Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cinema of Gesture

At long last Steph and I settled down to watch Tsui Hark's Green Snake, a film alternately praised and reviled by critics. Teleport City praises it, but their reliability is shaky with us (why would anyone praise crap like The Stormriders?) The girl at the video store LOVED it, but she loved Vampire Hunters: The Twin Effect, so who knows? Tsui Hark (especially in these later years) has been pretty hit-or-miss, too (I still feel bad for Anita Mui in The Magic Crane), so there was justifiable trepidation on our part.

But Maggie was in it, and we'll forgive a lot for a bit of Maggie Cheung's charm and chops.

By the same token, it hurts to see those charms and chops mishandled. It can be done. Of course it takes great effort and determination, but look what those yahoos did with Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek in Bandidas. You can't take these things for granted.

Fortunately, all of Maggie's talents get plenty of exposure here. This films starts with her dropping naked into an already-pretty-sexed up Indian dance number and getting awfully friendly with the ten ladies dancing. As Steph noted, it keeps your eyebrows pretty high up on your head for quite some time.

Tsui Hark, to his eternal blessedness, does NOT fall into the trap that the makers of Bandidas did: he recognizes that his primary job is to show off the tremendous beauty of his two leading ladies, Maggie and Joey Wong, and keeps that front and center throughout. Speaking of Joey, she's pretty enough, but doesn't she always sort of look like she's stoned out of her mind? Look:



See? Anyway, on with the show.

Large portions of this film are devoted to loving slow-motion shots of the two ladies more-or-less (or even completely) undressed, rolling around with each other in the rain or in a flower-filled bathtub. It's hard to hate. Especially when even that stuff never outstays its welcome.

I think one of the secrets to Tsui Hark's great films (besides his boundless imagination and ability to find brilliant actors) is how nothing ever outstays its welcome.

There's a couple of moments in Green Snake where White (the ladies play snake spirits, one named White (Wong) and the other Green (Cheung)) uses her magic powers to cause it to rain. She does so by tossing a cupful of wine into the air. The flying liquid is photographed in slow motion, of course, but with that Tsui Hark insouciance that renders it quick and lightweight as his best films are. Steph noted how different that moment would be in the hands of a director like Zhang Yimou, with half-a-dozen closeups and heart-breaking cinematography, an epic score swelling, showing his audience every detail, whereas Hark just sort of indicates what's happening.

"Look, she's got a cup, she chucks it in the air, it rains. Got it? Good, we're moving on."

Hark's way isn't necessarily better or anything, but I think this notion of indicating, of gesturing, goes a long way to explaining the lightness of these films.

One of the basic problems in "live" cinema (as opposed to animation) is that everything you point your camera at looks like whatever it is. Which, if you've got a jones to make films about sorcerers, martial artists who can fly, and snake sisters who just want a little loving, makes life very difficult. Hence special effects, which, when they work, take your audience with you on your fantastic voyage, and when they don't, make you look stupid.

But either way, they don't seem to contribute to the idea of "sketching" in cinema. It seems at first glance that this isn't even possible. Special effects or not, whatever you point your camera at, you get what you film. How do you indicate that your hero is walking into a house? You get your actor, and a house, and have him walk into it while the camera rolls. There's no indicating. Just showing.

But Hark overcomes this problem with something cinema has that static art cannot: speed. By accelerating the pace of everything until only the barest gestures indicate what's happening, Hark strips cinema down to what is, in essence, a sketch. The paradox of course is that his films are so lush and so beautifully shot that to speak of him "stripping down" cinema seems absurd. But I'm convinced that what's going on here in Green Snake.

When our heroines unload their awesome magical powers, there's very little in the way of depiction. Basically, they stand on a fake hilltop and wave their arms around. There's some smoke and some trickery, but it happens very fast and really, you just get shown enough so you can figure out what's going on. Then it's on to the next thing. The speed of the narrative, the incredible rate at which things happen, makes Hark's casual indicating of each moment acceptable. If the story didn't move at such a breakneck pace, this light touch would feel unfinished and hollow. It wouldn't satisfy, maybe only because you'd have enough time to say, "Wait a minute. That's pretty obviously a paper-mache snake Maggie Cheung's rolling around in the water with." Instead, you get just enough time for your brain to say, "Holy crap, lookit Maggie rolling around in the water. I guess that's a snake there with her." And then you're off to the next bit.

It appeals to me because at heart I'm that kind of storyteller. I'm not a careful plotter or a thoughtful developer of deep characters. I just like to have lots of shit happen. I'm an "And Then" storyteller: "And then they fell off the cliff. And then a giant mosquito caught them. And then the mosquito got squished by a giant flyswatter. And then..."

I can appreciate Zhang Yimou's determination to make every moment of his films rich with beauty and potency. It's lovely when it works (and incredibly tedious when it doesn't). But something in me responds to Hark's witty, rapid-fire lightness more enthusiastically.