Sunday, June 12, 2011

The other China, Part Deux

(Image: Hong Kong Movie Database)
It occurs to me that I never finished commenting on last month's "Taiwan Stories" series at Lincoln Center, and I know you're all tearing your hair out over it.  Fear not!  I return!  This time, two older classics (one of which is only one year older than I, a fact I'm just not going to think about).  I don't seem to have taken notes, so at this remove, I can't comment in as much detail as I'd like.  Bad blogger, bad!  

Both, unlike the previous two I reviewed, are full-blown studio melodramas.  What's more, interestingly, and perhaps queasily, each prominently features a woman who sacrifices herself emotionally and sexually for others.

Autumn Execution (1971) - Li Xing's film, apparently a revered classic, took some work for me to warm to (this reviewer was less able to than I), as it's a would-be heart-tugger whose two most prominent characters are quite repellent.  

The protagonist is a rich but thuggish young ne'er-do-well on feudal China's equivalent of death row for brutally killing a former lover and her two cronies after the trio tried to blackmail him; his champion outside the prison is the shrewish but formidable grandmother who raised him alone and spoiled him rotten, and now tries to move heaven and earth to get him off the hook, despite his snarling ingratitude.  Spending time with these two can be a bit trying, but things really get disquieting once grandma decides it's hopeless and moves to Plan B: marrying sonny to the young orphan woman who was raised as his foster sister, in hopes that a male heir 
can be produced to carry on the family name before it's time for the chopping block.

Although the poor girl goes along, initially passively, what happens with her is more interesting than you'd expect - she paradoxically takes her newfound importance as an opportunity to develop a little agency and self-respect.  But the main thrust of the story, of course, is the redemption of the doomed man by gentle love, as he learns compassion and selflessness.  As skeptical as I was for much of Autumn Execution's running time, I was surprised that I was actually touched by the ending, such was the intensity and conviction of the story's execution (if you'll pardon the term).

Director Li's powerful mastery of atmosphere and mood helps it all go down smoothly.  The jailhouse courtyard is swept pitilessly by wind, rain, snow and blowing leaves as the seasons pass and judgment day draws nigh; the woods and clearing where prisoners are beheaded is shrouded in tatters of mist amidst bare branches that reach out with an air of desperation.  Sometimes there's no substitute for the controlled environment of studio soundstage sets.

Beauty of Beauties (1965) -  We fade in on waves breaking gently on a beach under a clear blue sky.  The camera pans slowly across the peaceful scene, looking out to sea.  Wait, is that red in the surf?  It is, and it's increasing until the waves are foaming crimson.  Now a ship out on the water comes into view, flaming and halfway-sunk.  Now we see tattered corpses in the water and on the sand.  The camera moves, without a cut, over the beach and through the gates of a decimated seaside town.  Standing in the dust of the main street, a naked little boy sobs disconsolately, as buildings flame around him and warriors on horseback thunder past.  My friends, this is moviemaking.

(Image: Grand Motion Picture Company & Film Society of Lincoln Center)

The thanks are due to Li Hanxiang, the biggest Hong Kong director of his day, who wriggled out of the confines of megastudio Shaw Brothers to move to Taiwan and set up his own operation.  Here he adapts the well-known historical legend of Xi Shi into a gargantuan blockbuster with the difficult-to-achieve blend of grace and grandeur.  Xi Shi is a young woman from the conquered kingdom of Yue in war-torn ancient China, and is sent as a tribute and concubine for the notoriously randy king of the oppressor state, Wu - with the real goal of undermining Yue's conquerors from within.  The title notwithstanding, this beauty is not just a pretty face, nor is she a shrinking violet - she's wily, formidably well-spoken and cultured, and has a spine of steel - a superspy hiding behind a simpering mask.

Her story is decked out in all the visual splendor one could reasonably wish for, but it's equally blessed with acute psychology and delicate detail.  It's clear that we're supposed to root for Yue, but the movie admits to the ambivalent emotions that come with Xi Shi's mission after years in deep cover with the enemy.  The audience is similarly invited to feel interestingly divided sympathies as we observe the Wu ruler's most august advisor, Wu Zixu, the one person who sees through the concubine's plan and tries desperately to take the scales of love and lust from his king's eyes.  Wu Zixu is working against our heroine, but he's clearly a man of honor, intelligence and loyal bravery caught in a hopeless situation, and Li allows him a full measure of dignity and pathos.  

Strongest in my memory are two scenes not quite like anything I'd seen before, at least in this genre.  One is the verbal duel early on between Xi Shi and the Wu Zixu, in which he analyzes her physiognomy for signs of her deviousness, while she counters him with witty and equally learned (or faux-learned) ripostes.  Even better is the scene wherein Xi Shi captivates the king with a dance on an ornate palace staircase, whose steps are inset with metal gongs in different pitches, turning them into musical instruments on which she plays a tune as she leaps, beaming, from one step to the next.

It's too bad the movie falls off a cliff during its final half-hour, abandoning the title character to focus on a numbing avalanche of military pageantry - a stunning abandonment of storytelling judgment, as if someone finally decided, "We spent all this money on these horses and chariots and weapons and suits of armor - every one of them is getting its minute on the screen!"  This section was also clearly hacked to pieces at the very last minute, whether by Li's hand or someone else's - they didn't even bother to fix all the music cues as it jumps abruptly from shot to shot (ah, I see... according to this post by David Bordwell, this 2.5-hour version is the severely edited cut of what was originally a much longer two-parter).  It's a disheartening sendoff for what is until that point an example of pop spectacle with brains as well as beauty and brawn; it's also a bitter irony that a story about a woman who takes a flower vase role and wields it as a secret weapon should shove her unceremoniously offscreen for the climax.  Xi Shi deserves better - I hope she gets it in the full version, and I hope to see it someday.

No comments:

Post a Comment