Combat flicks usually aren’t designed to showcase their female leads, but then Zhang Yimou and Jean-Pierre Jeunet aren’t your everyday war-film directors. Both are known for their immaculate art direction, hyperstylized movements, and intense affinity for a particular actress. For Zhang, it’s martial-arts knockout Zhang Ziyi, whose presence has inspired more buoyant fare than the feminist tragedies the director made with his former muse, Gong Li. Jeunet, meanwhile, is just as strongly identified with supergamin Audrey Tautou, who supplied much of the fizz in Amélie, their first film together.
In their new movies, Zhang again reaches for the light, while Jeunet strives for something darker. Whereas House of Flying Daggers is a period action epic that’s conceptually bloodless—even during its artery-severing finale—A Very Long Engagement slogs into World War I’s gore-strewn trenches to determine if Tautou’s charisma can transcend the horror.
In look and feel, House of Flying Daggers is a companion piece to Zhang’s 2002 Hero, which didn’t open locally until this past August. With only three main characters, the newer film is both simpler and less methodically color-coordinated than its predecessor. Set piece for set piece, however, the two movies are equally matched. If House lacks the emotional power of Zhang’s best films, it hardly gives the viewer time to notice. Indeed, its most dazzling scenes are master classes in how to substitute surface appeal for substance.
The titular house is not a place but an organization, a group of assassins dedicated to overthrowing the dynasty that governs some picturesque Chinese past. Two policemen, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), are in pursuit of the revolutionaries, an assignment that first leads them to the Peony Pavilion, a sumptuous brothel whose newly arrived star attraction may be a member of the Daggers. Because Mei (Zhang Ziyi) is blind, such suspicions initially seem absurd. But then Mei is asked to play the “echo game,” and she reveals perceptional skills that would awe Daredevil. Encircled by drums, Mei successfully repeats the sounds made by beans thrown at the instruments, hitting them with her flowing robes and scarf. Eventually, the game erupts into a sword fight, a swirl of slow-motion choreography and chiming sounds. Anyone who has to leave at the end of this virtuoso sequence will have gotten his money’s worth.
Mei is captured, but she escapes with the help of Jin. Ostensibly, this is so she’ll lead the police to her cohorts, although there are indications that both Jin and Leo are helping Mei for other reasons, perhaps because they’re entranced by her beauty, but maybe because of a political agenda. (The levels of shifting subterfuge among the three characters recalls Infernal Affairs, a recent Asian hit that Miramax has placed on the same shelf where it kept Hero for so long.) Mei and Jin’s flight is punctuated by a series of outdoor battles, each with a meticulously appointed “natural” setting: a birch stand garnished with autumn leaves, a misty bamboo forest that seems the very essence of green, a field that’s transformed in moments by a sudden snowstorm, creating an immaculate whiteness to highlight vivid blood. The scene, like Mei herself, has perfect alabaster skin.
For all its crowd-pleasing grandeur, however, House of Flying Daggers never loses the quality of personal reverie; it adores its two-dimensional heroine as much as Zhang’s earlier films cherished Gong Li’s more complex characters. Yet the movie also proffers the once-isolated Chinese cinema as a filmmaking machine that can compete with Hollywood in terms of action, glamour, and pictorial invention. (The only thing China can’t yet deliver is erotic candor, which is why this film’s three-way romance consists mostly of suggestive glances and quickly broken-off kisses.) Lau, a Hong Kong native, and the Japanese-Taiwanese Kaneshiro are both HK movie stars; Zhang Ziyi, who’s a mainlander, is best known internationally for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And it’s not just the stars who are cosmopolitan: House of Flying Daggers was partially shot in Ukraine, features computer-graphics effects that were done in Australia, and is set to music composed by Japan’s Shigeru Umebayashi and sung, in one love theme’s case, by American soprano Kathleen Battle.
In other words, those who have valued Zhang’s films for their cultural specifics may not be pleased. House of Flying Daggers, like Hero, blunts the political edge of the director’s earlier work, and as a romantic tragedy the newer film is more akin to Titanic than to Jou Dou or Red Sorghum. Still, if Zhang’s future is as maker of the world’s loveliest action spectaculars, it’s hard to object to this one: House of Flying Daggers is radiant, ravishing, and eye-poppingly precise. Every dagger, arrow, or stake hurtles perfectly on its slo-mo course, and not a leaf is the wrong shade of yellow, orange, or green. The film isn’t just an impeccably composed love letter to its leading lady; it’s also a Chinese pulp-fiction vision of an ideal universe.
Jeunet did much the same thing with Amélie, in which the world was streamlined into a candy-colored daydream of its hub, otherwise known as Paris. That city plays only a passing role in the director’s A Very Long Engagement, which alternates between grim, muddy battlefields and rocky, bucolic Brittany. The former are mostly gray, with occasional plumes of orange flame or red blood. The latter is suffused with golden light, as it should be: It’s where Audrey—make that Mathilde—lives.
Adapted by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant from Sébastien Japrisot’s 1991 novel, the film wastes no time in establishing its severity. In the opening scene, five French soldiers are marched through the trenches, condemned for such crimes as attacking sadistic officers or shooting themselves so that they would be sent away from the front. The punishment is as brutal as the war they had hoped to escape: The soldiers will be forced into the no man’s land between the German and French lines, where they will eventually be killed by foe or friend. It doesn’t matter which, just as it doesn’t matter that 19-year-old Manech (Gaspard Ulliel, the feral teenager of Strayed) is too shellshocked to realize what’s about to happen.
Actually, it’s what happened a few years ago. Brittany represents not only peace, but also the present. The war is over, the dead are buried, and the missing—such as Manech—are presumed buried, too. Life can be harsh along the Breton coast: Mathilde wears a brace to support the leg that was withered by polio. Her heart, however, is so strong that Mathilde instinctively knows her Manech is alive. She’s summoned to a hospital in nearby Rennes, where she meets a wounded veteran who knows some of her fiancé’s story. Although he reports that all five of the men died, she doesn’t believe it. She hires a private detective, who begins to locate the survivors among the other four. Soon, Mathilde is in full Amélie mode, commanding her little cosmos in the quest for true love.
There are other characters, including Mathilde’s indulgent surrogate parents, a comic postman who pays French cinema’s latest homage to Jacques Tati, and two women whose men were also among the Five: Elodie Gordes (a French-speaking Jodie Foster), who tried to get pregnant so her husband would be discharged, and Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), who’s taking systematic revenge on the officers who avoided the torments they forced their subordinates to endure. But because Manech’s fate remains a mystery for most of the film, the story inevitably returns to Mathilde. Even with Tautou in a leg brace, there’s never any question that this is a star vehicle.
Jeunet has said he dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a 1957 tale of French military malfeasance set amid an exceptionally tidy World War I. Yet Jeunet’s own touch might be called Kubrickian. Both directors’ trademarks include obsessive control over minor details and shooting mostly on sets (or at locations they’ve managed to make look like sets). Add today’s computer graphics and a generous Warner Bros. budget to his repertoire, and Jeunet’s power becomes absolute. At his command, a zeppelin bursts into flame, dioramas of 1920 Paris come to life, and the camera swirls around the lighthouse where Mathilde and Manech make love.
And viewers’ hearts melt? Perhaps. Although this is a grimier and more violent movie than Amélie, both are similarly keyed to pluck, serendipity, and nostalgia. Battlefield ordeals are countered by young love, old-fashioned games, a courageous cat, and, of course, Tautou’s wide-eyed charm. Yet Jeunet’s relentless stylization and overextensive narration manage to hold every emotion at a distance. Whereas House of Flying Daggers transfigures its passion into unforgettable images, A Very Long Engagement uses visual mastery to anesthetize both terror and love.CP