Thursday, February 16, 2006

Master of His Generation
-- China master Zhang Yimou discusses his latest movie “House of Flying Daggers” and the crafts of filmmaking --
By Andrew Huang

(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News on December 15, 2004)

When I saw Zhang Yimou, he was sitting in a beech chair situated right next to the swimming pool of the Martinez Hotel in Cannes. The brilliant sunlight of the summer French Riviera was brilliant and all-penetrating. The cascade of light poured onto the swimming pool surface and bounced back onto the poolside. In the middle of his long press junket, director Zhang was sitting in his chair, his entire body enveloped by the celestial brilliance of sunglow. The effect is what you would call a cinematic moment --- a cinematic master sitting right in front of you literally radiating light.
Zhang is wearing his trademark working-class style outfit – blue shirt over grey T-shirt with olive pants. It seems that despite his decade plus world-class fame, Zhang remains close to his root inside and fashion wise. He has not opted to upgrade his wardrobe to Gucci or Armani even if he is coming to promote his latest movie “House of Flying Daggers” in the glitz-filled city of Cannes.
However, his presence is so majestic that no one is likely to mistake him as just another ordinary tourist passing through the Martinez. His glares are assuringly firm, his mannerism no-non-sense, and his sun-tanned, minimally maintained physical presence speaks of a regal king who has lived many glories and knows the ways of his battle.
My first question to Zhang is about his passion for the kungfu movie genre and why he has chosen to make two kungfu movies back to back.
"I grew up watching kungfu movies and reading kungfu novels,” Zhang says. “Thirty years ago, kungfu novels were banned in China. However, all the young people read it in secret and grew up with it."
"Ang Lee is the one who said ' every Chinese director wants to make a kungfu movie.' I borrowed his line to reinstate my point of view again," says Zhang.
"It's first and foremost a love story," says Zhang of his new movie. "It's a love story inside the package of a kungfu movie."
Zhang's decision to focus on the love story of the protagonists in his new movie is wise both artistically and politically. The simple structure of a love story between three lovers easily pulls in the audience' patho and wins applause at the end of the screening in Cannes. His decision to focus on individuals also brings him back to his root as China's premier director who dares to show sympathy towards the victimized individuals under China's feudal tradition such as in "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern." This return of focus to the individual is particularly welcoming in the wake of the backlash he faced two years ago for depicting the tyranic Ching Emperor as sympathetic and emphasizing the good of the nation over the individual.
"There is no so-called perfection for a movie. Movie is an art form in which you always live with regret," says Zhang of his philosophy as a filmmaker. "I'd be satisfied with some good moments in the movie which could leave the audience with good memories after
they leave the movie theater."
As the first China director who brought Chinese films onto the international stage with his award winning "Red Sorghum”and also the China director who ivented the so-called "commercial" movie two years ago with "Hero," Zhang expresses his opinions on the state of filmmaking in China.
"I don't think China's films have problems with artistic expression. The problem they are facing is commerce, not art. They keep going around in the art-house, elite film circle," says Zhang. "With a commercial vehicle like "House of Flying Daggers," I try to put together a package that would appeal to the audience. Zhang Ziyi and Takashi Kaneshiro are both great fit as the romantic leads. Andy Lau is fantastic with that calculating, complicated character. All the stars have box office appeal and great actor quality at the sme time."
"With a kungfu movie, you follow the path of other people and try to create something new in your movie," says Zhang. "I think it's important for a Chinese director to face this challenge."
"The challenge of making a kungfu movie is how to combine action and drama in the same movie," Zhang explains. "For me, the action sequence remains the most difficult part. The part of the love triangle is very easy for me." As someone who starts out as an art-house director, Zhang finds the dramatic part of the film far easier to handle than the action sequence. In fact, two third of his production time is spent on the action sequence.
For anyone who has seen the movie, there is no doubt that some action sequences will become classic moments in history. The opening dance sequence, for example, cleverly combines the graceful dancing of Zhang Ziyi, the flowing sleeves of the beautiful costume designed by Academy winner Emi Wada and the suspense of an assassination attempt into one. The ending showdown scene features the three lovers duking it out with jealousy and flying daggers against a changing landscape.
In the middle are two classic action sequences shot in bamboo forests --- no doubt a tribute to King Hu's "A Touch of Zen" and Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The first scene feature a team of flying imperial guards shooting storms of sharpened bamboo sticks down onto the two lovers on the run, Mei and Jin. The second scene features Mei and Leo swinging daggers across against each other -- a form of sexual overture -- before they go on to consummate love in the bamboo forest.
"At first I hesitated about shooting another action sequence set in a bamboo forest," explains Zhang. "But then I thought, if I could bring something new into the scene and create something fresh for the audience, it will not matter that these action scenes take place in a bamboo forest again."
Zhang has said that there is no Chinese cinema without Chinese literature. As a director, Zhang regularly look to the well of modern Chinese literature for inspiration. His debut feature "Red Sorghum" is adapted from China writer Mo Yeng's novel of the same title. The classic "Raise the Red Lantern" is adapted from China writer Su Tong's novella "Wives and Concubines." The acclaimed "To Live" is adapted from Yu Hwa's "To Live."
However, for his last two outings with the kungfu genre, Zhang has decided to create original stories by himself rather than adapt a work from China's vast canon of kungfu novels. Asked why he decides to create his own story with his two kungfu movies, Zhang replies: "I feel that most of the kungfu novel classics have been adapted into movies numerous times and there's nothing fresh left. I decided to create something new by writing my own story."
Asked what he artistic envelope he aims to push this time, he says the subject matters of "House of Flying Daggers" is what distinguishes it from other kungfu movies.
"'House of Flying Daggers' is about a love triangle. Moreover, it's a triangle between one woman and two men. This is something that has never been attempted in a kungfu movie before," says Zhang. "It's basically a modern love story inside the trapping of a kungfu movie."
"I want to focus on the individual, the human story this time --- in comparison to the theme of "good of a nation" in "Hero."
"In this new movie, the characters abandon the rules of the traditional wuxia world and dive headlong into their personal love. Their personal love is their ultimate goal," explains Zhang. "This is not a traditional kungfu story. This story is about their rebellion against the rules of the traditional wuxia world."
Zhang decided to use the Tang dynasty as the backdrop of his movie when he saw paintings from Tang dynasty around 7 to 8 century A.D. "I became mesmerized by the colors and atmospher of those paintings," says Zhang. After deciding on using Tang dynasty as the setting, Zhang went ahead to choose the color schemes of his movie. Then the costume design and art direction followed the color scheme.
Actor Andy Lau describes the experience of working with Zhang Yimou as such, "Zhang will keep all the other elements such lighting and camera angle the same and just allow the actors to improvise. With his approach, you can’t just strike a pose as in Hong Kong movies and get by. You really have to focus and feel the emotions."
"Zhang will spend one whole day on one single take if necessary," Lau adds. "I think his concentration really makes his work that much better from other's. And then after the work is done, he is smart enough not to care about the result or other's reaction anymore."
Actor Takashi Kaneshi describes Zhang as "great with leading the actors." "With director Zhang, I learn to open up my emotions more," says Kaneshiro. "He gives you the confidence to fullfil your potential."
Zhang has been nominated for the best foreign picture category at the academy awards for "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Hero." A versatile artist, Zhang won a best actor award for his acting debut(and one of his few acting appearances) in the movie "Old Well." Zhang is the first director to be invited to direct a revisionist version of Puccini's classic opera "Turandot" in Florence in 1997. His direction of "Turandot" was acclaimed by the Italian press as "poetic and full of magic."

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Jet Li's "Fearless" story 2

Jet Li's "Fearless" story 1

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Jet Li is fearless in his own right

2006-02-03 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Andrew C.C. Huang

Anxiety and doubt cast shadows during the pre-production promotion for "Fearless." Jet Li, the kungfu superstar who has moved on to a Hollywood career, has finally returned to Asia to make a film he claims will be his "last kungfu movie." Will it turn out to be a publicity stunt of biblical proportions or a real kungfu classic?
Li has claimed that there are few martial arts movies these days that truly convey the spirit of the real kungfu or "wushu." Hence the motive to make this movie as the epitome and "the pinnacle of Jet Li's kungfu movie career." Can any movie live up to this great expectation? Well, the verdict is out -"Fearless" surpasses expectations.

"I started the idea of wanting to make this movie two years ago. I discussed it with Bill Kong (the producer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and was fortunate enough to receive his unconditional support," Li says in a press conference in Taipei. "Bill suggested director Ronny Yu."

Yu, who directed classics such as "The Bride with White Hair" with superstar Brigitte Lin and "The Phantom Lover" with the late Leslie Cheung, also moved on to Hollywood, only to find himself making embarrassing horror flicks such as "Bride of Chucky" and "Freddy Vs. Jason."

"I jumped at the chance to direct this movie for Jet," says Yu. "First, I knew it was Jet's dream movie and so I wanted to join this very meaningful project. Second, I wanted a chance to prove to Hollywood that I'm not simply a horror flick director. I wanted to show I can direct a very meaningful movie."

Li is interested in the real-life kungfu master named Huo Yuan Jia. He had ideas for both the beginning and the ending of the movie. However, the middle part was missing. In order to come up with the story, Yu shut himself up in a hotel for a total of seven days to develop the chunk of the story.

In the end, Li reveals the script was a team effort. "During this two-year production period, I went through about 10 screenwriters in order to fix the plotline in order to get what I really want. It was a painful process - I really squeezed their brains," says Li. "I apologize to the screenwriters who have participated in the process but were not credited. We could only list so many names as the screenwriters."

The finished screenplay took a long and winding road. Halfway through filming, Li decided the story needed tweaking, and he requested Bill Kong to give him 10 days of production shutdown. Kong agreed, but it was costly. "It was mad! The cost of having the whole crew waiting and not shooting is HK$350,000 per day. 10 days of shutdown adds up to HK$3.5 million!" explains Li.

For the action director, Li wanted the famous Yuen Ho-ping for his dream project, but getting Yuen on board was not easy. Yuen, like Li and Yu, had made the transition from Hong Kong to Hollywood, on to a highly successful career which included work in high-profile classic movies such as "The Matrix" trilogy, "Charlie's Angels" series and "Kill Bill" series. "I knew that Yuen's schedule for the next 10 years was probably already fully booked," Li explains. "However, for my final kungfu movie, I really wanted the best action director. I had to pull out the friendship card (Li and Yuen have been friends for over a decade) so he would make time and fit this movie into his schedule.

With both Li and Yuen together again in a kungfu dream project, the efforts to create the best action sequences possible went through the roof.

"In a typical kungfu movie, that scene in the middle where Huo Yuan Jia and Jio duke it out and tear the whole building apart would have already been the climax," explains Li. "However, I wanted more for this movie. I want more action and wanted all the action scenes to be perfectly orchestrated. I also wanted the action scenes to convey the characters' inner emotions at the same time."

"It's very difficult to design action scenes that are physical and emotional at the same time - you want some fighting. Then you don't want to convey the message that fighting is right. Then you don't want bloodshed in the movie. Most importantly, you also want the action sequences to be visually exciting and new for the audience," Li explains with a chuckle. "There were occasions when even Yuen's ideas ran dry. Luckily, I know how to deal with Yuen because we've been friends for so long. When his brain gets tired, I would pull him aside to play mahjong. A few sessions later, he'd be brimming with new ideas again."

Li and Yu's relentless pursuit of perfection lead to yet another breakthrough in the kungfu movie genre. With China master Chen Kaige's kungfu fantasy epic "The Promise" just recently written into movie history as the latest kungfu masterpiece, Jet Li's "Fearless" pushed the envelop yet again by boasting Li's most accomplished performance in his career, a seamless plotline with deeply inspiring and touching messages, and finally a piece of kungfu masterpiece in which all the action scenes are splendidly powerful and emotionally riveting.

Born in Beijing as Li Lian Jie in 1963, Li entered the Beijing Wushu Academy at the age of eight and went through vigorous martial arts training. During his youth, he entered China's national martial arts champion and won the top honor for four straight years.

Li's real-life martial arts mastery and his movie star good look immediately attracted the attention of China's filmmakers. In the 70's in the era when the kungfu genre movie was still not allowed in China, Li was chosen to star in "The Shaolin Temple" (1979) in the name of promoting Chinese culture. The success of "The Shaolin Temple" made Li an instant national star in China. In 1983, Li directed the sequel "The Shaolin Temple 2: Kids from Shaolin." Famed action director Liu Chia Liang took the helm and directed "Shaolin Temple 3: Martial Arts of Shaolin" in 1986.

In the 90's, Jet Li became the first ever China star to be imported to Hong Kong. Hand picked by Hong Kong kungfu master Tsui Hark, Li moved to Hong Kong as Tsui's contract actor.

In 1991, Jet Li made his grand entrance by appearing in two kungfu masterpieces "Once Upon a Time in China" with Rosaline Kwan and "Swordsman 2: East the Invincible" with superstar Brigitte Lin. These two blockbusters made Li an instant superstar in Asia.

Li went on to make three more sequels under Tsui's direction: "Once Upon a Time in China II" (1992), "Once Upon a Time in China III" (1993) and "Once Upon a Time in China VI" (1997). Li became a cultural icon and the embodiment of the character Wong Fei Hung, who sought to resurrect Chinese pride with martial arts and the spirit of chivalry.

While Jackie Chan has claimed the title as the biggest action star in Asia for nearly three decades, Chan's typical character blends humor with action in his movies. In contrast, Li's trademark character as a stern and patriotic hero attempting to save China from foreign annexation made Li the modern day Bruce Lee in Chinese people's minds.

Li's most pronounced character is the real-life patriotic kungfu master Wong Fei Hung from early Republic of China in Tsui Hark's "Once Upon a Time in China" series. Li's other movie roles such as the real-life character Fong Sai Yuk in "The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk" (1993), his lead role as the insouciant swordsman Ling Wu Chung in "Swordsman II," the other lead role as the swordsman Chang Mo Kei who avenges his parents' unjust death in "Yi Tian Tu Long Ji" a.k.a. "Lord of the Wu Tang" (1993) also served to cement Li's persona as the new patriotic Bruce Lee. With Li's strong hold on Chinese people's collective imagination as a national hero, the media and the audience has dubbed him as "the king of kungfu."

While "Fearless" seems an appropriate description for a Jet Li kungfu film, the actor explains that the movie is more about facing fear, and learning to live with it and in spite of it.

"Everyone assumes that I am a kungfu master and I fear nothing, but that's not true. Like everyone else in this world, I face and deal with fear and doubt everyday in my life," Li explains.

"When I was young, I entered the martial arts academy. Everyday I challenged myself, faced new fears, and tried to overcome them," Li recounts. "During my youth, I entered China's martial arts competition and won the championship title. After you win, other people want to beat you and replace you. So you face your new fears again and try to prove to yourself that you can defend your title.

"After I won the top title several times, I realized that the title had become meaningless to me so I left the champions' circle."

For "Fearless," Li also invites Asia's current reigning pop superstar Jay Chow to write and sing the theme song entitled "Huo Yuan Jia."

A fan of Jet Li since his youth, Chow has paid homage to Li in his various songs and music videos such as "Shang Je Guen" a.k.a "Double Clubs" and "Shang Dao" a.k.a. "Double Sword."

In addition, Hong Kong superstar Michelle Yeoh ("Memoirs of a Geisha" and the James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies") was invited to participate in "Fearless" with a supporting role as "Miss Yang." However, due to the time constraints, Yeoh's part was cut from the theatrical version of the movie.

"I feel really apologetic towards Michelle about it. When I asked Michelle if she would be willing to help this movie by taking a supporting role, she acted like a chivalrous swordswoman and simply said 'yes,'" Li explains. "I promised her that her scenes will be restored in the longer complete DVD version."

Asked what he considers to be the best moments in the movie, director Yu replies: "Honestly, this is that very rare movie in which I think all the scenes are fantastically done because both Jet and I are perfectionists. The only regret we have is that the movie is too long."

"When we finished editing "Fearless," the movie stood at about two and half hours," Yu explains.

"We negotiated with the theater distribution chains and they told us the movie was too long and most audiences are wary of long movies."

Li says "in the longer complete version of the movie (which will be released in DVD), the character of Huo Yuan Jia is more rich and complex because his fear of heights and his illness (asthma) are explained."

"The distribution side told us that they could put the movie into more theaters if we cut 30 minutes out of the movie. We decided to go with that choice," Yu elaborates.

"Since this movie is the last kungfu movie for Jet Li and his dream project is infused with very meaningful messages, we wanted more viewers to be able to see this movie, Yu said."

"We want the whole world to watch "Fearless" and learn that the essence of kungfu is not fighting. It is peace."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"Midsummer Night’s Fable"
Poem by Andrew C.C. Huang

I have a midsummer night’s fable to tell you
It started with a dream
A fable is a tale in which we human beings project
Our utmost desires and fantasies into

At a midsummer’s night such as this one
The vaulted sky is sprinkled with sparkling starry eyes
The smoldering heat propels the body to move
While the insouciant breezes carry the mind’s imagination forward

We have tumbled and fallen
We have stumbled and risen again
Now we know the secret of life is to
Tumble through these unquenched desires and unchained emotions
With remorseless abandon

Like this midsummer’s night
When we carry our children to this midnight’s garden of desires and fantasies
The rising temperature of passion and the sobering coolness of will
Might turn our children into full-fledged human beings who could be loved

So this is my midsummer night’s fable
A fable woven by the fabrics of human desires, disappointment, passion, hatred, and then, growth
As the droplets of sweat trickle down our cheeks in the midnight garden
We will remember that this fable, our fantasy and vision of humanity,
Shall past on and last forever


童話 一個充滿人類情感的故事

我們曾跌倒 墜下
我們跌倒 然後又再站起終於 

孩子將成長為成人 去愛與被愛 然後也許受到傷害

一個人類情感編織的童話 慾望 失意 激情 仇恨 然後成長

"A Duet by Myself"
Poem by Andrew C.C. Huang

Tonight, I am lonesome and alone
I keep thinking of you
You who are far away and yet so close
Tonight, I am alone in this dimly lit apartment
I simply have to sing a duet by myself

A love song duet is sung by two persons in love
Since you are not here tonight,
I have to raise my voice -- in danger of breaking my voice --
To imitate your soprano voice
Then I have to maintain my lower tenor voice, to sing about my yearning for you

However, my voice is not the only one that is portraying two roles tonight
My hands become substitutes of your love
My two hands, dexterous, handle the microphone by turns
Singing a duet by myself

I raise my rise hand to sing about my longing for you
My left hand tells me that the body is the embodiment of love,
As if possessed by your soul
I hand over the microphone to my left hand
My left hand urges me to sing of my unconditional love for you
While my right hand caress my forlorn heart, as if haunted by you

However, a duet by oneself is really not a very great idea
How does one handle the part where two voices join and harmonize, exactly?
So this duet by myself ends up being a love song gone awry
-- even though beautiful, poetic, and unflinchingly romantic

As I go on to finish this duet by myself
The grand finale emerges, where two voices join and soar through the sky
So the spirit of love comes -- the emotional release comes -- the love comes tumbling down
So it’s a duet by myself tonight.
When you are back, I don’t have to play two roles anymore

"一人獨唱合唱曲 "
詩作 黃執虔

今夜 我孤獨自對
你在遠處 又似乎?息身邊
今夜 我獨處於這昏暗的公寓中

我拉高我聲線 差點要破喉
然後再用我的男低音 唱出我對你的想念
不過 今夜不只我的嗓音在一人獨唱合唱曲
雙手 敏捷熟練 輪流握著麥克風
而右手正輕撫我孤寂的心 好似中了你的魔
但是 一人獨唱合唱曲中又不是好法子
一人怎麼唱雙唱部分呢 有點頭痛
雖然依舊 美麗 詩意 無可救藥的羅曼蒂克
華麗的尾聲來臨 雙聲盤旋直沖天霄
愛的靈魂現身 感情的舒發 愛如聖水泉湧
所以 今晚我一人獨唱合唱曲
等你回來時 我又不必一人擔任兩角了