“House of Flying Daggers” - Zhang Yimou (2004)

Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (Shí Miàn Mái Fú, 2004) was his second successive foray, following Hero (Yi-ng Xióng, 2002), into the Chinese wuxia martial arts genre popularized by Hong Kong filmmakers. This turn to wuxia was a dramatic shift from Zhang’s earlier, highly artistic and dramatic work, and though it brought him greater exposure and commercial success (as did a similar turn undertaken by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee), it represented a considerable compromise of Zhang Yimou’s artistic virtues.

Although the wuxia films, with their absurd wire-fu action, are mostly seen as escapist fantasies, Zhang’s preceding epic, Hero (which is set some 2200 years ago during the reign of King Ying Zheng, later Emperor Qin Shi Huang), carried with it an additional social and political undercurrent that actually argued against heroic acts of defiance: it is better to put up with a tyrant than to overthrow him and risk sowing the seeds of disunity. Though this message was blissfully overlooked by many viewers, it was rejected by some reviewers, including this one. House of Flying Daggers steers clear of such political commentary and, even with less than half of Hero's budget, focuses more on the action. It, too, is set in historical times, but the tone is lighter (although bloodier), and the emphasis is more on romantic relationships involving the big box-office stars who appear in the film: Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Zhang Ziyi.

The story is set in 859 AD at the close of the Tang dynasty, when government control had largely collapsed and rebel groups had risen in various quarters of China. The image of Robin-Hood-like rebel gangs has long been popular in Chinese – since at least as far back as the 14th century novel Water Margin (Shuĭhŭ Zhuàn, aka Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men Are Brothers). In this film the rebel gang is the Flying Daggers, which has set itself in opposition to the local government. The story has four main sections:
  1. The Peony Pavilion.
    At the outset, two local region police captains, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who had recently killed the leader of the Flying Daggers, have now been assigned to kill the new leader within ten days. They decide to investigate a blind woman, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), who is working at a local brothel, the Peony Pavilion, but who they believe is actually the daughter of the late leader of the Flying Daggers and is now a spy. After getting permission from the house matron Yee to watching the blind girl dance, they arrest Mei and take her into custody.
  2. On the Road.
    Jin and Leo then arrange a phony jail breakout for Mei in hopes of following her and finding the hideout of the Flying Daggers. Mei escapes to the forest, and Jin, pretending to be a rebel sympathizer, joins her company in the hopes that he can seduce her and learn secrets about the group. Leo and government troops follow the pair at a distance, and they even arrange a phony attack that is beaten back by Jin in order to make things look more authentic to Mei. But after an ensuing attack turns out to be almost deadly, Jin learns from Leo that a ruthless government general has taken over the pursuit from Leo, and this general is willing to sacrifice Jin and Mei, as long as he can find the rebel hideout. Meanwhile Jin and Mei seem to be falling in love, which was not according to plan. When a third ferocious government attack appears to doom Jin and Mei, the Flying Daggers, themselves, show up and rescue them in the nick of time.
  3. In the House of the Flying Daggers.
    At this point many previous deceptions are revealed. Mei is not really blind and is not the daughter of the old leader, but is instead a skilled Flying Dagger warrior. The Peony Pavilion house matron, Yee, turns out to be the local Flying Dagger commander. And Leo turns out to have been a spy for the Flying Daggers all along and has been Mei’s lover. Thus we now see a jealous love triangle between Jin and Leo, both competing for Mei. Yee orders Mei to take Jin away and kill him, but she cannot do it. Alone in the forest, they make love. Jin beseeches her to run away with him to freedom, but her loyalties to Leo and to the Flying Daggers’ cause hold her back. She tells him to go without her, and he rides away.
  4. The Long Good-bye.
    After Jin’s departure, Mei has second thoughts and decides to follow him. Seeing her betrayal from a distance, Leo slings a pair of flying daggers at Mei, who is able to fend off one of them, but is apparently mortally wounded by the other. Jim decides to come back for Mei, and seeing her dying, he fights with Leo. Mei, still alive, stands up and tries to prevent Leo from finishing off Jin. If she pulls the dagger out of her chest to defend Jin, her wound will gush blood and she will die immediately. So the three of them, with life and death hanging in the balance, face each other in an open field, physically mirroring their tortured love triangle. The final act of the tragedy then plays itself out.
Like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, even with a much smaller budget, excels in the area of cinematography. And as with many of Zhang Yimou’s films, the use of color as a motif and as an expressionistic element is stunning. Xiaoding Zhao, who had been the camera operator behind cinematographer Christopher Doyle in Hero, takes over the reins and is the cinematographer on this occasion, and the resulting work was nominated for an Oscar in 2004. Zhao continued on to be Zhang Yimou’s cinematographer for his next two films, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005) and Curse of the Golden Flower (Mănchéng Jìndài Huángjīnjiă, 2006).

Certainly the cinematographic talents of the Zhang and Zhao are the principal crowd-pleasing resources here, and they are on full display over five elaborate scenes that take up fully one-third of the screen time of the film:
  • There is a spectacular dance in Section 1 involving Zhang Ziyi playing the “echo game”, which involves her magically flinging her veil at a circular set of drums.
  • There are three elaborate fight scenes in Section 2, each of which is creatively presented. The most spectacular is the third one, involving an “aerial” attack from government commandos swinging about in the trees.
  • The final fight in Section 4 between Jin and Leo is punctuated by a violent snow storm that appears during the course of the action (the snow storm on the shooting location was unexpected, but Zhang Yimou decided to incorporate it into the scene).
One aspect of the cinematography that represents an improvement over Hero is in the area of the wuxia sword fights, where the “wire-fu” acrobatics have been reined in somewhat. Of course there are still inhumanly impossible dagger-throwing feats accomplished by the main characters. But at least these actions, as improbable as they are, do not so obviously violate the fundamental laws of physics, as they do in Hero and other Hong Kong wire-fu films. There is a payoff even to this modicum of directorial restraint, because though the fight scenes here are still unbelievable, they are at least not so ludicrously physically impossible as to distance the viewer from any possible vicarious involvement.

But outside the scope of the superb cinematography, other aspects of House of Flying Daggers have not fared so well. One problematic area is the narrative, itself. This film features the typical combination of an action-oriented thread and a relationship-oriented thread to the plot. The action-oriented thread ostensibly concerns the cause of the Flying Dagger rebels against a presumed corrupt government. But this thread gradually fades away to nothing and seems to have been almost forgotten by the story’s end. At the close of the film, the government troops are supposed to be advancing on to the Flying Daggers hideout. Although, Yee has suggested that the Flying Daggers have organized to trap them, we never find out. The whole storyline on this front has simply been abandoned.

A further narrative drawback is the operatic extravagance of Section 4 of the film. Dramatically, this unbearably long scene almost kills the film and ultimately evokes more ennui than tragedy. It should have been something of a coda, at best, but it goes on for twenty minutes and seems interminable. And the display of Leo’s enraged jealousy and willingness to kill Mei has not been properly motivated, which renders his character repugnant.

So this leaves us only with the relationship thread. Zhang Yimou has admitted that the main theme of this film centered around people who were willing to abandon everything for love [1]. Unfortunately, there is no romantic chemistry developed along this line. The film features four separate dramatic lovemaking attempts involving Mei (only the last one of which goes to completion), but none of them is really convincing, despite good performing by Zhang Ziyi in these scenes. In addition the rapidity with which Mei falls for Jin is hard to believe and is not well motivated. The main problem, though, boils down essentially to the performance of Takeshi Kaneshiro, who was likeable in Red Cliff (Chi Bi, 2008), but doesn’t match up well with what is needed in this film. His portrayal of a lusty vagabond lover lacks even remote credibility, and the same could be said for the sincerity of his passions for Mei. Kaneshiro’s overall performance may actually reflect some ambivalence on Zhang Yimou’s part concerning the degree to which he wanted this film to be essentially a cartoon, with ludicrous, over-the-top performances, as opposed to one with more straight-up roles. Actually, within the narrow narrative confines available to them, both Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi give good and reasonably believable portrayals of their characters (and Zhang Ziyi has the opportunity to display her dance background and to sing the principal song in the film). But Takeshi Kaneshiro is just a bit too unbelievable, even for this fantasy. Samurai Jack he is not.

Further considering the relationship angle, it is worth noting that a key subtext to this theme is the idea of personal deception, or perhaps we should say, human authenticity. All of the principal characters, Jim, Leo, Mei, and Yee, are constantly dissembling and pretending to be people they are not:
  • Yee is variously presented as a brothel matron, the leader of the Flying Daggers, and then merely a commander of the Flying Daggers.
  • Mei is variously a blind dancer, the daughter of Flying Daggers leader, and a warrior of the Flying Daggers.
  • Jin is variously a police captain, a renegade recruit for the Flying Daggers, and a carefree wanderer beholden to noone.
  • Leo is variously a police captain and a spy for the Flying Daggers.
Since the focalization of the film is primarily that of Jin, the viewer is not fooled by Jin’s deceptions, but is successively fooled by all the others. Normally, the viewer’s sympathies would tend to be aligned with the principally focalized character in a film, i.e. Jin. But in this film our empathy and sympathies turn away from him and go to Mei, thanks to Zhang Ziyi’s sympathetic portrayal of that character. In any case the film reminds us that however convenient they can be in the short run, deceptions can also prove to be fatal, and that is what happens in the final stroke of the film..

On balance we have to say the House of Flying Daggers is pretty lightweight fare for Zhang Yimou. He admitted so, himself, when he remarked [2]
“To me they’re [his two wuxia films] just pure entertainment. I expected more discussions of my previous work, most of which is artistic and has a deeper subject matter, a lot of humanity – whereas these two are just commercial.”
Taken on it’s own escapist terms, House of Flying Daggers has its moments, mostly when Zhang Ziyi is on screen, and it is indeed superior to Hero. But this kind of film, profitable though it may be, is not best suited for displaying Zhang Yimou’s great artistic strengths. To see how wonderfully he engages all aspects of the film medium to portray profound human experiences, you need to look elsewhere in his cinematic oeuvre.
★★½

Notes:
  1. In fact this theme contrasts so strikingly with “Hero”, which advocated the sacrifice of all personal values for the sake of social unity, that one might suspect Zhang was reacting to the critical reception of that film. But he has claimed (see [2]) that the scenarios of both Hero and House of Flying Daggers were written at the same time. In any case, the abandonment of the action plot is evidently intentional.
  2. Nick Bradshaw, “Zhang Yimou on House of Flying Daggers”, Timeout Film Guide, Fourteenth Edition (2006), p. 526.

“D.O.A.” - Rudolph Maté (1950)

Although it was only a B-movie, with second line performers and a low budget, D.O.A. (1950) still stacks up today as one of the truly classic films noir. The reason for its lasting appeal can be attributed to the way D.O.A. plumbs the extreme depths of the film noir aesthetic. To a certain extent we could say that it exposes the dark horror of this netherworld like almost no other film. D.O.A. was directed by Rudolph Maté, who had established himself over the years as a distinguished cinematographer and had worked behind the camera on three of Carl Dreyer’s classic, highly atmospheric films: Michael (1924), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and Vampyr (1932). The star of the film, Edmund O’Brien, was no stranger to the film noir genre, having appeared earlier in The Killers (1946) and White Heat (1949). For all their successes on other film sets, though, D.O.A. was definitely the high-water mark for the careers of both men.

Concerning the nature of film noir, it must be admitted that it has always been difficult to establish a consensus concerning what are the precise boundaries of the film noir genre and what constitutes its essence. But we are all familiar with the general cinematic style and the usual themes of these movies. They often involve characters with dubious pasts and doomed expectations, struggling to make their way in an underworld commonly inhabited by unprincipled, often criminal, characters. The settings are usually at night, the moral choices are murky, and the prospects are not at all hopeful. In short, these films reflect a world beset with despair – the characters are only hopeful of finding a small clearing in the dark, foreboding and unknowably savage jungle of the world. This is an existential despair, characteristic of the vast soulless metropolises of modern times – and the movies of the film noir genre have always struck a nerve of dark anxiety concerning this dark world that has been almost universal. D.O.A. delves into this existential nightmare by effectively employing two narrative schemes that metaphorically display these issues and evoke a feeling when we watch not only of fascination, but also dread.

One of the existential themes invoked in D.O.A. is the depiction of the ordinary middle-class man, living an orderly and well-regulated life, who is suddenly pulled into a maelstrom of confusion and personal threat that he must face and survive without assistance. This is the narrative scheme that was so brilliantly explored by Alfred Hitchcock in films like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and North by Northwest (1959).

A second theme concerns how our existential despair is often associated with the question of how we are to make sense of our existence in a world in which we are all condemned to death. What meaningful acts can we undertake, if we are all invariably destined to physical destruction or deterioration? What is the point of any ephemeral enjoyment, if it will all end in nothingness? This is the kind of question that Kafka metaphorically asked and one that we all consider from time to time, knowing that we have at most 70 to 80 years of existence. In D.O.A. the time-scale is drastically foreshortened: the principal character is informed early on by doctors that he has only one or two days left to live. Initially when he is confronted with this reality, the character feels utter despair. But he soon learns that he has been effectively murdered, and with that realization, a most primitive and human emotion surges up in him – like Joseph K, he at least wants to know why. “Why me?,” he asks. And D.O.A. very effectively puts the rest of us in his shoes.

The film opens, even as the opening credits are rolling, with an extended tracking shot following a man from the rear who resolutely enters the San Francisco police station and reports to the homicide division that a murder was committed the previous night. When they ask, “who was murdered?”, the man answers, “I was.” He has arrived at the police station D.O.A., “dead on arrival”. Then the man begins to tell his story, and the rest of the film recounts the man’s story as a flashback.

As the flashback story is told, the storytelling takes three drastic swerves which separate the narrative into three separate schematic moods. Though these wild changes of direction seem rather awkward, they do serve to add to the film’s sense of bizarre disorientation. As the flashback story begins, we learn that it is all about an ordinary, middle-class accountant and notary public working in a small town in southeastern California, Frank Bigelow (O’Brien), who has decided to take one-week solo vacation in San Francisco in order to inject a little excitement in his apparently humdrum existence. This part of the film takes off like a romantic comedy, with Bigelow clearly showing a wayward interest in every young woman he meets, much to the consternation of his possessive and jealous private secretary and girlfriend, Paula (Pamela Britton). So the viewer is already faced with the first mood swerve and a severe conflict: the light, humorous tone associated with the brazenly flirtatious and smirking Bigelow is darkened by the viewer’s knowledge that this man will soon be reporting his own “murder”.

We will also learn that underlying the giddy tone of this early section is a deeper existential undertone. Bigelow goes to San Francisco, because he wants to see if he can find something more exciting in life than settling down in a middle-class cocoon tended by the smotheringly affectionate Paula. His life is just a bit too ordinary for him.

When he checks into his San Francisco hotel, Bigelow learns that the ever-watchful Paula has already called him there to check up on him and that the hotel is overrun with partying sales personnel attending a marketing convention. Eager to socialize with the women, he gets dragged by a group of partying sales people to a nightclub that is offering the latest jazz music. Suddenly the movie takes another drastic swerve, this time into strange expressionistic images of frenetically carousing customers drinking and jostling each other as they listen to the wild music played by the black jazz musicians. This entire sequence, one of the high points of the movie, is brilliantly evocative – like a sudden descent into a nightmare. We just know from the change of mood that something bad is going to happen here. In fact, we see that Bigelow’s drink is spiked by a mysterious stranger at the bar while Bigelow’s attention is attracted to a pretty woman. The woman agrees to meet him somewhere private, later, and knowing something about his later fate, we expect that this may be the dangerous encounter, but this appointed tryst turns out to be a red herring.

But now the film mise-en-scène takes its third and decisive swerve, as Bigelow wakes up the next morning in his hotel room. The dark intrigue has disappeared, and everything seems normal. Bigelow seems OK at first, but he complains about a queezy stomach and decides to visit a doctor. Medical tests are performed, and the doctors grimly inform Bigelow that he has been poisoned with “luminous toxin”, a slow-acting poison that will definitely kill within a couple of days. Now the riddle of the opening scene has been cleared up somewhat: someone has murdered Bigelow with this poison. The despairing Bigelow staggers back to his hotel room, whereupon his ever-attentive secretary Paula calls and informs him that a certain Eugene Phillips, who had been urgently trying to get hold of him the previous day, has just died. Bigelow seizes on this as possible clue to the mystery of his own condition. At this point in the narrative, 37 minutes into an 83-minutes film, the story moves into whodunit mode, as Bigelow heads for Los Angeles (the site of Phillips’s office) and sets about trying to find out in the last remaining hours of his life who has murdered him.

The rest of the story is full of action and sinister characters, as you might expect from this genre, and I won’t go into the details. There are a number of unsavory characters, mistaken identities, gangsters, double-crosses, murders, and gun fights. Bigelow, aware that he has only one day, desperately follows one lead after another into a web of intrigue. Yes, Phillips was killed by the bad guys. He had a mistress, who was involved somehow. His wife had her own lover, who was involved with the murder plot. Bigelow’s connection to all this concerned a bill of sale for some smuggled iridium that he had once notarized, which made him a witness to criminal activities and therefore a murder target.

This second half of the film, which is more of a conventional thriller, still has some uniquely existential features. While a typical film noir might be motivated primarily by revenge or “justice”, Bigelow seems to be motivated by something else – why did all this happen?. Why would anyone want to murder such an essentially innocent man as himself? In addition, this part is continuously interleaved with loving phone calls from Paula to Frank, who never informs her about his impending death. But the contrast between the horrors of the inhuman, fatal world that is about to devour him and the loving and sentimental affection of Paula is dramatic. She represents the refuge that Frank wanted to abandon. He ultimately realizes that the human connection, her finally-realized unconditional love for him, is the one, true value in this world that makes life meaningful.

Cinematically, there are three sequences in the film that are superbly executed by Maté and his cinematographer, Ernest Laszlo. One I have already mentioned – the wild, almost demonic atmosphere at the nightclub early on. This features many expressionistic closeups (closeups are used effectively throughout this film). Another outstanding sequence is the breathtaking section of the film when Bigelow is about to be bumped off by one of the gangster’s thugs, Chester. A third high-tension sequence is when Bigelow is again trying to escape the gangster’s henchmen (after the Chester sequence), and he jumps onto a bus, only to observe that the gangsters are in hot pursuit in a following car. The irony here is that in these sequences, Bigelow is desperately trying to avoid being killed just so that he can live a few more hours and possibly understand why he was murdered and by whom. In the “grand scheme of things”, those extra hours are presumably meaningless.

One seriously detracting element in D.O.A., however, is Dmitri Tiomkin’s loud and intrusively trashy musical score. Even giving allowance for the film conventions of this period, the musical score is unforgivable and an irritation all the way through the film.

On the other hand, the acting throughout is dynamic, vigorous, and violent – including that of O’Brien, who is very good in an uncharacteristic role. The relatively brief role of Chester, played by Neville Brand, is a memorable highlight, because we see on display one of the all-time great out-of-control and sadistic psychopaths in cinematic history. Beverly Garland, who would later star in 1950s TV roles, is excellent as a devious secretary to the late Eugene Phillips. And Pamela Britton is just right as the star-crossed Paula. Her Midwestern US familiarity at first threatens to be annoying, but she ultimately wins you over, just as she wins Bigelow over.

Does Bigelow get an answer to his question in the end? Do we? You’ll have to see this excellent film to find out.
★★★½ 

“Le Amiche” - Michelangelo (1955)

A woman friend of mine once insightfully remarked that men show much more compassion and empathy for other men than women do for other women. She claimed that the congenial smiles among a group of women may often belie far less generous feelings. This challenging subject territory – how women see themselves and how they see each other – is what Michelangelo Antonioni explores in his fourth feature film, Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955). Although the film is not so well known today and appeared before Antonioni came to international prominence, Le Amiche features many of the themes and cinematic techniques that characterized Antonioni’s great works that came later. In fact it displays some of Antonioni’s innovative storytelling methods on a narrative canvas that was more complex than that of his later works. Here Antonioni traces the evolving and mutually influencing relationships among a group of young women friends who are all trying to answer the same question for themselves: what do they really want out of life?

People who have the time and wherewithal to obsess about these questions are usually not from the working-class milieu that had interested Antonioni’s Neorealist contemporaries, and Le Amiche is no exception to that observation – the principal characters are all relatively privileged in terms of material welfare. So it was probably inevitable that the examination of life in this social stratum would lead critics concerned with social realism and political issues to condemn Antonioni’s work as only of interest to spoiled, self-pitying intellectuals. But we should not so quickly make such dismissals. The issues that concern the characters in Le Amiche are those that concern us all in one way or another.

The serpentine narrative structure of Le Amiche doesn’t have the straightforward four- or five-act structure characteristic of many stories of this length. In fact because of the sinuous ways that the various narrative threads interleave and overlap, it is best first to list the principal characters. The five girlfriends, who range from very attractive to beautiful, are listed in order of importance:
  • Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) is a career woman from Rome who has come to Turin to open up a fashion salon branch for the main company. She joins the social circle of the girlfriends and develops a romantic interest in Carlo.
  • Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) is a sensitive young woman for whom life holds no meaning without romance. She is romantically interested in Lorenzo.
  • Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) is recently separated from her wealthy husband (who is never seen in the film) and is concerned about the welfare of her “best friend”, Rosetta. The most social (and therefore the most roleplaying) member of the girlfriends, she develops a romantic interest in Cesare.
  • Nene (Valentina Cortese) is a ceramics artist who has recently married the portrait artist Lorenzo.
  • Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani) is a beautiful and good-natured hedonist who is interested in enjoying the romantic attentions of men as much as possible.
The principal male characters involved with these women:
  • Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti, who would later star in Antonioni’s L'Avventura), is a self-obsessed painter married to Nene who develops a romantic attachment with Rosetta.
  • Cesare (Franco Fabrizi) is an interior architect doing contract work for Clelia and is a person who gets by on the basis of personal salesmanship and social carousing. He has romantic dalliances with Momina and Mariella.
  • Carlo (Ettore Manni) is an earnest and taciturn construction foreman working under Cesare and is from the lower classes. He becomes romantically interested in Clelia.
The multiple intertwining story threads of Le Amiche make it comparable to Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film, The Sweet Hereafter, (but without that film story’s temporal dislocations), and so, like my review of that film, I trace here the narrative linkages in Le Amiche. But unlike Egoyan’s film, which challenges the viewer to make sense of the various disconnected threads, Antonioni’s film weaves the narrative threads together relatively seamlessly. The story begins with Clelia arriving in Turin, but the focalization of the film shifts back and forth between her, Rosetta, Momina, and Nene, and (briefly) Mariella, each of whom is at times seen in the exclusive company of her man of interest. Although I have divided the narrative into six main sections below, there are no clear demarcations that identify story transitions. Two of the six sections are superbly orchestrated social gatherings, during which all the characters interact according to their social identities within the group. Key to those scenes are the interwoven threads of the four principal girlfriends. It emerges that each of the women has a different attitude and commitment about love and what men may mean in their lives.

(1) Introduction (24 minutes). The focalization in this sequence is mainly with Clelia, but at times shifts to Momina.
(1a) Clelia arrives in her hotel room, but she learns that the person in the next room, Rosetta, has attempted suicide by taking an overdose. Momina arrives to visit Rosetta and meets Clelia, who informs her about Rosetta.
(1b) Clelia, in a mink coat, visits her salon site under construction and berates the workers for being behind schedule. There she meets Carlo, and later Cesare, who tries to soothe Clelia with sweet-talk, to no avail.
(1c) Momina and her friend Mariella, visit Rosetta at the hospital.
(1d) Clelia, at the salon, is still upset with Cesare’s work team.
(1e) Momina and Mariella visit a playboy Frank, accusing him (falsely, we later learn) of breaking Rosetta’s heart.
(1f) Momina visits Clelia's hotel room in hopes of finding out what telephone calls Rosetta may have made the previous night, prior to her attempted suicide.
(1g) Momina drags Clelia to an art exhibition, where her acquaintance, the artist Lorenzo, has a portrait of Rosetta on display. Momina, still fishing for a suspect, accuses Lorenzo of breaking Rosetta’s heart, but he denies it. Nene is also there.
(1h) Back at the salon site, Clelia, Cesare, and Carlo talk, and then Clelia has lunch with Carlo and gets to know him better. Cesare and Mariella show up and invite Clelia to a Sunday outing.

At this point all the characters have been briefly introduced. Momina is the social butterfly and ringmaster who is vicariously fascinated with Rosetta’s presumed love life. Clelia is the beautiful, but professionally committed, career woman.
(2) The Sunday Outing (10 minutes). This is one of two brilliant ensemble scenes in the film, which puts all the dynamics of their social circle on display in a continuous swirl of movement. All the characters introduced so far, including Rosetta, drive off to the beach, where they socialize together and engage in light chitchat. Cesare seems to be Momina’s boyfriend, but he sneaks off with Mariella and embraces her. Later, Mariella’s insensitive remarks upset Rosetta, and so Clelia arranges to accompany Rosetta by train back to Turin.

(3) Growing Attachments (16 minutes) The focalization shifts in this sequence between Clelia, Nene, Rosetta, and Momina.
(3a) Clelia and Rosetta on the train have a heartfelt talk. Rosetta at first says she attempted suicide because she was bored with life, but later confesses that, as Momina suspected, she was romantically heartbroken.
(3b) With the work at the salon now complete, Clelia expresses warm feelings for Carlo as he is about to depart, and they end up embracing.
(3c) Nene in her flat (a new focalization) is excited to learn from her agent that she has been invited to America to exhibit her work.
(3d) Rosetta (in another new focalization) walks by the river with Lorenzo and confesses her love for him. They embrace.
(3e) Back at the salon with Clelia, Carlo, and Cesare. Clelia and Carlo go out to look for furniture for the salon, after which Cesare phones his new paramour, Momina.
(3f) While looking for furniture, Clelia apologizes to Carlo for her earlier romantic indiscretion (kissing him). Carlo is put off and offended by this withdrawal, but tries to conceal his displeasure. They visit Clelia’s old working-class neighborhood (she had grown up in Turin), and she speculates how different she is now that her social status is much higher than it was then (and higher than Carlo’s is now).
(4) The Party at Momina’s (9 minutes). This is the second outstanding ensemble scene, with all the girlfriends together at a party at Momina’s place. Rosetta, now happy and full of enthusiasm, privately confesses to Momina and Clelia (out of Nene’s earshot) that she is in love with Lorenzo. Clelia is alarmed for Nene, but Momina's ruthless vicarious pleasure is overflowing. Cesare then shows up and interacts with Momina as the others depart.

(5) Rosetta and Nene (23 minutes).
(5a) Clelia, in command and full glory, has her salon opening.
(5b) Rosetta has a tryst with Lorenzo in Momina’s empty apartment.
(5c) Back with Clelia’s at her opening.
(5d) Rosetta walking on the street with Lorenzo. He is moody.
(5e) At the opening again. All the girlfriends and the men show up.
(5f) Nene, aware of her husband's wandering affections, has a private and frank discussion with Rosetta and agrees to leave the two of them together and go to America alone.
(5g) The salon opening wraps up, and they all decide to celebrate at a restaurant.
(5h) At the restaurant Cesare holds court with his supposedly witty banter, but when he jokes about Nene’s invitation to America, this turns out to be news to her resentful husband, Lorenzo, who is jealous of his wife’s success. Lorenzo punches Cesare and then angrily leaves the restaurant, with Rosetta tearfully chasing after him.
(5i) Outside the restaurant Rosetta tries to console Lorenzo and swears by her love for him, but he selfishly rejects her and walks away. Rosetta then tearfully runs off in the opposite direction.
6. Clelia, Momina, and Carlo (16 minutes).
(6a) There is an overhead shot of the city docks, where Rosetta’s body has been recovered. Her second suicide attempt has been successful.
(6b) Clelia, back at another show at her salon, is angry and distraught. When she sees Momina, she blows up at her in front of all the salon’s clientele, accusing Momina of having irresponsibly encouraged Rosetta’s liaison with Lorenzo for her own vicarious pleasure. On account of her selfish social games, Clelia screams, Momina is nothing less than Rosetta’s murderer.
(6c) Back in her room, Clelia gets a call from Carlo and arranges to meet him.
(6d) Nene, now back with Lorenzo, forgives him for his infidelity and swears to stay with him.
(6e) Clelia, leaving the hotel and assuming that she has been fired because of her outburst, runs into her boss in the lobby. Her boss surprises Clelia by recommending that she continue working for the company, but that she should return to Rome.
(6f) Carlo and Clelia together. She tells him that “if you and I were together, I am certain that one of us would be unhappy”. Countering her pessimism, he says, “I can’t imagine being unhappy at your side.” She still intends to return to Rome, and they make a date to meet at the bar at the train station prior to her departure.
(6g) Clelia waits for Carlo at the bar. Carlo arrives as the train is about to leave, but hides and watches her train depart in secret.
Despite all the intricate and carefully executed character and camera movements in the film, the acting is superb throughout, with subtle and meaningful eye-glances conveying hidden feelings at many moments. It is this fluid, multi-player mise-en-scène that sets Le Amiche apart, not only from most other films, but also from Antonioni’s other films, too. In his subsequent films, superb as they are, Antonioni continued his fluid, context-influenced cinematographic explorations, but narrowed his focus to a smaller cast of principal characters.

The girlfriends in Le Amiche are largely in control, or willing to take control, of their circumstances. In fact they seem to have more mastery of what is going on around them than the three principal men, who all seem to be in reaction mode, rather than in control of their fates. The girls, on the other hand, do largely what they want, and they are mindful of what their goals are. Looking at the girls individually and how they look at life reveals clear differences, though.
  • Mariella is simply out for harmless self-gratification and wishes to exploit her good looks to get what she wants. She has little real empathy for any of the other people around her. If one lover disappears, she will simply find another.
  • Rosetta is at the other end of the spectrum, ready to sacrifice herself for her beloved. If her beloved abandons her, then life has no meaning.
  • Nene is devoted to her husband, but, unlike Mariella and Rosetta, can see situations from outside the concerns of her own short-term desires.
  • Momina is in some ways quite typical of many of us today. She wants to be in on all the social games that people play, and she wants to play a leading role. But her sympathies extend only as far as doing what it takes to keep players in the game.
  • Clelia is the most circumspect. Despite the assertive way that she operates in the workplace, her hesitancy in the social sphere leaves her uninvolved. She observes the social dynamics of the group of girlfriends, tries to help here and there, but is helpless to avert the emotional destruction that takes place, the blame for which she places on Momina.
Despite the virtues of the visual group-dynamics of the film, though, Le Amiche suffers from two significant narrative weaknesses:
  • Although the film opens and closes with Clelia and follows her emotional journey throughout, the most compelling sequences in the film are those that trace Rosetta’s struggles. Rosetta’s death, sixteen minutes before the close of the film, brings that narrative thread to a close, and those remaining scenes that mostly follow Clelia and Carlo seem almost irrelevant in comparison. In The Sweet Hereafter all the various elements and threads are oriented around the central tragedy of the school bus accident. In Le Amiche, Rosetta’s tragedy is there to provide a similar center of orientation, but when that focal point disappears towards the end of the film, the story seems cast adrift.
  • Related to that previous point is the problem of the hesitant relationship between Clelia and Carlo. The two characters, attractive though they are, never develop any “chemistry” between them, and there doesn’t seem to be any promise of real romantic passion. To each of them, perhaps, the other is more of an alluring symbol than a real person. This is reflected in the way Carlo lurks hidden behind luggage carts as Clelia’s train departs. It is true that he was put off by Clelia’s preferential concerns for her career and her all-too-practical recognition of their differing class backgrounds. But a passionate lover wouldn’t just sit back in silence. If he were a man of action, he would have made a stronger case and insist that she not go. (On the other hand, perhaps we have all let key opportunities slip away when we shouldn’t have.)
On the whole Le Amiche is well worth viewing, particularly for those who appreciate Antonioni’s work. It explores some of the complicated emotions and social relations that are in play among women in modern middleclass society.
★★★½

Michelangelo Antonioni

Films: Cronaca di un Amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950), I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952), La Signora Senza Camelie (The Lady Without Camellias, 1953), Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955), Il Grido (The Outcry, 1957), L'Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961), L'Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964), Blowup (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), Chung Kuo, Cina (1972), The Passenger (Professione: Reporter, 1975), Il Mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald, 1981), Identificazione di una Donna (Identification of a Woman, 1982), Beyond the Clouds (Par Dela Les Nuages, 1995).

Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), like his equally long-lived contemporary, Robert Bresson, altered the boundaries of cinematic expression by following his own unique path to explore and question basic issues concerning how we live and interact in the world. Even though his films were often emotionally unsatisfying, Antonioni was, in the estimation of many (including me), one of the cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

In his childhood Antonioni was talented in music and art, but when he went to college he studied economics at the University of Bologna and then began working as a journalist in Ferrara, concentrating on film criticism. He continued his film writing activities after moving to Rome in 1940, but the world war soon disrupted everything, and he entered service in the military. He nevertheless managed to get assignments during the war to work under both Roberto Rossellini (Un Pilota Ritorna, 1942) and Marcel Carné (Les Visiteurs du Soir, 1942). We might suspect in hindsight, in light of the stylistic affinities connecting Carné and Antonioni, that Carné’s influence at this time on Antonioni’s later development may have been rather significant. After the war and after engaging in the production of some successful Neorealistic-inspired documentaries, Antonioni finally managed to launch his feature film career in 1950 along entirely different aesthetic lines, with Cronaca di un Amore.

That unique cinematic aesthetic of Antonioni’s is what places his standing along side the greatest filmmakers, such as Von Sternberg, Hitchcock, Renoir, and Fellini. In some ways, Antonioni was the most profound of them all, because his aesthetic – his unique means of visual expression – was intrinsically connected with how he engaged some of the deepest aspects of human existence. At the same time this more philosophical bearing to his work gave Antonioni’s cinematic narratives a wider scope – one that was often outside the conventions of traditional storytelling. Indeed, his narratives invariably have something of an enigmatic nature:
  • They don’t have much action, and yet they are highly visual.
  • Many words are spoken, and yet the characters do not fully reveal what is on their minds.
  • The story rarely achieves closure in the everyday world of affairs, and yet there may be a sense of closure on some other plane of thought and feeling.
Antonioni combined this narrative open-endedness with his signature mise-en-scène, which not only expanded some of our notions of cinematic expression, but also seemed to play a fundamental role in the story.

We might compare Antonioni’s narratives with those of conventional films, which often have two parallel narrative lines presented:
(1) an external, action-oriented narrative and
(2) a relationship narrative, often concerning romantic love, involving the principal characters.
And it is usually the case that both of these narratives achieve resolution by the film’s end. Most films focus on (1), the external, action-oriented narrative, but we are all familiar with films, particularly from other Existentialist-oriented directors like von Sternberg, Mizoguchi, and Bergman, which have emphasized (2), the relationship narrative. Antonioni, too, tended to emphasize the relationship narrative, but his films usually featured a third major narrative plot line:
(3) an internally-focused evolution of the protagonist’s mind – his or her stance towards the world and towards the “Other”.
Interestingly, Antonioni managed to accomplish his kind of storytelling that focuses on the third type of narrative line without resorting to the use of internal monologues, a device that naturally fits in with textual expression and one which is often duplicated on the screen via voiceover monologues. There may be a number of aesthetic reasons why Antonioni avoided the use of voiceover monologues, but we might speculate that one of the reasons why he avoided such devices was because he wanted to probe feelings and attitudes that are beyond the capabilities of verbal expression. In this connection we often see lengthy conversations in his films in which the involved characters are unable to reveal their true feelings, and the critical personal issues occupying them are only obliquely addressed.

In telling his cinematic tales that encompass these external and internal issues, Antonioni seems to have been sensitive to the fact that the stories we tell to others, and even to ourselves, are quite different from the real, fragmented experiences that we have in an immediate sense. In order to convey the distinctiveness of consciousness as really experienced, as opposed to the way that it is retrospectively presented by narrative conventions, Antonioni emphasised the contexts of his characters, and the degree to which those are situated in their physical environments. It is said that when Antonioni would begin working on a film project, he would sometimes first choose a physical location and then build a story around it. The physical environment was the foundation for the moods, both individual and collective (when a group was involved), that the film was to depict. He employed long tracking shots that continually turned around in the scene, so that the architectural environment seemed almost to be a participant in what was being told. These shots also gave the viewer a subtle feeling of being dominated by that architecture, almost as if one were entrapped within the scene. Ultimately, Antonioni’s characters are trying to understand the world and at the same time understand themselves – what it is that they seek in life. But one’s self-understanding is heavily influenced by the social context in which one operates; and that social context, in turn, is often influenced by or reflected in the physical context in which one finds oneself.

Antonioni’s films also reflect the truth that self understanding is intimately tied to authentic engagement with others. And this is reflected in a recurring metaphor in his films: missed connections. Appointments are not met; people miss each other at train stations; and sometimes important characters just wander off and disappear. And then when two souls in need do finally meet, they often speak at cross purposes, and the opportunity is lost.

Examining Antonioni’s aesthetic further, it is interesting to observe that five of the greatest film directors, Josef von Sternberg, Kenji Mizoguchi, Carl Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, and Michelangelo Antonioni, all shared commonalities across two dimensions that must be linked in some indeterminate way:
  • lush, highly visual expressionistic styles
  • a narrative fascination with women
Each of these directors, in fact, was highly sympathetic towards women (four of them were often romantically attached to their leading actresses), and, of course, they each saw women not in an objective sense, but from their own particular male perspective. For each of them, though, women were not fully understood or understandable – they are an eternal mystery and a never-ending source of inspiration. In the cases of all five of these great directors, their films depicted women accorded to their constructed understandings, on top of which was superposed their own specific personae. Von Sternberg’s women were passionate, uncompromising romantics; Mizoguchi’s women were self-sacrificing and under-appreciated companions; Bergman’s women struggled with the conflict between their expected roles and their inner desires; and Dreyer’s women were guided by a mysterious heartfelt inner compass. For each of those four directors, women were certainly enigmatic and only partially knowable. But Antonioni’s women were maybe even more difficult to fathom, perhaps because they were both passionate and also highly self-reflective. And Antonioni attempted the daunting task of trying to see directly inside his women. It is this reflective, philosophical dimension of Antonioni’s women, coupled with a narrative focus on the romantic passions that engage us all, which makes Antonioni’s films memorable.

See also the essays:

“Vampyr” - Carl Dreyer (1932)

Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), an eerie, one-of-a-kind horror movie distinct from the rest of his work, is of interest here for two main reasons:
Dreyer spent his entire career as a journalist and filmmaker, but he only managed to secure funding to make 14 films, only six of which were made during the forty-year period after 1926. After that year the Danish-born Dreyer moved to France, where he thought the opportunities for filmmaking might be better, but despite the magnificence of his next production, The Passion of Joan of Arc, it was not a success at the box office. And though Dreyer had immediate plans to start the production of his next film, a planned horror story, it took him several years to secure the very limited backing for that next French-based production, Vampyr.

By this time sound films had arrived on the scene, and because Dreyer opposed the use of subtitles, he arranged to have Vampyr filmed in three separate languages: English, French, and German. To accomplish this and to satisfy his requirements for linguistic authenticity, he had all the dialogue scenes filmed in three separate versions, one for each language, even though the resulting sound tracks for the dialogue were not captured synchronously, but were later dubbed in each language. Then all these separate dialogue scenes had to be spliced back into the main body of the film, so that they were all in synchronism with the rest of the sound track. After the production was complete and some sections of the film were censored by the German authorities, Dreyer then had to go back and carefully edit all three versions of the film, so that they all remained in synch. This is just one example of the idiosyncratic manner in which Dreyer constructed his productions. But before further consideration of Dreyer’s filmmaking style, it is best first to look at the Vampyr narrative.

Dreyer undoubtedly knew about the iniquitous nature of the intellectual property laws that enabled the widow of Dracula author, Bram Stoker, to bankrupt Murnau’s production company, even though his Nosferatu story was drastically different from the Stoker novel. So Dreyer, who always worked from an existing text, had to find another story to reference and on which to base his production. This ultimately turned out to be J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella “Carmilla” [1] in his collection, In a Glass Darkly. But Dreyer only used the story as a starting point, and he made his own considerable alterations in the ensuing screenplay [2]. More revealing than the original story, though, is the overall narrative theme that Dreyer eventually gave to his film. In this connection it is worth referring to remarks in my review of Murnau’s Nosferatu concerning the thematic contrast between Dracula and Nosferatu.
In the original Dracula, and also in Tod Browning’s authorised remake, Dracula (1931), the story describes a pitched battle between two almost equally matched characters: a representative of darkness, Count Dracula, and a representative of modern science, Doctor Van Helsing. In the end of that original story, Van Helsing succeeds in killing Dracula by stabbing him in the heart. So it’s something like a slam-bang adventure story, only one involving a vampire. Nosferatu, on the other hand, is more cosmic, more haunting and is much closer to the disturbing specters that inhabit our nightmares. Unlike Count Dracula, who is a suave, smooth charmer of women, Count Orlok [the corresponding character in Nosferatu] is a deformed, repulsive rat-like character, signifying pestilence. In addition, the Van Helsing character (Doctor Bulwer) is now diminished to insignificance in Nosferatu, and he is no match for Count Orlok. Orlok is not simply a resourceful adversary, but more an abstraction of horror, an unstoppable force of evil.
In Dreyer’s original screenplay, he seemed to have planned for the vampire to be more like the depiction in Dracula – a graphic and violent monster that must be overcome. But in the finished film, changes were made to make vampire adversary more abstract and distant and thus more like the Murnau and Herzog characterization of an evil force of darkness.

The story itself is at once simple and also enigmatic. It barely has an identifiable structure, meandering as it does from one improbable scene after another, but we could subdivide it into a few basic sections.
  1. It begins with Allan Gray (spelled "Grey" in the French and English versions), a young man given to fantasies about ghosts and spectres, coming to stay at an inn in the village of Courtempierre. At night the locked door to his room is unaccountably unlocked by an old man who solemnly proclaims that “she must not die” and then leaves a bound pack on the table with the note, “to be opened upon my death”. Gray goes outside and finds a chateau, where he sees a number of phantasmagoric sights: shadows dancing to mysterious music, and a suspicious-looking man who later turns out to be the village doctor.
  2. Gray then wanders outside to a manor, where he sees the old man who had visited his room earlier being killed by a gunshot. He rushes inside to help and meets the old man’s two daughters, Giséle and Léone, the latter of whom is seriously ill, and the elderly servant couple of the manor, who urge him to stay with them. Shortly thereafter, though, Giséle and Gray see Léone walking outside in the yard, and when they run out to her side, they find Léone unconscious on the ground with fresh bite wounds in her neck. When she regains consciousness in bed, she gives a momentary predatory glance at her sister, as if she is somehow possessed. Gray then opens up the package that the old man had given him and discovers that it is a book about vampires, which he begins reading. He learns that the vampires feast on human blood and can force people they bite to become their enslaved minions.
  3. The village doctor seen earlier comes to treat Léone and says that Gray must donate some of his own blood to treat her blood loss. After the blood transfusion, Gray becomes weak and falls asleep, during which time the doctor, cooperating with a mysterious old blind woman seen earlier at the chateau, seems about to poison Léone. But Gray regains consciousness just in time to rescue Léone, while the doctor flees the scene. Gray chases outside, but after a fall, he appears to fall into a dream and has an out-body-experience, during which he witnesses a scene in which he, himself, is buried in a coffin by the doctor and the hideous old blind woman. He finally wakens from his dream and rushes to rescue Giséle, who had been tied up by the doctor as the next victim. But the doctor again gets away.
  4. The elderly servant of the manor now runs across Gray’s vampire book and begins reading more of it. He discovers that a vampire can only be killed by an iron stake driven through its heart, and he also learns that the vampire in their region must be a woman buried in the local Courtempierre cemetery by the name of Marguerite Chopin. Gray and the servant go to the cemetery and open up her grave (where she appears to be well preserved) and drive a stake through her heart, after which she immediately transforms into a skeleton before their eyes. Then there is cross-cutting between the doctor, who is hiding out in the village mill, and Gray, who gets into a rowboat with Giséle to make a river crossing in the fog. The doctor in the mill becomes accidentally trapped in a flour bin, and the old servant puts the mill machinery into operation, burying alive the doctor with flour. Meanwhile Gray and Giséle manage to find the other side of the river and walk out into the sunlight and salvation.
The vampire in Dreyer’s film, then, turns out to be a mysterious old blind woman who is rarely seen and does practically nothing, even when she is on screen. So the focus is not really on an evil antagonist and how to thwart a clearly recognized threat, but rather a depiction of a dystopic environment contaminated by something evil. Everything is somehow askew, as in a nightmare. Few people actually find Vampyr to be truly scary, but it is the nightmarish quality and sense of dread that puts Vampyr squarely on the side of the Nosferatu films, as opposed to Dracula.

Some aspects contributing to the mystery (or perhaps to the viewer’s annoyance) are associated with some unexplained and unmotivated events in the film’s story. In several cases these problems are caused by all the changes and compromises that Dreyer had to make in order to accommodate the constraints of his limited budget and shooting circumstances. This led to missing scenes and inconsistencies that may make the film more mysterious but are not in fact the result of artistic intention; they are simply shortcomings. For example, early in the film when Gray meets the doctor at the chateau there is a mysterious exchange between the two of them about dogs and a child, which have not been seen in the film. To the viewer this is utter mystery, but in fact there was an important scene in Dreyer’s original script about a young boy chased by dogs controlled by the old blind woman, that for some reason he cut from the film. It is this scene to which the curious conversation refers. To get a feeling for some of these changed elements, I refer you to Peter Swaab’s excellent discussion concerning differences between the original script and the final film [3]. But even setting aside those shortcomings, there are still a number of unexplained and unmotivated events in the film that were apparently intended by Dreyer and are part of the eerie atmosphere of Vampyr, of few of which we can enumerate:
  • In the early scene in which the old man (the master of the manor) enters Gray’s room, he somehow manages to open the door (with its key securely in the lock) from the outside. How? Then an unearthly light appears in the room before he enters. What do these events signify? And why is he later shot and killed?
  • What lies behind the dancing shadows seen by Gray in the chateau? Is this just a dream?
  • In the original script Léone dies at the end, but in the film she appears to recover from her illness after the vampire is destroyed. Her last appearance on the screen seems to show her eyes half-open and still breathing. So her fate is not clearly spelled out.
So overall, there are many things that are unexplained, even taking into consideration all the alterations forced upon Dreyer, and this brings us back to Dreyer’s enigmatic style. In my view that style is certainly expressionistic. Paul Schrader refers to Dreyer’s style as transcendental [4]. Acquarello insists that Dreyer’s style is humanistic [5]. And Peter Swaab claims that Dreyer was heavily influenced by the Surrealists that he met in France [3]. Maybe they are all right, in a way, but you can see that multiple interpretations may apply.

For an early sound film, the viewer may be somewhat surprised to see the considerable amount of prowling camera movement in Vampyr, both in terms of panning and tracking. But this can be attributed not only to the inventiveness of Dreyer (and that of his his cameraman, Rudolph Maté, who had worked on The Passion of Joan of Arc and who would later direct the noir classic D.O.A.), but also to the fact that the film was shot "MOS" (without sound synchronization), which gave Dreyer the latitude to carry out those camera movements. Another curious aspect of Dreyer's mise-en-scène is his penchant for setting interior scenes that are spare, often with starkly white walls, and yet contain a few very specific and oddly arranged artifacts. The architectural minimalism serves to accentuate the specificity of the characters. The visual composition is coupled with a relatively heavy emphasis on closeups (particularly, the wide-eyed reaction shots of Gray), many of which are unmotivated and reference no established point of view, which are consequently disorienting to the viewer. The visual emphasis on Gray’s reactions continually puts the viewer in his position of trying to construct something coherent out of material that is intrinsically incapable of total coherence – much in the way that we, ourselves, may try to make sense out of our own nightmares in the morning.

Another element of interest is the acting. The only professional performer was Sybille Schmitz, in the role of Léone, whose own private life turned unfortunately macabre: she later had drug problems, went mad, and finally committed suicide. Nicolas de Gunzburg, using the stage name, Julian West, played Allan Gray and was also the producer of the film. His relatively sensitive and effete demeanor represents something of a male ingenue, and this colors the mood of the film throughout. Dreyer, like Mizoguchi, always had a fascination and sensitivity for the feminine role in human interactions, and there has been considerable commentary concerning Dreyer’s own past and how this may have affected his own psychological makeup (again, see Swaab [3] for more). Like Kenji Mizoguchi, the feminine role is not an abstraction for Dreyer, but is always a very physical presence in his films. Yet it is far distanced from the typical male fantasy of a feminine abstraction. Falconetti’s androgynous presence in the title role of The Passion of Joan of Arc is physical and unshakeable, but its strength is different from the masculine way in which strength is often characterized. It asserts a purity and sincerity that reflects an inner fortitude. Indeed, Mizoguchi’s focus on and representation of women has often been compared with von Sternberg’s, but perhaps Dreyer and Mizoguchi are more closely aligned in this respect. Von Sternberg’s women are idealized and viewed from the man’s perspective. But throughout Dreyer’s career, his women, like Mizoguchi’s, are grounded in the physical world, and yet have some strangely “spiritual” dimension, too.

In the last analysis we can not say that Vampyr is one of Dreyer’s great films. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, it, too, was a financial failure, and Dreyer was to lapse into a decade of obscurity, which included a mental breakdown in 1934. Today, Vampyr seems like a piece of broken pottery that can never be fixed. The history of lost and damaged prints make reconstruction of the original intentions difficult (although heroic efforts have been made), but in fact the film may have been broken from the very beginning. What remains today, however, is still of interest for those fascinated with Dreyer’s unique manner of cinematic expression.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Sheridan Le Fanu, “Carmilla”, in Writing Vampyr, (2008) The Criterion Collection, New York.
  2. Carl Theodor Dreyer and Christen Jul, “The Screenplay” in Writing Vampyr, (2008) The Criterion Collection, New York.
  3. Peter Swaab, “'Un Film Vampirisé': Dreyer ’s Vampyr”, Film Quarterly, 62:4, (2009), http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/pdf/10.1525/fq.2009.62.4.56.
  4. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style In Film (1972), Da Capo Press, New York.
  5. Acquarello, “Carl Theodor Dreyer”, Senses of Cinema (2002), http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/dreyer.html.

Zhang Yimou

Films of Zhang Yimou:

“Hero” - Zhang Yimou (2002)


The wind blows.
The river is cold.
The hero sets forth.
He may never return.

So, famously wrote the legendary Chinese hero Jīng Kē some 2200 years ago, prior to setting out on his mission to assassinate the ruthless King Ying Zheng of Qin (later the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang). Throughout Chinese cultural history Jing Ke has been an inspirational symbol of individual heroism, just as King Zheng has been the iconic representative of Chinese totalitarian collectivism. Ever since then, their confrontation has offered an ideal artistic metaphor for China’s writers and artists to examine the nature of Chinese social organization. Zhang Yimou, the preeminent filmmaker of China, was one of the more recent artists to seize this opportunity when he made Hero (Yīng Xióng, 2002). Though his film was an immediate commercial and critical success as an action/adventure wuxia thriller, what is of interest here is Zhang’s rather problematic perspective on the issues raised by Jing Ke’s story.

Zhang Yimou began his film career by entering the cinematography section of the Beijing Film Institute when it was reopened in 1978 after the depredations of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976). He was graduated in 1982, along with fellow classmate Chen Kaige, who was in the director section, and Zhang then worked as the cinematographer on two of Chen’s first films, Yellow Earth (Huang Tu Di, 1984) and The Big Parade (Da Yue Bing, 1986), before launching his own directorial career that let to a string of artistic successes in the 1990s. All of Zhang’s film productions during this period evinced an exquisite existentialist vision of the struggle to find fulfilment in a changing world, and the effect was invariably accentuated by Zhang’s technical virtuosity of visual expression. A common theme to these films was the notion of an individual protagonist, usually a woman, struggling to make her way in turbulent social circumstances. Within this broad scheme there were basically two stylistic categories:
  1. Carefully staged and orchestrated historical dramas situated in richly colored, atmospheric environments. These explicitly expressionistic films feature professional casts, and they include Jú Dòu (1990), Raise the Red Lantern, (Dà Hóng Dēnglóng Gāo Gāo Guà, 1991), To Live (Huózhe, 1994), and Shanghai Triad (Yáo A Yáo, Yáo Dào Wàipó Qiáo, 1995).
  2. More open, naturalistic dramas mostly set in the present day, often featuring a largely nonprofessional cast. These include The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiū Jú Da Guān Sī, 1992), The Road Home (Wŏ De Fù Qīn Mŭ Qīn, 1999), Not One Less (Yí Ge Dōu Bù Néng Shāo, 1999), and Happy Times (Xìngfú Shíguāng, 2000).
With Hero, however, Zhang departed from his previous style by fashioning a grandiose martial arts film in the Hong Kong wuxia filmmaking tradition, featuring an unprecedented budget ($31 million) and a string of Asian films stars including Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Donnie Yen, and Zhang Ziyi. To some extent this radical move in style could be seen as a natural step for Zhang, who having already demonstrated a mastery of film technique encompassing drama, comedy, and film noir genres, could now be seen as demonstrating his mastery of yet another genre. And the new style could also be seen in the context of and response to his contemporary Asian film director, the Taiwanese Ang Lee, who had made a similar move from artistic dramas to Hong Kong martial-arts films with his 2000 epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wòhŭ Cánglóng). After all, Lee’s step up to big-budget wuxia adventure (although only half of Hero's budget) had been an enormous worldwide commercial success that established a wider recognition of his work.

But there seems to have been something more to this change of direction than simply seizing the opportunity to make big-budget epics. Zhang Yimou’s Hero displays a striking, even disturbing, shift in his thematic perspective. And I would speculate that this shift on the part of Zhang may have been influenced less by general interests in expanding his repertoire and more by the felt need to respond to the work of his former partner (and perhaps now rival), Chen Kaige. It must be noted that Chen had quickly started working with Gong Li, Zhang’s former romantic partner and leading lady, as soon as they had split up in 1995. She had been Chen’s female lead in Temptress Moon (Fēng Yuè, 1995) and in The Emperor and the Assassin (Jīng Kē Cì Qín Wáng, 1999). We should also note that The Emperor and the Assassin was based on the very same theme of Jīng Kē’s historic assassination attempt that appears (in somewhat altered form) in Hero. Before discussing these general issues, though, it is appropriate to take a closer look at Zhang’s Hero. First, I will review Zhang Yimou’s basic story as presented, and then look at the film along the four dimensions of (1) cinematography and mise-en-scène, (2) narrative structure, (3) wuxia action, and (4) thematic content. In my opinion, Hero, despite its enormous financial success ($180 million in gross revenues) and the critical accolades that it has received, suffers from fundamental failures along three of these dimensions.

Before considering the Hero narrative, it is worth referencing the original quasi-mythic story of Jing Ke (which is fairly closely adhered to in Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin). In that original story Jing Ke managed to persuade an out-of-favor Qin army general whose head was up for ransom to commit suicide so that Jing could get permission to closely approach the Qin king with his severed head. Jing Ke then did indeed get his fateful audience with the brutal king, but when he thrust his dagger at the king, he missed, and after a violent struggle, he was killed.

In Hero, the story is elaborated with a number of additional characters on the assassin’s side:
  • Nameless (played by Jet Li) is the Jing Ke character from the Zhao kingdom, but he is only known as “Nameless”, and the name "Jing Ke" is never referenced.
  • Broken Sword (played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is an accomplished swordsman and student of calligraphy who has previously attacked the Qin king and is a wanted man. He is the lover of Flying Snow.
  • Flying Snow (played by Maggie Cheung) is the daughter of a killed Zhao general, and she has sworn to avenge her father’s death and kill the king of Qin. She is also an accomplished swordsperson and is the lover of Broken Sword.
  • Sky (played by Donnie Yen) is famous in both the use of swords and spears and has previously tried to kill the King of Qin.
  • Moon (played by Zhang Ziyi) is Broken Sword’s loyal (and beautiful) attendant and apprentice.
The film narrative of Hero, which comprises five major “acts” or sections, encompasses four principal stories that are dramatically depicted as told (with corresponding color-codings) by Nameless, King Ying Zheng, and Broken Sword.
  1. Nameless Comes to Qin (16 minutes). Nameless comes to the Qin palace with great fanfare, since he bears proof that he just killed King Zheng’s three most feared enemies: Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow. Normally everyone must remain at least 100 paces distant from the king, but when the proof of Sky’s death is presented, Nameless is allowed to approach within 20 paces. He then begins telling his tale, which we could call Story #1. Nameless relates that Sky had spent an amorous night with Flyling Snow, which had caused a jealous rift between Broken Sword and Flying Snow. He says that he set about the task of killing Sky as a prelude to approaching the two sulking lovers. After a confrontation with Sky at a gaming parlor, they engage in an elaborate sword fight (call this “Flying Wuxia Sword Fight #1" – FWSF1), which results in Sky’s death. Upon hearing this, King Zheng allows Nameless to approach within 10 paces.
  2. Story of Broken Sword and Flying Snow (25 minutes). Nameless now relates in Story #2 how he killed the other two. Since Broken Sword is a student of calligraphy (and believes that the art of swordsmanship is intrinsically linked to calligraphy), Nameless approaches Broken Sword at the calligraphy academy and requests instruction concerning a new secret way of writing the character for ‘sword’, for which there are already 19 conventional ways of writing it in various parts of China. Upon hearing this tale of such a multiplicity of ways of writing a single character, the king interrupts Nameless’s story and proclaims that he will someday establish a single written language for China in order to end this confusion. Thematically this is important, because it is one of the so-called contributions of the first emperor: he did indeed establish such a unified written language and thereby helped unify the land. Then Nameless continues his story. First an elaborate battle in defense of the calligraphy school from an attack by Qin army soldiers (FWSF2) is depicted, after which Nameless informs Broken Sword and Flying Snow of Sky’s death and of Sky’s wish for his lover and soulmate, Flying Snow, to avenge his death by engaging in a duel with Nameless. Jealous from hearing the news of Sky’s passion for his beloved Flying Snow, Broken Sword then rips the clothes off his maiden, Moon, and makes passionate love to her in front of Flying Snow. Although this love scene is brief, it is artistically suggestive and filled with passionate moans of lovemaking. Flying Snow then kills Broken Sword out of jealousy and is then physically, but unsuccessfully, attacked by Moon, in a swirling display of female swordplay (FWSF3). In the duel the next day, the still-grieving Flying Snow is no match for Nameless and she is quickly killed. So the outcomes of Nameless’s stories #1 and #2 are that Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow are all dead.
  3. King Zheng’s Version of the Events (16 minutes). King Zheng doesn’t buy for a minute Nameless’s two stories of what happened. He surmises that Nameless must have practiced and perfected some sort of invincible swordsmanship move so that he could kill the king from a distance of 10 paces, and that he needed to kill either Broken Sword or Flying Snow in order to provide him with permission to approach that closely to the king. Then the king’s version of what he thinks really happened is visualized (Story #3). Flying Snow first wounds Broken Sword so that she, alone, will be the one to sacrifice herself (so that with such evidence Nameless will be able to approach the king). Then Nameless and Flying Snow engage in some swordplay that is witnessed by Qin army troops (FWSF4), which ends in Snow’s death. Then Nameless and Broken Sword engage in another flight (FWSF5) that involves flying picturesquely over a lake. The king’s story comes to an end, and he concedes that with all other armed personnel kept more than 100 paces away from him, Nameless is now too close to be thwarted by the king's guards and is in perfect position to carry out his assassination. So the outcome of this story #3 is that Sky and Flying Snow are dead.
  4. Nameless Gives Another Account (19 minutes). Nameless concedes that the king’s version of events is partially correct and that he has perfected a move that can kill the king at a distance of 10 paces. But now that he is position to kill the king, he hesitates, and the king asks why. Nameless now says he will explain what really happened, and so he launches into Story #4. First Nameless points out that earlier he had, after long practice, acquired the skill of being able to stab someone with his sword with such accuracy that it would miss all the vital organs and not kill his victim. Thus when he had bested Sky, he had injured him, but had not killed him. Subsequently, when Nameless approached Broken Sword and Flying Snow with his plan to kill the king, Broken Sword did agree that Nameless’s plan could work, but, paradoxically, he insisted that the king of Qin must not be killed. After some more random, showy violence involving Flying Snow, Broken Sword, Nameless, and Moon, Broken Sword is moved to explain why the king must not be killed. He relates (in what we could call Story #5, within Story #4) how, three years earlier, he and Flying Snow had attacked the king’s palace (FWSF6) and had been in the position of finishing off the king. But just then Broken Sword had an insight, based on his training in calligraphy, and realized that the king must not be killed. When Nameless asks for an explanation, Broken Sword writes the characters in the sand, “Tiān Xià”, which is usually understood to mean “all under heaven”, but which is translated in the subtitles as “Our Land”. The outcome of Story #4 is that Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow are all still alive (thanks to Nameless’s uncannily accurate swordsmanship).
  5. The Denouement (17 minutes). Nameless now asserts that he finally agrees with Broken Sword that the king must not be killed, and he says to the king, “only your majesty has the power to bring peace by uniting our land.” At the same time the king, who has turned his back on Nameless in a stoic posture of awaiting his execution, contemplates Broken Sword’s calligraphy and surmises that it symbolically signifies that the “sword” should be united with the “heart” and turned to good. The warrior should embrace all around him and ultimately lose his desire to kill. Meanwhile the scene shifts to the distance, where Flying Snow is signaled by a messenger that the assassination attempt has been unsuccessful. Accusing Broken Sword of having seduced Nameless onto the wrong path, Flying Snow challenges him to a duel, in the event of which (FWSF7) Broken Sword drops his sword and allows Flying Snow to kill him. Grief stricken, Flying Snow then kills herself in order to be with Broken Sword in the “after life”. Then, back at the palace, the guards exhort the king to kill Nameless: “if our land is to be united, then this person must be made an example of” (i.e. executed). The king, in his weakness, accepts this verdict and orders the execution, which ends Nameless’s life. The outcome here, finally, is that Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Nameless are all dead.
Now let us examine the four dimensions of (1) cinematography and mise-en-scène, (2) narrative structure, (3) wuxia action, and (4) thematic content.

1. Cinematography and Mise-en-scène
The cinematography in Hero, credited to Christopher Doyle, although certainly Zhang Yimou had a serious hand in this area, is spectacular throughout. The Australian Doyle achieved fame as Wong Kar Wai’s customary cinematographer, and Wong’s open-ended narrative style has given Doyle the latitude to explore and display his enormous talents in cinematic expressiveness. In some ways, in fact, Doyle could be considered to be a co-creator of Wong’s fascinating and moody filmic creations. Doyle was also the cinematographer of some other noteworthy films, including Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon and Lau’s and Man’s Infernal Affairs (2002). Putting Doyle together with Zhang Yimou on a film is a dream combination.

There are many spectacularly composed presentations: the atmospheric shots of lone warriors riding across desolate landscapes, the shots of the famous Guilin area, the magnificently composed shots of imperial armies waving colored flags and marching in ominous processions. The stories of Nameless, King Zheng, and Broken Sword are presented with individual color motifs that convey a dreamlike feeling to the tales. Nameless’s first stories are told with yellow and red motifs, while King Zheng’s version of the events have a blue motif. Broken Sword’s final story has a green motif, and Nameless’s final encounter with King Zheng is essentially in white and black.

In short, the cinematography and mise-en-scène in the film are the most successful aspects and are probably primarily responsible for the popularity of the film. But given the deficiencies of the story, these pleasures are ephemeral. The dynamic nature of the cinematography means that it does offer more than just picture postcards, but narrative and thematic substance are the real core values of any truly successful film. The dynamic visual expression on display in Hero is diverting, but that is not enough.

2. Narrative Structure
As a narrative, there a number of things fundamentally wrong with Hero. The various stories presented do not fit together into a coherent whole. This problem is aggravated by the various interruptions that take place so that the numerous sword fights can be conducted. In particular, the sword fight between Nameless and Broken Sword that takes place over the lake after Flying Snow’s death is part of the king’s imaginings of what happened, and this is narratively implausible. Even granting poetic license characteristic of this genre, there is no justification for the king to fantasize about this confronation.

In addition, the roles of key players are inconsistent across the various stories, and they do not present believable characters.
  • In the end, Broken Sword agrees to fight Flying Snow in a duel, but then lays down his sword at the last minute to prove his pacifism and thereby ensure his own death. Why be so suicidal?
  • The king, who claims to be such a strong leader, weakly assents to his guards’ demands to have Nameless executed. Is this the kind of strength of character that can unite a nation?
  • The only roles that show even the slightest degree of character depth are those of Nameless and Broken Sword. The others, particularly the women, seem to be artificial insertions only for the purpose of presenting women wielding swords (which seems to be especially popular with wuxia audiences these days). The Moon character is particularly gratuitous, and the Sky character, who is initially presented as a major operative, soon disappears and is not seen again.
  • The acting performances seem indifferent. Only Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi show much commitment and passion. Maggie Cheung, whom I have appreciated in other roles, is not put to good effect here. And Jet Li, in the key role of Nameless, is not at all compelling, nor does he generate sympathy to whatever is his cause.
With respect to the overall narrative structure, we should remark that despite the trickiness of the Rashomon-like conflicting versions of what happened, the narrative structure of the story is ultimately awkward and inconsistent. The key motivations behind the passions underlying each element are not provided. As a consequence, the movement from one story to the next seems relatively arbitrary.

3. Wuxia Action
As I have remarked elsewhere in connection with John Woo’s Red Cliff, the Hong Kong martial arts chop fooey (also known as “wire fu”) style is inspired by computer gaming environments and greatly diminishes the sense of reality and immediacy to a film. With various characters able to fly about by merely pointing their fingers, we are talking about another reality, in which the meaningful interactions with which we are familiar are probably meaningless. These wuxia action interruptions, the "FWSFs" described above, are ultimately ludicrous to behold, although one must acknowledge that a considerable degree of effort must have gone into realizing these effects for the screen. My criticism in this respect applies, by the way, equally much to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. In that film there were actually some potentially interesting character relationships, but they were undermined by the excessive degree of wire-fu histrionics. These “magical” effects apparently please the adolescent audiences who spend so much time in vicarious experiences of electronic media that they have only a blurred ability to engage in real authentic interactions.

4. Thematic Content
My biggest concern and disappointment with Hero, however, is concerned with the thematic content. The message that Zhang Yimou delivers in this film is that totalitarian statism is necessary to ensure peace and “unity”. This kind of propaganda may square well with ego-driven Chinese chauvinists concerned about national pride, but it is more a reflection of insecurity than of confidence. The stridency of such a position does not fit with Zhang Yimou’s earlier films, which evoked compassionate sympathies for the everyday feelings, yearnings, and loves of ordinary people.

Ruthless totalitarian dictatorships invariably attempt to justify themselves by claiming that they are the only bulwark against an even worse condition: chaos and anarchy. It is true that given such exclusive either-or alternatives, one may accept the preferability of one unsavory option to the other – thus Saddam Hussein’s depredations in Iraq may well have been preferable to the brutal violence that has since ensued. But such evaluations render neither Hussein’s government nor that of Qin Shi Huang (Ying Zheng) as ultimately desirable, and the either-or proposition should not be accepted as the only possibility.

The controversial reign of Qin Shi Huang is always viewed in the context of the Chinese Warring States Period (476 BCE - 221 BCE), during which the original Zhou dynasty had broken up into separate states, which by the end of that period had coalesced into seven mutually contesting regional states. During that period many contemporary commentators bemoaned the disunity of China and were severely pessimistic about the future. They felt that China had fallen onto evil times. Even before this time, and ever since, Chinese writers have longed for national unity that could bring harmony “under heaven”. Thus apologists for Qin Shi Huang, such as Zhang Yimou in Hero, will argue that compromising with the demands of such a leader was (and apparently always is) necessary for the “national interests”.

But this is only one side of the story. In fact, the Warring States Period was one of the most fertile and productive eras in Chinese history [1]. There were major, in fact world-leading, scientific and technical innovations made. Intellectual ferment was at its highest and led to the emergence of the “100 Hundred Schools of Thought”, that included Daoism, Confucianism, and Legalism. The economy flourished, and as a consequence, the population greatly expanded during this period. Although there were inter-state wars, these were, until the latter stages of the era, mostly undertaken by professional armies and were not so devastating to the general population as later wars were. When Qin Shi Huang closed the period and established his police state, he put an end to all this creative development.

Examining at a 2200-year distance the balance sheet of the reign of Qin Shi Huang reveals some stark results. On the presumed positive side, his reign led to
  • the standardization of written text
  • the standardization of money
  • a national road system
  • improved waterways
  • the Great Wall (at a reported cost of one million laborers)
But on the negative side there were several devastating occurrences:
  • Massive Human Slaughters. There were enormous sacrifices of human life in order to carry out the public works projects, including military campaigns. In 260 BCE when the Qin army defeated the Zhao state, it slaughtered the whole surrendered Zhao army of 400,000 men, in one of the greatest acts of brutality in history. 

  • Book Burning [2]:
    "Standardization of thought was an important goal in Legalist doctrine and in Qin policies. Philosophical thinking was considered detrimental to the efficient working and fighting that the state required of its subjects, and thinking could lead to treasonable questioning of state policies. The Qin state therefore prohibited philosophical disputation of the sort that had flourished in the Warring States era . . . In 213 BCE all writing other than official Qin historical chronologies and utilitarian treatises on divination, the practice of agriculture and medicine, and the like were collected for burning. . . . Because intellectuals found it hard to change their ways, the emperor in 212 B.C. reportedly executed 460 scholars and had them buried in a common grave as a warning against further defiance of his orders."
  • Public Surveillance. The Qin emperor initiated the notorious institution (which still survives in China) of dividing up the whole country into a set of small mutual-surveillance units to maintain micromanaged control and intimidation. Even today, citizens are not allowed to gather without official sanction. The Olympic Ceremonies and the 60th Anniversary Celebrations of the Communist government (both orchestrated officially by Zhang Yimou) could not be attended by the public, but could only be watched on television [3].
In fact the greatest periods of Chinese fecundity and prosperity occurred when government was relatively weak and consensus-based – during the Warring States Era and during the Song Dynasty. Both of these eras were ultimately shut down by authoritarian regimes (Qin Shi Huang in the first instance and the Mongolian takeover in the second instance) that turned the country into a police state for more efficient plunder of the citizenry. The fact that the Chinese people ultimately recovered from these disasters is to their everlasting credit, but the grim consequences of totalitarian control should not be masqueraded as virtues today. The emergence of China in the last thirty years has not been due to the manipulations of an overly controlling government, but instead due to a partial relaxation of the control mentality that has had the effect of unleashing the creative brilliance of the people.

This brings us back to how we may interpret Zhang Yimou’s perspective on these issues. It is disappointing that almost all of my own Chinese friends and associates regard Hero as Zhang’s best film, and specifically because of its political message of sacrifice to the national cause above all other considerations of human compassion and fulfilment. They don’t like to see films that may show China in a "weak" light and thereby reduce its prestige. For them the semantic understanding of the prhase “Tiān Xià” seems to carry more of the national chauvinistic intent of “Our Land” (with an emphasis on "our", as opposed to "your") than the traditional Chinese understanding of simply “everything under heaven”. This concern for national pride on Zhang’s part may also be reflected in what happened in 1999 when he withdrew his submitted films to the Cannes Film Festival, The Road Home and Not One Less, because he reportedly felt that his films were invariably being judged on political grounds that suggested criticism of China [4,5].

Or maybe not – maybe the strident undertone of Zhang Yimou's Hero was only temporary, a hiccup. When he later produced the opera, “The First Emperor”, in 2006, which was also about Qin Shi Huang, the theme of the opera was highly critical with respect to its subject. And his Curse of the Golden Flower (Man Cheng Jin Dai Huang Jin Jia, 2006) was another artistic turn altogether at the grandiose historical epic – on that occasion Zhang Yimou gave us something that was darker and much deeper than his two preceding epics.
★★

Notes:
  1. Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization, Cambridge University Press (1996).
  2. Charles O. Hucker, China’s Imperial Past, Stanford University Press (1975), p. 43.
  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/30/china-60th-anniversary-communist-party
  4. http://www.freemedialibrary.com/index.php/Zhang_Yimou_withdraws_from_Cannes
  5. http://www.beijingscene.com/V05I007/inshort/inshort.htm