Zhang Yimou is by far one of the best directors I have ever seen. I love his films, more-so his wu-xia films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. Each have a place in heart, especially Hero. I have bought Hero 4 different times, twice on DVD and twice on Blu-Ray. The times I purchased it on Blu-Ray was accidental because I got confused between Fearless and Hero, both starring Jet Li.
Today, I am going to talk about 2 of his films. First will be about Hero and the second film is his most recent film, Flowers of War, two completely contrasting films. Zhang Yimou typically places his films in ancient China, like Hero. Yet in Flowers of War, the setting is 1937 Nanking China with a war happening between China and Japan. I am going to analyze Hero first and then move on to Flowers of War.
In Hero, a film produced in 2002, the basis is that of a nameless man has slain three assassins that had previously attempted to kill the king of Qin. Nameless was given the privilege of sitting closer to the king as he recollects the stories of his triumph over the assassins. These assassins names are Long Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. Each of the stories nameless recounts goes into a flashback and during that time, it changes the colors dynamically. With one strong suited color with each story. You have Red, Blue, Green, White, and Black dominating each part of the film.
The movie plays itself like a painting that is in the motion of being made. This is the Mise en scene. Everything is building itself into something that dominates the screen. At first its establishing nameless and his stories. As those stories are played out, it builds on the strength of each character, each set, and each fight being painted like the calligraphy in the “red” story. There is multiple sets in a typical Mise-en-scene setting, but the whole film feels like it is its own set of palette colors and brushes.
The cinematography, done by Christopher Doyle, is so beautiful, it is the number 1 reason I will always buy this movie. The way that it is shot with many epic shots yet having an up and close feeling with the stories being told gives so much for a person to process. The addition of an action director, not Yimou, directing the fight choreography helps in a big way. It allows Yimou to focus on the storytelling and not having to worry so much about each fight scene being plotted out.
For Flowers of War, Yimou takes a much different approach than he ever has before. The setting is in a very tangible time, no longer ancient. It also has a grounded sense to it with the piece of history of war between both Japan and China. It follows the character of John Miller (Christian Bale) who is a mortician sent to bury the head father of a convent of schoolgirls. He is then in turn trapped and placed with a decision of protecting lives of innocent girls and that of not-so-innocent prostitutes.
The Mise-en-scen shows a very war torn China who seems to be losing the battle against Japan. Everything surrounding the cathedral is rubble and the girls are being sent to “perform” for Japanese soldier due to their success in capturing Nanking.
The cinematography has its moments of greatness and close-ups, but you can tell that it is a different group of people working of Flowers versus Hero. It is a brutal and contrastingly different statement then that of a feuding warlord and a man protecting innocent children.