Tuesday, November 28, 2006 at 2:20 p.m. | Posted by McGarmott
I watched this at a free preview screening held at the Sunset 5 Laemmle Theater. It surprised me a little to see that about half the audience were Chinese.
I have to say I liked this less compared to Hero or House Of Flying Daggers - it's like I like his martial arts period epics in descending order ... interestingly, that's correlated with an increasingly bigger budget and number of extras.
The film is quite imbalanced, really - much of the beginning half was made up of personal loves and rivalries within the Imperial Family and some of the courtiers and officials. The web of conceit and scandals are quite elaborate, flying in all directions, all tied to the Empress and Emperor (needless to say, they are played well by Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat). Then when the oft-mentioned Chrysanthemum Festival arrives (hence the yellow flowers filling up the entire courtyard of what looks to be the Forbidden Palace ... which must mean at least a million flowers and flower pots are used up), everything goes into havoc mode - pandemonium, resolution, betrayals, everything.
It's almost as if Zhang Yimou staked everything on the battle sequence on the palace grounds - and yes, of course they are breathtaking. Even though the numbers in play here are smaller than either Troy or Lord Of The Rings, here the battle sequence is more awe-inspiring than Troy and more real-looking than Lord Of The Rings can ever hope to be. Much of that has to do with the gold plated armour that each and every one of those soldiers wear - with efficient use of sound effects, you never ever suspect that they are probably plastic or something. (In retrospect, they've got to be because the actual scenario - possible during ancient times, of course - would have involved, say, the volume of gold equivalent to the cubic volume of the old wing of 1 Utama. You just can't imagine that - that's what the filmmakers are there for, to direct tens of thousands of extras to re-enact that sight for you.
Unfortunately, what you lose with such a huge battling army is the artfulness of martial arts sequences. Looking at Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, many of the fight sequences were well choreographed, as in they were very poetic and all that. (To an extent, The Banquet went too far and made them into a dance, and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how willing you are to enjoy movies.) Here, Zhang Yimou kept the same martial arts choreographer (Ching Siu Tung), but there isn't much of an artfully choreographed fighting sequence, which is kinda disappointing. But never mind, just have to wait for the next one then.
Those who value story far above everything else will be disappointed though. (Stress the word far.) But, for people like me, who value spectacle quite highly - yes, the battle sequence alone is worth the price of admission. (In this case, free. Bah. Still, what are you guys paying, RM10? And how much did they spent destroying a million chrysanthemums in flower pots?)
I have to say though: Jay Chou, the bugger can actually act. The wispy beard helps a lot, of course, but his performance was quite heartfelt in the movie. (I never saw Initial D.) Now he's on my list of 'actors I like to work with (in the possibly delusional future)'. That Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat were good isn't surprising - perhaps that's why I kept thinking about Jay Chou on my 45-min walk back to my place ... coz he surprised me.
Ultimately, not the classic I hoped it would be, but as with (almost) any spectacle film it was worth my time. (Stress almost.)
How Good I Think The Film Is: 7/10
How Much I Liked It: 7/10
At What Point Did I First Look At My Watch: 25 mins
Oscar Noms That It Deserves: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Hair & Make-up
PS - In reality, the art direction and costume design in this film would have beat ANY film that dares to compete against it during the Oscars, hands down. But the Oscars isn't reality. Remember, they gave the Best Original Score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when Gladiator was ... sigh, bastards. Sorry, that was a rant.
PPS - It's entirely possible that they made this film purely as a prelude to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. You know, like a show-off thing to the West saying, hey, look, this is just a little bit of what we can do - and if you liked this, the Olympic Games opening ceremony will blow your brains out! And we haven't even talked about the closing ceremony!!! Hey, it's possible, seeing as the film is almost guaranteed to get the Chinese saying stuff like "it's shallow" or "not meaningful enough", whereas Westerners will willingly gouge their eyes out if they get to just watch this once. (That's hyperbole, of course.)