Let’s make one thing clear from the start: despite what a lot of people have said, this is NOT a Chinese film.
It is, in fact an American one, even if it was filmed mostly in China, with a largely Chinese cast and a legendary Chinese director.
But it is an understandable mistake: more than anything else, this is a Zhang Yimou film. And a stunningly beautiful one at that!
Once again, we have that mixture of incredibly bold color with high flying Wu Xia Martial Arts we saw in Hero and The House of the Flying Daggers; the same dense and beautiful design aesthetic; the same largely imagined historical setting.
It’s just the army of monsters that’s new.
Well “new” isn’t exactly right either as the Tao Tie is an authentic Chinese legendary creature. Sorta. Maybe.
Actually, there’s a bit of debate over the Tao Tie decorations found on a lot of ceremonial jars, and while there have been a few attempts to explain them, it really isn’t clear just what they were. They were identified at later date as one of the four evil fiends of Chinese myth. However, while Jorge Louis Borges portrays them as dog-headed monsters, he had little concern for historical reality in his “non-fiction” pieces.
Perhaps the only part of the real Tao Tie that we can be sure of that made it into this film are the intricate patterns on the heads of the creatures, which, yes, resemble those on the ceremonial jars, and which are both strikingly beautiful and yet rather ominous at the same time.
The best part of the film is without question the marvelous color coordinated world Zhang Yimou creates, with its bold, color-coded armies, clad in bright hues and marching in intricate patterns, its intensely colorful sets — particularly the stained glass tower at the end — and even the intense hues of the surrounding mountainous scenery. I suspect that the mountains may have been digitally touched up to make them brighter – certainly, there is a hyper-real quality to most of the world this film occupies. At times I think this lets down the effects as little, as the creatures at times look less realistic when contrasted against an artificially bright landscape.
Most of this plays out as a Wu Xia historical epic, perhaps more like Red Bridge or the Judge Dee films than Hero. While it centers around the western characters — a pair of mercenaries who have come in search of the Black Powder they’ve heard stories about — the politics and the fight itself belong firmly to the Chinese half of the film. But Matt Damon is still given a strong story, and the theme, that, yes, we can change, is one I’ll confess that I like.
Mind you, Andy Lau and Tian Jing get almost as much running time as he does and really steal the show. Which is fine by me.
The mild surprise for those of us in the West is that the supernatural monster is given a rational explanation: we learn that the Tao Tie came from a meteorite which crashed in the mountains many years before, and that they emerge every sixty years and attack. However, this sort of SF gloss for the supernatural has become de rigeuer, in Chinese film these days, thanks to the insistence of the Communist government (as I have noted far too many times before!). I’m sure that it was one of the things the Chinese Production company insisted on before they shoveled their dough into this one.
One also notes a rather anachronistic reference here to the creatures evolving — not just getting smarter, mind you, but evolving. Or is there a suggestion here that not only did the Chinese invent the magnetic compass, black powder and hot air balloons (admittedly only unmanned, but we’ll ignore that), but evolution as well?
Oh, well. I like this one. It’s not the greatest monster movie ever made — not that it really tries to be — and it’s not the greatest Wu Xia epic ever made — or even the greatest Zhang Yimou film ever, but it is entertaining, visually impressive, and wildly imaginative. Where else can you see young female warriors diving into battle like acrobats at the ends of long cables, or an army taking off in primitive hot air balloons, or giant scissors blades slicing monsters in half, or whole color-coded armies clad in incredibly detailed Chinese armor?
So grab your popcorn, cheer the hero on as he does the right thing, jump at a few monster shocks, oooh and ahhhh at the riot of color and spectacle, laugh (just a little) at a few biting comments about bureaucracy, and just let it wash over you.
Don’t worry, it’ll be fun.
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