Year of Asian Cinema: 4, 5

There is perhaps a case to be made that if it takes over a month to get around to writing about a movie, that maybe the movie isn't really worth writing about. And if it takes over a month to even watch said movie, there is definitely a case to be made.

But in both cases, actually, it's not true. It's just that audiobooks and nights with friends and decisions all intervened and prevented both the watching and the writing. And so, here we are.

Herodirected by: Zhang Yimou 2002
begun in mid-September, finished in mid-October
in Mandarin, with English subtitles

To be fair, the night we initially watched this movie was interrupted numerous times by an unusually fussy baby and a par-for-the-course fussy television. Sometimes we couldn't hear, sometimes we couldn't see, and mostly we couldn't concentrate. We finally gave up, and only finished it weeks later, watching on our computer.

Which is a shame, because what Hero has going for it are the visuals: dramatic Western China scenery, artistic martial arts scenes that are part dance and part fight, large advancing armies. It uses color, calligraphy, and music to great effect and Hero doesn't even try to be subtle.

Besides the visuals, what made Hero worth watching is that it's a classic example of a "Wuxia" film. Wuxia is very much part of pop culture in Chinese communities, and it is (according to Wikipedia) a "broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists, generally set in ancient China."

Wuxia heroes are generally independent operators, from lower social classes, who maintain a code of honor and use their power to right injustices. Think Robin Hood, or Western gunslingers, or Omar from The Wire.

Unlike The Wire, however, the plot and characters were a little thin, leaving the movie easily interruptible. But sometimes you need a movie like that: enjoyable without being too engaging. Christmas card season is coming up, folks.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, directed by Ki-duk Kim, 2003
viewed October 21, 2009
Korean, with English subtitles

We watched this movie during our Phuket vacation, on our computer. And contrary to Hero, which really benefited from the large screen, Spring ... was large enough in itself that it didn't hurt it to be viewed on a laptop. Not that it wasn't visually lovely, it was extraordinarily so. Set on an isolated lake, much of the film is silent and observant of the passing seasons. But it was primarily a study of the passage of a life, of several lives. The quiet moments and gestures that make a life show up very well on the small screen.

A Buddhist monk lives in a floating temple on this lake, where he raises an apprentice monk from a very young age. The monk teaches him wisdom and compassion as he grows, but inevitably the boy becomes a teenager and falls in love with the first girl he meets (a girl brought to the monk for healing.) He leaves the lake to follow the girl but has a difficult time in the world and eventually returns, seeking healing himself.

As is clear from the title, Spring ... is a story of timelessness and of the cyclical nature of life. The film itself feels timeless and almost mythic, and when the girl and her mother show up wearing current fashion it's almost a shock, so out of time did the story feel. There are doors that stand alone without supporting walls, animals, Buddhist rituals and exercises, and nameless characters that all contribute to the mythic feel, and yet I ended up feeling emotionally connected to this apprentice, watching him journey from boy to man, from man to monk.

The pace is deliberate and the movie is certainly subtle, like many Asian films. But it's not at all distant and in fact packs quite an emotional punch, maybe the more so for its simplicity. If Hero is a Western, then Spring ... is a poem, the kind of poem Garrison Keillor would read on Writer's Almanac.

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