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July 28, 2005

"House of Flying Daggers" and "The Mystery of Rampo"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A couple of days ago I wondered out loud why so few films take interesting chances with color. As it happens, the two films I've watched in the days since I wrote that posting have both showed a lot of daring with color. Now don't I feel like a foolish whiner!

Yesterday we caught up with the widely-praised Zhang Yimou martial-arts period drama "House of Flying Daggers." As a production, "House" is nothing if not astounding. An emerald-green ambush in a bamboo forest ... A swordfight between love-rivals in a storybook snowfall ... Lovely, and gasp-eliciting, scenes. Still, I found "House" a bore. Its story, situations, and characters seemed as remote to me as those of every other Chinese film I've seen. And Zhang Yimou's direction, however effective, struck me as heavy-handed -- stiff and regimented, and far more redolent of the will than of the imagination. Still, that production ... those colors ... OK, so the film's look is like Asian calendar art gone cyber-gargantuan. That ain't nothin'.

Tonight we watched a Japanese movie I hadn't heard of before, the 1995 "Mystery of Rampo." It's an elaborately produced art-thing: an involuted, Cocteau-esque, reality-and-fiction game that improvises on the life and work of a Japanese novelist who idolized and emulated Edgar Allen Poe. I stayed alert through most of the film thanks to its audiovisual design. Where "House of Flying Daggers" is a hyper-squaresville (if impressive) crash-and-slash action opera, "Rampo" is decadent, arty, languourous, and fetishistic. Unfortunately, the film is also overdetermined, slow, and stilted -- I found it as unengaging on a story/situation/character level as "House."

But as a ponderous flip through an especially sumptuous issue of Tokyo Vogue, the film is quite something: Bertolucci meets Miyazaki, at least in terms of look-and-feel. The light, the fabrics, the decor, the compositions, the ultra-subtle sounds ... Lordy, lordy, where "evocative" and "exquisite" go, the Japanese can make the French look like Americans, if that makes any sense. "Rampo" manages to be both amusingly overwrought and annoyingly over-delicate. Yet as a showcase for the kind of poetic things modern film stock, CGI enhancements, and sound recording are capable of, "Rampo" is hard to beat.

The Wife reports that she preferred "Daggers," thanks to its kickass action. Arty weirdo that I am, I had an easier time sitting through "Rampo." But anyone curious about the kinds of fun Hollywood might be having with color, light, computers, and sound could do worse than check out these films.



posted by Michael at July 28, 2005


There's someone who posted here once who said she had a "cinematographer jones"--so she could probably point you in the right direction.

All this discussion, though---narrative sucked, but the visual use of color was good, or the hook was great but the script sucked, or the special effects were great but the actors are vacant---makes me think of when Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau gave the Best Director Oscar one year, and said "There are directors who know all about interpretation and character, and nothing whatsoever about the camera. There are directors who know all about camera angles, sprockets, lighting, and lenses, and are totally ignorant about the human condition." They then smiled and said "We have all of these directors with us tonight."

It starts to make the old studio system make sense, and make malarkey out of the "auteur" theory--no one can be this competent at all these different things. They need really good, experienced casting directors, cinematographers,editors, musicians. It does take a village. Even Spielberg has talked about it in terms of time---in the old days, John Ford had a great casting director, a great editor, and it allowed Ford to release say, four films a year, instead of one every two years. I would take it a step further--more than just time, its also talent. Nobody can be great with actors, great with narrative, great with casting, great with special effects AND great with color. If that ever happens, its an accident or the result of a great team.

Posted by: annette on July 29, 2005 9:58 AM

You may also find In the Mood For Love a bore; even so, it's worth a chance. It, too, features beautiful use of color. The cinematography is fantastic. It's more a work of art than a story, I suppose, and I found my attention wandering while I watched it. Now, six months later, I find myself thinking about the film at odd moments. To me, that's the sign that it touched me somehow. Check it out. Great use of color.

Posted by: J.D. on July 29, 2005 4:21 PM

You may find Mark Cousins' "The Story of Film" an interesting read, although when you read the description of Ray's "Pather Panchali" it is clear he hasn't seen the movie himself. Of course there's no rule that says the author has to see every movie he includes in his book about the story of film, but...

And Miyazaki of course. But ever since I saw Takashi Nakamura's "A Tree of the Palme" I am tempted to put him on par with Miyazaki. You all may be interested in the impressions I wrote up on Ray and Nakamura's above films at the following links:

RK (Talkativeman)

Posted by: RK on July 29, 2005 8:29 PM

Annette -- That's a hilarious Lemmon/Matthau quote. And so true. It's funny how, over time, you kinda learn to appreciate the system that produces all the goodies. In the media biz where I work, for instance, I've often suspected that there's no one person who actually knows how it works. These institutions and organizations have kind of grown up, and serve a function, and various people sit at various helms and turn various steering wheels (not to be sneered at!). But that no one really knows how it all comes together. The intelligence is really in the system itself, though god knows it can be nice and fun and rewarding when someone with some talent of some kind sits at the steering wheel for a little while ...

J.D. -- "Rampo" reminded me a bit of a very stiff, establishment version of a Wong Kar-Wai movie. Nothing edgy or dreamy about it, and nothing edgy or very moody either. Yet still beautiful and exquisite, if in an over-posed way. Did you see that what's-his-name, Wong Kar-Wai's longtime cinematographer, isn't going to be working with Wong any longer? Evidently he's tired of taking two or three years to shoot a film. I guess Wong kind of feels his way into projects and shoots and edits till he's happy ...

RK -- Thanks for links and suggestions. I'm not familiar at all with Nakamura, so I'm eager to learn.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 30, 2005 2:41 AM

For visual lushness, I would recommend "Prospero's books" featuring John Gielgud; but if you dislike Shakespeare, then check out some of Peter Greenaway's other films. They're offbeat, but usually have wonderful visuals.

Also, I've been impressed with the improvements in tv shooting over the past couple of years. There is more of what I think of as a cinematographic pov, e.g., visual themes achieved with lighting. Smallville uses a lot of color, particularly green to heighten the effect of kryptonite. CSI:NY has a distinct blue cast for a gritty city feel. The first ep. was hilarious (from a lighting perspective) because they had a Miami character cross-over, and he was always bathed in golden CSI:Miami light even when he was in NY and the NY character in the same shot was blue.

The movie "Thirteen" successfully incorporates a lot of varied lighting color and camera-work that enhances the drama without distracting from it.

Style can detract from a story if it's not designed with the narrative in mind. Many directors don't want to take that risk.

Posted by: claire on July 31, 2005 2:08 PM

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