Obviously if you are a fan of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or particularly Hero then you would be very keen to see this movie, after all it was touted as the next in the line of these movies with great stunts, wire work, fantastic foreign actors and the gorgeous storytelling through these historical based Chinese epics.
So how did it fare against these two previously very strong movies, and was it as gorgeous onscreen as it should have been from all accounts?
I had a bit of difficulty getting into the movie to begin with, and I’m not sure if it was the slower paced beginning, or I just wasn’t in the mood, but it did take me a little while to get to the point of forgetting about the world around me and getting focused on the film, and that usually isn’t too difficult for me. Once I did though, I started to enjoy it and really appreciate the opening scenes.
The opening sequence where Mei dances and then performs the routine with the drums is superb, and beautifully choreographed, and from here I was drawn into her relationship with Jin and his with Leo.
It’s this triangle of relationships and uncertainty which is at the center of the film and provides for some excellent drama and surprises along the way, and it’s certainly these three actors who prove themselves time and time again throughout the movie with such heartfelt performances. Perfectly natural and believable from both Takeshi Kaneshiro and Ziyi Zhang with an extremely strong and emotionally charged Andy Lau. If at any time you wondered if Asian actors can be better than Hollywood you only have to watch this movie and understand these characters.
The fight scenes are excellent and really do raise the level from the previous movies, but in doing so don’t go over the top with wire work and fantasy fighting, this seems to be dropped down a little from the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and brought towards a more realistic level. Yet with every scene they just keep upping the ante. That said, there are still some wonderful visual stunts that are hard to understand how they are executed and just excite the eyes.
However there’s a big let down in this movie when I watched it the first time, and that was the ending. Although filled with surprises and revelations, it seemed overly cheesy and contrived, with some incredible groan moments mixed firmly with some astonishing moments. These final sequences are quite a roller coaster ride for the audience. The first time viewing this was a huge disappointment.
Now, this is where the other however pops up. Having watched the movie a second time for the Audio Commentary, I was surprised at how much more came through the movie, and it was something that was reinforced by the Directors comments, Yimou Zhang. The understanding of the characters themselves, as well as some of the subtle turns of the Director and Writers intentions, come through and do give you another level to the movie. There’s more depth to the characters and suddenly you see so much more on Lau’s performance, as well as a bit more identification on the subtexts within scenes and characters emotions, I really did appreciate this.
Presented: 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Now here’s where I was both disappointed and pleased the most. The picture at times is superbly sharp with some vibrant colours, particularly during the final snow sequences and also in the Bamboo forest. Yet many of the normal forest scenes seem to be filmed with a very poor white balance, in the middle of a scene the overpowering white of the sky washes out the picture and undoes all the good cinematography. Again, it’s a very up and down experience.
Presented: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS
The DTS track is a superb example of a really precise and spatially aware soundtrack. Throughout the movie you’ll find the sound consuming you, weaving around the room from speaker to speaker. It starts during the opening echo game scene and continues until the very last dagger has flown during the Bamboo fighting scene, which really is a great example of how an audio track should exploit a home cinema system.Precise and delicate.
Presented: Audio Commentary from Director Yimou Zhang and Actress Ziyi Zhang
I don’t think I remember the last time I heard such a natural and enjoyable audio commentary, the chemistry between the Director and Actress is very much that of two friends who respect each other, and through the analysis of the movie and behind the scenes discussions there’s joking and laughter. Not only is it insightful but funny and enjoyable, and in very few commentaries I’ve seen, it provides an extra depth to the movie.
Although there are issues with the white balance on the DVD during the forest scenes, and a modicum of cheese during the final scenes, the relationships between the three characters and the excellent action sequences are what make this movie so special. Actually it’s the strength of these characters and the actors portraying them that win out through the poorer parts of the movie, and watching it a second time your view of the film does change from the first viewing.
The acting is superb, and at times beautifully restrained, and the three characters provide a myriad of emotion throughout the film. The cinematography does win through in some key scenes, and the revelations make for a superb plot. Overall, despite it’s faults, I think it is an excellent film.