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Films
by Kathi Maio

The Globalization of Leaping Kicks

THERE IS nothing more dangerous than success—especially when it comes to moviemaking. We've known that about Hollywood films for forever. A film that does well in the U.S. and beyond will set off a vicious chain of events involving sequels, spin-offs, and countless derivative and degrading copycat movies.

I used to believe that somehow international films were immune to that imitative downward spiral. With state and independent producer supports for filmmakers as well as audiences that really seemed to celebrate a talented writer-director as a true "auteur," the making of films in foreign lands appeared to be more an act of artistic creation than an act of commerce.

Perhaps that was never true. In any case, it doesn't seem true anymore.

Globalization is a powerful and terrible thing.

Case in point is how every oh-so-serious art house director from China thinks that they need to start making martial arts films because they're hot (and cool) and beloved by audiences worldwide. The Chinese film industry has discovered the power of ka-ching, baby. And the Chairman's children now know that big box office means grasping for dollars and euros, as well as yuans.

Film geek turned filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is partially to blame for making martial arts movies hip. Although it's not as though we haven't always loved the sheer wacked-out energy of Hong Kong "kung fu." (There's good reason that Bruce Lee has been considered a demigod on both sides of the Pacific for more than thirty years.)

Even more influential was the critical and phenomenal worldwide box-office success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). That film was a watershed. An art house director, celebrated in the West, embraced the popular wuxia (wuxha) chivalrous fable and made it work. And, more to the point, made lots of money doing so.

I was happy when Ang Lee made Crouching Tiger. The martial arts were gorgeous. The women even more so. (Any movie with the divine Michelle Yeoh in it, and I'm there!) And Lee, known for his subtlety and sensitivity, gave his film more emotional depth than the average martial arts movie. His tragic and heroic love stories had the power to affect audiences around the world, even those who had never been fans of martial arts movies before.

After Crouching Tiger, it seemed as though every respected auteur of the Mainland wanted to dirty their hands in popular genre filmmaking. Zhang Yimou, best known for exquisitely shot, realistic dramas like Ju Dou (1991) and Raise the Red Lantern (1992) and The Road Home (1999), has recently gone in hunt of blockbuster success with the big-budget martial arts extravaganzas Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).

And now, Chen Kaige has become the latest of China's art-house auteurs to go for the gold through martial arts moviemaking. It's a move that obviously has the global marketplace in mind, but unfortunately doesn't serve either the temperament of the filmmaker or the entertainment needs of his audience.

Chen, a member of the Fifth Generation school of Mainland filmmakers, made a name for himself with visually striking and emotionally complex films like Farewell My Concubine (1993). But like his film school classmate and former cinematographer, Zhang Yimou, Chen often fell afoul of Chinese censors in his early career. This gradually changed as his films became less rebellious and controversial at the same time that China moved for a wider presence in world film.

Headlines asked, in 1998, whether Chen had "sold out" by making the patriotic historical drama The Emperor and the Assassin. Perhaps the poor man did feel compelled to sell his soul at some point to appease the government and gain access to larger budgets and both domestic and international release for his films. And maybe his latest film, The Promise, is actually an elaborate allegory detailing his fateful Faustian bargain. If so, he shouldn't have to worry whether government censors will get the point, since The Promise is a movie that will likely leave most audience members, from Shanghai to Chicago, scratching their heads in bafflement and disappointment.

The movie opens with a voiceover explanation that the story takes place during a time some 3000 years ago, when humans and gods occupied the same Earthly realm. We then see a dirty little ragamuffin orphan girl grasp a biscuit from the hand of a dead soldier on a battlefield of utter carnage. She soon loses her morsel, and her despair is profound, until a lovely goddess, Manshen (Chen Hong) floats into view. The goddess could have just shown a little compassion for a waif and given her a square meal and wished her well. Instead, she strikes a deal with the little tyke. She can have lifelong comfort and wealth and fame, if she accepts the fact that she will lose any man she loves.

I can't think of one little girl, anywhere in the world, who wouldn't go for that deal! Creature comforts far outweigh dreams of romance at the age of five. (Or almost any other age except sixteen, for that matter.) And what self-respecting goddess makes a binding contract with a hungry kid below the age of reason? I don't mean to be culturally insensitive or anything, but Manshen should turn in her deity papers. At least Hera messed with kids because they were the illegitimate children of her rivals for Zeus's affections. If Manshen has a reason for her capricious malice, we never learn it from Chen's movie.

Instead, the flighty godhead floats away and twenty years pass by in the blink of a eye. It is again (still?) a time of war. An arrogant general, Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) is about to draw his barbarian enemies (looking a bit like bad opera valkyries) into battle by luring them into a horseshoe canyon with a group of sacrificial slaves. These include Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), a man who can run, on his knees no less, faster than a herd of stampeding bulls. (The special effects here are so cartoonish, you almost expect the Road Runnerish Kunlun to go "Beep! Beep!" as he tears through the dusty canyon.)

Understandably, the general is impressed by Kunlun's speed and talent for survival. So, Guangming claims him as his personal slave. And when the general is wounded and incapable of his own heroics, he shortly thereafter sends Kunlun, disguised in his crimson armor, to save his king when the palace is overrun by the legions of the evil Duke of the North, Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse).

Conveniently, our little orphan, Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), is now a "princess" and the consort of the king. Still her comfort level is not high, since she is, when we meet her again, precariously perched on the roof of the palace, surrounded by armed soldiers. In addition, I'm assuming that she doesn't actually love her regal companion, who disses her by suggesting that she strip to distract the military horde.

Sounds like it's time to sue Manshen for not honoring her side of the bargain, but instead, Qingcheng tussles ineffectively with the nasty king, and ends up dangling from the roof tiles. It looks bad for our heroine, until the disguised Kunlun kills the king, catches the falling Qingcheng, and rides off.

Up to this point, the story of The Promise almost retains its own fantasy logic. But when the various characters start to interrelate, the plot becomes a jangled and jumbled collection of scenes, most of which don't seem to hang together or transition from one to the next with any kind of grace or lucidity.

It all appears to have something to do with some sort of love quadrangle between Qingcheng and the three male leads. Unfortunately, none of these characters seems to feel anything toward any other, except perhaps for the evil Duke, a crypto-homosexual figure (played to the hilt by Tse) who seems to hate everyone but nonetheless exhibits a fabulous fashion sense—he has a thing for feathers—and an impressive but deadly talent for fan work.

Although The Promise clearly follows the wuxia tradition of chivalric fable, none of the characters in Chen's film ever seems heroic, or even—apart from the innocent and lost Kunlun—honorable. Likewise, the grand ill-fated passions that are supposed to inform their otherwise nonsensical actions are never fully expressed to the viewers. This is not in any way a tale of daring and devotion. And the only character who seems to express much emotion at all is a sad-sack assassin called the Snow Wolf (Liu Ye), who looks more like a moulting crow with a serious case of the mopes.

This failure to connect emotionally to either the material or the audience is, I am sure, mostly the fault of the direction and writing of Chen and his co-scripter, Zhang Tan. However, some of the problem might lie in the trimming of approximately twenty minutes from the original film for its international release. (Not that I'm complaining, shorter is definitely better. At least in this case.)

In addition, Chen clearly made a calculated business move to bring in an international Asian cast to broaden the film's appeal throughout the Pacific Rim. Sanada is Japanese. Jang is Korean. And several of the other cast members are native Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong. I have heard tell that some of the actors struggled mightily with their Mandarin dialogue—to either the disconcertion or amusement of Chinese audiences. The struggle to get a comprehensible line reading out can certainly compromise an actor's performance, as it seems to have done here.

Chen, like every good businessman-filmmaker, has attempted to put a positive spin on his movie. Besides entertainment, he has told interviewers that he hopes that viewers leave his film feeling like "they had a spiritual shower." When I left the theater after viewing his tragic fable, I felt only relief. My eyes were dry, and so was my soul. Although I did regretfully conclude that Chen, himself, was all wet.

The filmmaker's countrymen were no more merciful. One of the biggest download hits of the web this past winter was a twenty-minute parody of the epic called The Bloody Case that Started from a Steamed Bun by a young blogger named Hu Ge.

The Promise's writer-director was not amused. In fact, he was so outraged that he is attempting to sue his satirist. But the gentleman from Beijing needs to understand that a big budget, cheesy special effects and a bloated and confusing story made from scraps of a dozen legends do not (as most Hollywood actioners aptly illustrate) make for a great movie. And the kind of ponderous pretension Chen exhibits in The Promise has no place in a vital genre like the martial arts film.

Perhaps Chen Kaige was merely a tool of the official Chinese film industry in its quest to create an all-things-for-all-people film product for the global marketplace. Perhaps this is even a Communist plot—Rummy, take note—of the Chinese government's attempt to eat Hollywood's lunch.

If they can't bury us in cheap plastic crap, maybe they'll settle for lulling us into submissiveness with dull and unfathomable action movies.

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