92), Zhang ventured into disastrous waters: a Western-style, ’30s-era, double-breasted-suit gangster picture, Shanghai Triad. It seemed Zhang wanted broader success and was making what he perceived as commercial crap to attain it. But that dog would not hunt: Zhang’s an artist—his flirtations with genre notwithstanding—and his only true mode of expression is sincerity.

Hero is achingly sincere, as immortal ballads and sagas require. The plot is slight yet too important to give away. Martial arts god Jet Li plays Nameless, a middling rural prefect. He’s come to the Imperial City to accept his reward from the king for slaying the kingdom’s three most badass assassins, Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung, as regal, ethereal, and deadly as she’s ever been—and that’s saying something). The feral, frighteningly charismatic Zhang Ziyi, who played the sword-wielding princess in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here has a smaller part but makes up for it by wielding two swords.

Deceptions abound, and comparisons are inevitable. Because one story repeats with differing outcomes, the reflexive dumb-ass comparison will be Kurosawa’s Rashomon. But Hero’s not about the elusive nature of truth, or how perceptions distort what passes for reality. It’s about the careful layering of parallel scenarios, told over and over, until a legend is born. And legends aren’t made of facts. They’re made of characters and inevitable fate and sacrifice, sung in verses and in chorus.

Happily, whatever goes on plotwise in the building of this saga necessitates swordfights. A shitload of swordfights. Swordfights of hallucinatory, lyrical beauty; swordfights that do not want for metaphorical or mythological significance; spectacular, well-conceived, deeply moving swordfights. I’m no fanatic for the genre, but these are the best swordfights I’ve ever seen. Hong Kong action director/choreographer Ching Siu-Ting is responsible.

Because of this plethora of swordfights, the next inevitable comparison will be to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which had the genius to throw suitcases of money and glossy Western-style high-concept special effects at traditionally costumed period-piece swordfights, so all of us production-value junkies could savor the action without feeling like we were slumming.

In both films Hong Kong action stars move and speak with an unusual gravitas (because they’re all historical and everything). In both, each fight is staged to suggest aspects of the warriors’ character (as well as to blow our minds). Both are set in the same unspecified fairy-tale historical era. But the striking differences are in the character of the two directors.

Ang Lee’s a hack and has never seemed all that deep. He leaps from genre to genre and it’s hard to believe he understood any of them; Crouching Tiger strove mightily to be more than the sum of its parts, but you could always see the wheels turning. Plus, his narrative clanked like ancient armor and came to a dead halt while the characters caught us up on the exposition, blabbing away. Zhang’s awfully serious; there’s not one laugh in all of Hero. But he’s studied a master, which is more than you can say for Lee.

Zhang’s master is Sergio Leone. Jet Li’s character, Nameless, and echoes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Zhang shoots in the Leone manner, alternating vast, barren landscapes or overwhelming interiors with full-screen close-ups. The contrast tunes us into every subtle emotion and lets Zhang edit off the smallest gestures, thus keeping us aware of their significance. The nonstop tragic score sounds nothing like Ennio Morricone (Leone’s composer) but evokes that Leone combo of simple frames, grand soundtrack, and compelling, static shots held just a bit too long so we can savor the music.

Zhang goes further, surpassing his Buddha as all evolving disciples must. He moves into realms of expressive color not seen since the glory days of 3-strip Technicolor. One fight sequence takes place in what first appears to be an Imperial City version of the lobby of South Beach’s Hotel Delano: The fighters fly between shimmering green curtains hanging from a hallway of massive pillars. It’s almost too beautiful—and even momentarily alienating—as the director’s attempts at grandeur become too grand. But as any acupuncturist can tell you, green in Chinese medicine is the color of the Benevolent General, who so understands war that he need not fight in order to conquer. That theme is key to the green-curtain battle. On reflection, each color-saturated scene raises another aspect of inward nature.

By the end, it’s clear that Hero, while never forgetting the cheap thrills we require in action movies, is a ballad of the evolving consciousness, with each character representing another facet of the same psyche. It’s a complex subtext for a wire-flying swordfighting 90-minute historical epic, but Hero lives up to all its aspirations.

Plus it features one of the funniest and most touching credits: "Violin solos and fiddling by Itzhak Perlman."

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Takeshi "Beat" Kitano’s Zatoichi is both simpler and more complex, less in-your-face with its profundity but just as resonant. It’s a new version of the Japanese pop-culture staple Zatoichi, the continuing (and how) tales of Mr. Zatoichi, a blind wandering masseur who just happens to be the most quietly skilled and invincible samurai swordsman in all Japan.

The original writer, director, and star, Katsu Sintaro made 27 (!) Zatoichi pictures between 1962 and 1989. His son directed a couple as well. There are Zatoichi books and Zatoichi manga, but I’ve never seen one the earlier films, so don’t fear any Trekkie-like bitching about how Takeshi has tampered with tradition.

Takeshi made his name as the writer/director/star of bleakly violent, urban, existential half-noir/half-Yakuza pictures. Sonatine, Fireworks, Violent Cop, and Boiling Point showcased the director’s singular on-screen persona: monosyllabic, bemused, impenetrable, and homicidal. Kitano shot in a random, cinema verité style, the visual equivalent of the jagged, improvisational lives of his characters. His deadpan gunplay made for simultaneously hilarious and deeply disturbing shoot-outs. His films contained aspects of Japanese gangster movies, but Kitano’s purely modern, observational humor and extreme violence put his films in no genre but his own.

So it’s something of a shock to see Kitano’s stately, traditional camerawork and framing in the manner of Kurosawa or John Ford. Takeshi composes as never before, setting up wide-screen epic tableaus that suggest, as Kurosawa’s did, a morally ordered universe within which the lives of the immoral characters and almost pointless bloody striving takes place. This is the opposite of Takeshi’s anything-goes images in his gangster movies, which suggest only chaos.

The plot is negligible and a bit confused but moves ahead with metronomic pacing, interrupted by sequences of violence and slapstick. Zatoichi comes to town as three rival gangs fight for dominance, a pair of grown-up children seek vengeance for their parents’ murder, and an honorable, dirt-poor samurai sells his skills to gangster scum to buy medicine for his dying wife. As in Seven Samurai, gallons of blood are shed by razor-edge swords and in the end, only the eternal way of life of the honest down-home peasant prevails.

Zatoichi is far and away Takeshi’s best picture, carefully paced (which is seldom the case for him), subtly performed (ditto), and written in a graceful 3-act structure that’s never intrigued him in the past. He has clearly sought to honor his historical sources: the classic visual language of samurai films (referencing, along with Kurosawa, the 1950s trilogy Samurai, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, and Duel on Ganryu Island). After his two most recent pictures, the unspeakable Dolls and tedious Brother, it’s heartening to see Takeshi pay such attention to structure and detail.

Yohji Yamamoto did the period costumes, and Takeshi casts his lifelong comedy sidekick Guadacanal Taka as the bizarre but amusing comic relief that regularly interrupts the blood-play. Taka stars in priceless Three Stooges sequences wherein he tries to teach the local mouth breathers to fight like samurai. Takeshi apparently honors certain traditions only so much.

The swordfights occupy a different universe of choreography than Hero but—in the realist, both-feet-on-the-ground samurai swordfight tradition—are unsurpassed. One advantage Takeshi has over his predecessors is the availability of CGI for blood and sword wounds. He’s not worrying about exploding blood bags, or supposedly slashed actors falling to the ground without an apparent scratch (à la The Seven Samurai); all the maiming and blood were added in postproduction. The animated blood sometimes looks unreal, but that only adds to the odd amalgam of movie-reality (all the samurai tropes we know so well) and Kitano-reality (ultraviolence in the supposed cause of honor, sexual perversity, incongruous slapstick) that makes Zatoichi so compelling.

After crafting a modern samurai classic, Kitano then does his best to piss it away in the last five minutes. The plot points are wrapped up, and the deserving and undeserving soak in widening pools of their own gore. Just when it’s time to say sayonara and send Zatoichi on down the road, Kitano stages an incomprehensible 5-minute dance number, in which the surviving characters and grubby peasants, resplendent in sparkly-bright Yohji Yamamoto, tap-dance their little hearts out wearing tightly tied, brightly colored peasant-sandal tap shoes. It’s like an invasion of Japan’s Up With People, or a Japanese Disney World of dancing animatronics.

But, mercifully, the dance is short.

David N. Meyer, author of The 100 Best Films to Rent You’ve Never Heard Of and A Girl and A Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir, teaches cinema studies at The New School. He is at work on a biography of Gram Parsons to be published by Villard Books.

Contributor

David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.

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