An A.O. Scott review I actually agree with?

Scott brings up all the major points I had written in my notes — how Daggers is more of a musical than an action movie, how unspeakably amazing the bamboo battle is, and how it is ultimately less satisfying than Hero — though nonetheless a movie well worth seeing. He does all this with little of the usual name-dropping, the comparisons to obscure movies to prove why he is the critic and you are the peon.

Everyone is a peon, as far as I’m concerned, when they enter Zhang Yimou’s world (or, as my Chinese friends call him, ‘Johnny Mo’). He is a true master film-maker, in complete command of both story and film technique. As an audience member, it is a pleasure to sit back and be entertained by his films, whether serious or fantastical. That he has turned away from social realist dramas to historical epics as Scott, or the hype-maven Lisa Schwartzbaum (who was a judge for this year’s fest and introduced the pic) marvels at, is not so illogical a progression. As a storyteller of the stature of a Bergman or Kurosawa, he is able to change his style to suit the story — instead of seeking out stories that suit his personal style. Critics raised under the oppression of the auteur theory have difficulty comprehending this, because they came of age worshipping such single-minded masters as Hitchcock, Ford, Lang and Renoir, whose films are all cast from the same mold. Zhang’s distinction, on the other hand, is a distinction of excellence. While Daggers seems a promising pre-quel to Hero, it lacks some of the scale, perhaps one or two narrative twists, and the freighted cultural reference (more on that in the interview). And yet there is no frame that seems unsaturated, and few moments where the choreography and editing are pedestrian.

Daggers is ultimately both elevated and hidebound by its story, a melange of blind-swordsman myth and love-triangle spy story, that is as opulent and shallow as the Peony Pavillion. This is not Zhang’s fault so much as that of the screenwriters, Hero scenarists Li Feng and Wang Bin, who fail to imbue the characters with any distinctions beyond archetype. What was a distinct advantage when the central character is the central enigma — and portrayed by black-clad Jet Li — becomes a liability when the self-annihilating love triangle is more than a plot point but in fact the point of the plot. This leaves Zhang to stage his glorious sequences (I did wish once or twice Christopher Doyle was back for round two, despite some amazing lensing by Zhao Xiaoding) with little subtext, making the male-female swordfights seem all the more like metaphorical sex (or, sometimes intentionally I think, rape). But what the movie has to say — about sex, and love, and jealousy and everything in between — is buried, in the end, in too much digital snow.

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I’ve been taking notes at the Q&As and I thought it might be worthwhile to report one. First of all, I have to say I was shocked by how painfully shy Zhang seemed when he came out to introduce the film, and also throughout the entire Q&A. Also, he didn’t look over fifty, which is the age attributed to him by A.O. Scott — but I was sitting way back in row V. I can’t even confirm that his head is shaved; he might be bald.

Here is my report of the Q&A, not verbatim of course, especially since everyone was speaking through translators (minor spoilers probably):

First Schwartzbaum asked him, Why one wire-fu movie after another?
ZY: They were scripted together. Both are about sacrifice. Hero is about individual sacrifice for a goal; House about individual sacrifice for love.
Q: How did the final scene come about? Why didn’t you show the climactic battle between the General and Flying Daggers?
ZY: We didn’t intend to have snow in the final scene. But we were filming in the Ukraine and about 1/3 of the way thru filming the final battle, it snowed. And the locals told us that we’d have to wait a year to get back to the lovely reds and golds of the autumn trees. So we changed our plans. As for the other part of the question, we didn’t show it because we wanted to focus on the side story to the battle, which is really the story of the movie. Just these three people, fighting about love.
Q: Locations?
ZY: We scouted Canada, New Zealand and the Ukraine after we couldn’t find what we were looking for in China. We settled on the Ukraine pretty much because it was cheapest.
Q: Were the parts written with actors in mind.
ZY replied yes, essentially, when speaking of Zhang Ziyi and implicitly no when talking about casting the two men.
Q: Do special effects make you change your improvisatory directorial style?
ZY gave some advice here about using digital effects which boiled down to ‘don’t rely on them’ but I think the actual question was lost in translation. Anyway, this is another example of the stupid questions the Lincoln Center audience asks at these things. There is nothing is Zhang’s earlier movies that suggest improvisation to a level that even Scorsese uses it (which is not much). It seems to be a common audience myth that the actors and director make up their lines. Mike Leigh had to disabuse them of that notion in nearly every question — and he actually works that way.
Q: How did the Chinese gov’t respond and how did you want them to respond?
ZY: This film had no difficulty passing the censors. This sort of historical fantasy doesn’t cause any problems. On Chinese TV, any given hour of the day, you can turn it on and watch martial arts shows. So this doesn’t give them any problems.
Q: Did you have any experiences in childhood that gave you such an incredible, colorful visual imagination?
ZY: No. From age 16 to 26 it was the Cultural Revolution in China and the only color I ever saw was red. (Big laughs on this).
Q: The final question was asked in Chinese — and the young girl who asked it just kept talking. Schwartzbaum interrupted her every thirty seconds or so to try to ascertain she was even asking a question. After filtering by the translator, it became “What is the best English translation for tien-shih, the word that figures so prominently in Hero?” It has been variously translated as ‘all under heaven’ and ‘our land’ and is of course the word that gives us the name China.
ZY: That’s impossible for me to answer since I know absolutely no English. (Another big laugh and Schwartzbaum wrapped it up).