The Films of Zhang Yimou
Raise the Red Lantern
The Story of Qiu Ju
Not One Less
The Road Home
Happy Times (August 5/03)
Happy Times takes a wacky premise - a bunch of old guys fool a blind woman into thinking she's working as a hotel masseuse - and makes it work (to a certain extent), primarily because the two central characters become figures we genuinely care about. The film revolves around a lonely old retiree named Zhao (Benshan Zhao), who's saving his money to propose to a single mother he's recently begun dating. Living with the woman is Wu Ying (Jie Dong), the blind daughter of one of her ex-boyfriends that seems to cause her no end of aggravation. But Zhao takes pity on the girl, and decides to give her a job at a hotel massage parlor - the problem is, the hotel is a figment of Zhao's imagination (he's made the lie up to impress his girlfriend). So, he collaborates with his retired friends to build a room that's designed to fool Wu Ying into believing she's working as a masseuse. It's an incredibly bizarre concept for a movie, but director Zhang Yimou imbues the story with enough heart and humor to prevent it from resembling something out of a '70s horror flick. The chemistry between the two central characters is heart-warming, which makes the surprisingly downbeat ending all-the-more difficult to take. The film spends a lot of time establishing Zhao and Wu Ying's relationship, so it would've been reasonable to expect a less depressing conclusion. It's a testament to the talent of the two stars that we're so disappointed by Zhang's refusal to allow their characters to live happily ever after, especially considering how deftly they were able to transcend the ludicrous storyline.
House of Flying Daggers
Click here for review.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
Curse of the Golden Flower
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (March 6/11)
There's little doubt that filmmaker Zhang Yimou, in adapting the Coen brothers' 1985 thriller Blood Simple, has gone out of his way to ensure that A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop bears few similarities to its predecessor, which ultimately does ensure that the movie, unlike the majority of contemporary remakes, stands on its own as an original and surprising piece of work. But it's just as clear that the film, which follows a wealthy businessman as he hires a crooked cop to murder his much younger wife, suffers from a number of problems that simply didn't exist within the earlier work, with the ongoing emphasis on stunningly misguided instances of over-the-top comedy undoubtedly standing as the most obvious example of this (ie the cast of characters even includes an overweight, bucktoothed simpleton!) There's little doubt, however, that Zhang manages to hold the viewer's interest even through the film's more eye-rollingly broad sequences, as the director has infused the proceedings with a distinctive and consistently engrossing visual style that's often far more compelling than either the narrative or the characters. It's not until the movie rolls into its comparatively subdued second half, which unfolds virtually without any dialogue, that A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop begins to improve, with the progressively tense atmosphere heightened by the periodic inclusion of electrifying interludes (ie the businessman negotiates with the crooked cop over a price for the job). And although Zhang's predilection for deliberate pacing diminishes the film's overall impact, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is an entertaining effort that is, generally speaking, far more watchable than it has any right to be.
Under the Hawthorn Tree
The Flowers of War (February 22/12)
Set during Japan's attack on Nanking in 1937, The Flowers of War follows drunken mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) as he attempts to seek refuge in a nearby church - with the film subsequently revolving around the character's ongoing efforts at protecting several students and prostitutes from the encroaching enemy. It's a fairly striking premise that's ultimately employed to underwhelming effect by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, as the director, working from Heng Liu's screenplay, has infused the proceedings with a lack of authenticity and subtlety that does, right from the get-go, prove awfully problematic - with the movie's less-than-engrossing atmosphere compounded by its stagy and distressingly uneventful midsection (ie Zhang stresses the characters' episodic exploits within the aforementioned church). The movie's passable atmosphere is, then, due mostly to Zhang's dynamic directorial choices and Bale's compelling work, with the decidedly over-the-top bent of Bale's performance initially going a long way towards keeping things interesting. (It's worth noting, too, that the actor eventually does settle down to deliver an expectedly nuanced, low-key turn that remains a consistent highlight within the picture.) The pervasive lack of momentum ensures that the movie's final stretch, revolving around a rather elaborate scheme to escape from the church, is simply unable to pack the visceral or emotional punch that Zhang has clearly intended, which ultimately does confirm The Flowers of War's place as a well-intentioned yet hopelessly misguided piece of work.
The Great Wall (April 2/17)
The Great Wall casts Matt Damon as William Garin, an 11th century mercenary who's reluctantly drawn into an ongoing effort to defend the title locale from swarms of deadly monsters. It's an unabashedly over-the-top premise that's employed to watchable (if somewhat forgettable) effect by director Zhang Yimou, as the filmmaker, working from Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy's screenplay, delivers a fast-paced thriller that is, admittedly, plagued by an erratic narrative rife with padded-out, fairly pointless stretches (ie the movie feels overlong even at 103 minutes). There's nevertheless little doubt that The Great Wall basically manages to sustain one's interest throughout, with the film's solid assortment of positive attributes playing an instrumental role in cementing its mild success. (It's clear that Zhang's expectedly stirring visual sensibilities prove effective at tying the whole thing together.) And although the movie's been peppered with several above-average action sequences - eg William must battle those aforementioned monsters in a dense fog - The Great Wall's unevenness is never more apparent than in its proliferation of less-than-engrossing subplots (with, in particular, virtually everything involving William's partner's exploits unable to make much of an impact). The wheel-spinning vibe becomes moot once the exciting and energetic climactic battle rolls around, and the movie, despite an oddly uncharismatic star turn from Damon, ultimately lives up to its place as an occasionally stirring big-budget epic.