The Reel Review

A second-year film student, offers his opinion on what he sees as a current trend in world cinema, after attending the Edinburgh film festival in Scotland this past summer

One of the many sumptuous images in Hero.
One of the many sumptuous images in Hero.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of jetli.com

The two strongest films at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival were not made in Hollywood, they were made in Asia.

Old Boy and Hero, made in Korea and China respectively, are intellectually challenging and emotionally rich pieces of filmmaking. They are also both crowd-pleasing movies, boasting grand production values and visually sumptuous images.

In short, these two films are everything great Hollywood movies should be, just made on another continent. A fact that will, unfortunately, greatly affect their release in Canada.

Hero is a hit in North America now, but was completed 18 months ago. Old Boy is already being primed for a Brad Pitt-starring Hollywood remake, so it may never be released in any significant way here—possibly on DVD, but only if the American version is successful.

This has been a problem for years now, the most notable, recent example being the treatment of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, who’s animated movies Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away were purchased by Disney so the company could limit their North American release and prevent the films from breaking Disney’s stranglehold on the animated film market in North America.

These films earned great critical acclaim and many awards, but their success with audiences has depended entirely on word of mouth. Which is a shame, because, Asian filmmaking is becoming a force to be reckoned with in world cinema.

Today, Asian films are both artistically and technically more advanced than those of Hollywood, and no two films showcase this better than Old Boy and Hero.

To film the battle scenes of Hero, director Zhang Yimou commissioned two divisions of the Chinese army as extras. The sequences play on a scale that surpasses anything being made in Hollywood and the presence of real—not computer-animated—armies is something that American studios seem disinterested in pursuing.

Likewise, Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle’s images display a mastery of colour comparable with even the best of Michael Powell’s canon in such films as The Red Shoes, and Peeping Tom. Doyle’s choices are dramatic—entire sequences are shot using a single colour. It is in no way an exaggeration to say this is one of the most visually impressive films ever shot. Every frame of Hero is so well crafted that each cell could stand on its own as a work of art.

But the film is not simply an impressive technical achievement. The narrative is fractured, the same story repeated several times from different perspectives. The actors are given room to perform beyond the fight scenes. Even cardboard action hero Jet Li, excels.

The film carries a great emotional weight, with Yimou placing just as much focus on characters and dialogue as he does on the kung fu action sequences and beautiful camera work. Simply put, Hero is an incredible achievement. Which proves action films don’t have to be dumb pieces of explosive escapism; they can be art.

When he introduced Old Boy, director Chan-Wook Park apologized for the amount of violence in the film. Indeed, it is undeniable that the film pushes the envelope of what is acceptable on-screen. But, even though we may not need to see a man eat a live octopus, the extremes of the film are not gratuitous. The film is an operatic study of revenge, and the suffering the characters go through is a vital element of the emotional power of the work.

The first hour-and-a-half of the film plays like a standard revenge film; engrossing, but nothing special. Then an ending arrives that completely redefines the movie. Not simply a cheap-trick-M. Night Shyamalan-ending, Park’s ending causes you to re-examine the entire film, and suddenly an entertaining genre film becomes a more challenging, cerebral work.

Park succeeds with Old Boy in doing what Quentin Tarantino only attempted in Kill Bill. He presents us with a film that is half tribute to a genre and half deconstruction of that genre. Unlike Kill Bill, the stylistic flourishes of Old Boy have a purpose in the overall film. It is not simply a cold, intellectual ending; the film packs an emotional punch that is every bit as devastating as it is fascinating.

Like Hero, Old Boy succeeds as both entertainment and art, and for that it must be applauded. Unfortunately, Park divulged at the Edinburgh screening that a crucial element of this finale would be eliminated for the North American remake, because it deals with incest. It is impossible the film will be as interesting without it.

Hopefully the original film will be available rather than ignored in North America. Treatment of films such as The Ring, suggest this will not be the case. This is unfortunate as the reason Old Boy works so well is that the director is willing to take risks that Hollywood has been avoiding since the ’70s, when films like Taxi Driver and The Godfather were the norm. Currently Asian cinema is producing films that rival everything being done in North America. Which is unfortunate for North American audiences who have little access to films from outside the Hollywood monopoly. This is really unfortunate, as it deprives everyone on this side of the Pacific of some truly great films.

The system is changing slowly; Hero, finally released here, has become a hit with critics and audiences. Perhaps this is the start of a trend, and the success of foreign language films will lead to a wider distribution in the future—rather like the recent rise of interest in documentary films.

If Old Boy is granted a release here, it should match the critical success of Hero, and could be screened in more than just art houses.

Action films and revenge films are staples of the big studios, but unlike Michael Bay movies, Hero and Old Boy dare to push the genres in new and exciting directions.

They remind us that originality is a crucial element in filmmaking, and one that Hollywood has almost forgotten.

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