now out on DVD.
Zhang Yimou's early films, "Red Sorghum" (1987), "Ju Dou" (1990), and "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991) were intimate, beautiful, devastating films centered around the oppression of women in pre-revolutionary China. His most recent films "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" are very different indeed. Martial arts spectaculars with big budgets and strong female fighters in lead roles, they are much less effective emotionally. The oppressed women in his earlier films were defiant, but they were completely powerless and their vulnerability made their strength of character impressive indeed. The newer films seem quite shallow in comparison.
However, "Hero" did have some of the most beautiful scenes I've ever seen in film, especially memorable were several scenes with ravishing depictions of water. Zhang Yimou's visual style is unmistakable, starting with the gorgeous shots of freshly dyed fabric sheets in "Ju Duo". But a big share of credit for the look of "Hero" has to go to cinematographer Christopher Doyle. He's shot so many stunning films, including "In the Mood for Love", directed by Wong Kar Wai.
The "Making of" documentary on the Flying Daggers DVD wasn't particularly striking, repetitiously filled with comments that all amounted to "Zhang Zimou is really, really good". However, it did explain one fairly odd transition in the film, the climatic fight scene takes place in a fairly substantial snow storm. But the scenes before it, essentially on the same day, were quite temperate. Apparently there was a freak October snow storm during the filming, totally unexpected of course, and the director just went with it.
Ang Lee is another talented director who succumbed to the lure of the big-budget martial arts blockbuster with his "Cringing Tiger". That film's critical and popular success was a total mystery to me. Chow Yun Fat is great in Hong Kong gangster movies, but he was utterly unconvincing in a costume period piece, never mind his deficiencies as a martial arts player.
The DVD cover
Beautiful watery scenes from "Hero"
Freak snowstorm in "Flying Daggers"
You can see a beautiful trailer for "Ju Dou", you might have to endure an annoying ad first, but it's worth it.