Epics of national pride: The international exposure

February 14, 2009 at 12:03 am

I am curious about the international presence of all those international epic sagas that are made with the ambition to showcase glorious national history. Such films are suitable mostly for internal national usage, but in some cases get exported world-wide, even though remaining self-contained and of limited niche interest in the context of such releases.

A project of this kind was in the centre of attention in my native country, Bulgaria, in 1981 – the year when the 1300 anniversary of the establishment of the first Bulgarian state in 681 was being celebrated. The film 681- Velichieto na hana was an epic saga telling the glorious history of the nation’s founding father, Khan Aszparuh. Based on a novel by respected historian Vera Mutafchieva, the film was made in two versions. Khan Aszparuh (1981) was an extended three-part Bulgarian version, whereas 681: Velichieto na hana/ 681: The Glory of the Khan (1981) was an English language version of the same film, based on the same script, made by the same director and starring the same actors, only shorter and made with international export in mind. Needless to say, the film went largely unnoticed internationally. Nonetheless, this is one of the few Bulgarian films that can still be found in vernacular Western distribution today, and certainly a curios project that provides a good glimpse into the way such national epics are produced and publicized. I have occasionally had the chance to hear from American and West European academics engaged in teaching Bulgarian culture and history that they have used the film in the context of their work.

Kazakh-financed Nomad, for example, a technically proficient epic tale of the glorious beginnings of the Kazakh nation in the 18th century filmed on the initiative of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev, was tackled as a project of national importance and made for $40 million with French assistance. It dealt with alternative narratives of the Kazakh past aiming to give boost to emancipating the nation’s historical identity from the Soviet shadow. Conceived and executed as a product clearly geared toward international markets, the project was completed with the directorial involvement of well-known diasporic US-based Europeans (Czech Ivan Passer and Russian Sergei Bodrov). The film was nominated for a Golden Globe and distributed by the Weinstein Company who secured an international and a North American release, but only had limited impact.

Similarly, the US distribution of Suriyothai, a lavish 16-th century spectacle of national pride from Thailand, featuring majestic battles and elephant battles that are said to have directly influenced Oliver Stone Alexander’s Asian battle scenes, was treated as a project of utmost national importance, aimed at getting the film a foreign Oscar nomination (Jirattikorn, 2003). Its carefully-orchestrated U.S. release took place with assistance from Francis Ford Coppola, a personal friend of director Yukol, who adapted a version of the film for the North American market. North American theatrical distribution was handled by Sony Picture Classics (which placed a total of twenty two prints in circulation) and the DVD – by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, making Suriyothai one of the few Thai films readily available in the West. It enjoyed good critical reception but it did not bring significant revenues.

Clearly, such national projects remain of utmost significance within the context of the producing nation. It is often the case that all instances of foreign distribution and acclaim for these films are given disproportionate attention domestically, thus creating the impression that the national saga has been truly influential internationally. In reality, these are films that remain primarily of academic interest and most often end up used in the context of area studies. In her analysis of the discourse surrounding Suriyothai, for example, anthropologist Amporn Jirattikorn (2003) argues that the film’s construction of ‘Thai-ness’ effectively promotes a narrative of self-sufficiency and positive isolationism, thus furthering the ideology of the ability of Thailand to remain intact by colonizing flows and to maintain its sovereignty today like it has been able to do in the past. And indeed, given the fact that Suriyothai was distributed internationally but never reached the popularity that had been planned for it, it may be noteworthy that Thais have not made further efforts to get into Western distribution the two subsequent epic dramas made by Suriyothai’s director Yukol, thus confirming Jirattikorn’s commentary on the ideological underpinnings of self-sufficiency, conscious distancing from the West and focusing on cultivating discourse on Thailand’s history exclusively within the country. Could it be that the decision of the Thais is suggestive of an attitude that is skeptical of the chances for an intra-cultural dialogue? And if this is the case, is this stance limited only to those Asian nations that are known for isolationist national ideology or it reflects a wider approach?

*Jirattikorn, Amporn. ‘Suriyothai: Hybridizing Thai National Identity Through Film,’ Journal of Inter-Asian Cultural Studies. Volume 4, Issue 2, August 2003, p. 296-308.

* * See dedicated pieces on Nomad, Suriyothai and other recent international epics in the Epic Cinema section of DinaView.

© Dina Iordanova
7 February 2009

Intoarcerea lui Voda Lăpuşneanu/ The Return of Prince Lapushneanu (Romania, 1979, Malvina Ursianu)

November 1, 2008 at 1:07 am

Alexandru Lăpuşneanu, a descendant of the Stefan the Great (who ruled for nearly fifty years in the 15th century), was installed prince of Moldova for two periods in the second part of the 16th century. At that time Moldova has lost its sovereignty and has become a vassal to the Ottoman throne; all the affairs of the country are controlled by Istanbul, and this interference is clearly sensed when the Prince’s young son Bogdan is taken away from him and kept away from his father for seven years. Surrounded by all sorts of intrigue, facing resistance from the local feudal landowners, not being particularly capable of (or interested in) communicating with the ordinary people, and often excessively tough, the Prince is often isolated and clearly his life is not easy. He is faced with constant threats to his lands coming mostly from the Hungarians to the West but also from other directions. He cannot rely on proper support from Istanbul and yet he is expected to regularly deliver the Sultan’s cut of all the income.

The Return of Prince Lapushneanu is based on a classical Romanian novel by Costache Negruzzi, written in 1913. It is representative of a wave of films made in the region in the 1970s and 1980s, usually well funded productions that often involve significant numbers of extras, elaborate historical costumes and sets, and revisit important moments of national history. This film clearly influenced other historical productions, for example Bulgarian Boris I.

Malvina Ursianu, the director, is one of the rare women-directors from the region. She has several more titles to her name, and this is clearly her most important film. It is clearly influenced by other films made across Eastern Europe during this period; most of all I see influences by the Polish historical epics of the type made by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, even though the art direction relies more on Byzantyne and Othrodox imagery which makes the ultimate product look quite differently. The main influence, however, is from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and it comes across as loud and clear that it overwhelmes at moments: the dark corridors of the compound, the treacherous members of the court who move silently and are engaged in relentless plotting, the unsettling shadows they cast on the walls — it is all as if taken directly from that classical film.

Despite of its ambition and professionalism, The Return of Prince Lapushneanu suffers from two major weaknesses: the pace of editing and the choice of the male lead. Had the editor given the film a slightly faster pace, it would have had the chance to become a truly engaging viewing (and it would have cut the unnecessarily long running time of 140 min.). George Motoi, the actor playing Lăpuşneanu, is competent and certainly good looking, but does not have the dramatic presence that would allow him to elevate the role to the epic psychological dimensions that seem to be written into it. It is a miscasting error that can be compared to the miscasting of Colin Farrel in Oliver Stone’s recent Alexander (2004): there are certain actors who clearly cannot carry an epic film. I was intrigued to discover that Motoi was born in 1936 on the Caliacra peninsula on the Black Sea, a place that was on Romanian territory at that time but is now in Bulgaria — yet another one of these situations of irredentist acquiring or re-acquiring of small pieces of land that have been typical for the region over the last two or so centuries (this particular one linked to an intervention from Nazi Germany around 1940). The ethnic issues typical for the region (known as Dobroudja) are explored in Lucian Pintilie’s excellent Un été inoubliable/ An Unforgettable Summer (1994) with Kristin Scott Thomas.

The film is recognized as one of the most important films in the history of Romanian cinema and screened recently as part of a Romanian cinema panorama as Return of the Banished at the Siskel Center in Chicago.

© Dina Iordanova
1 November 2008

Haiducii/The Outlaws (Romania, 1966, Dinu Cocea)

October 26, 2008 at 12:33 am

The Outlaws, a great example of the adventure-cum-history films that were produced in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, was directed by Dinu Cocea (b. 1929), a director most of whose work is in the lighter genres and who has to his credit some of the most popular titles of Romanian cinema, such as Parasutisti/ The Paratroopers (1972) and the films about legendary outlaw Iancu Jianu from the early 1980s. The Outlaws was 37 year-old Cocea’s truly assured directorial debut, soon thereafter followed by a second installment called Razbunarea haiducilor/ The Revenge of the Outlaws (1968), the poster of which is pictured here.

The film is set during the 18th century in the mountains of Wallachia (a.k.a. Ţara Românească), a province located to the south of the Carpathians, which was part of the Ottoman empire. At the time it was effectively ruled by Greek Phanariots installed by Istanbul to take charge of the empire’s Christian millet (province). The outlaws that acted during this period would usually aim to undermine the rule of the Phanariots and the Ottomans, and this is one of the main motivations behind the actions of the film’s protagonists. But there are also complex inter-personal relations at play.

The story evolves around two stepbrothers, Sarbu and Amza, who are leaders of a band of outlalws. Sarbu, a treacherous and violent person (played by Romanian megastar Amza Pellea, 1931-1983), betrays his brother and sells him off to the Ottoman authorities who come to hunt him in the inn where he has just spent the night with his lover. Amza, the good brother, is brandmarked and then put in a cage and left hanging between the walls of a huge cave. Sarbu violates his woman (a feisty inn-keeper played by Magda Barbu), and then ventures on to a series of outrageous deeds, which involve, among other things, marrying the Phanariot ruler’s daughter and then rudely manipulating and blackmailing her family over money due to the Turkish sultan that they have tried to appropriate. The story, which involves simple-hearted Romanians, treacherous Greek Phanariots, and aloof Ottoman Turks soon turns into a story of revenge, after Amza is freed from his cave imprisonment and comes back to institute a spectacular vengeance over Sarbu.

Here s the only clip from the film I was able to find. Alas, it has got no subtitles. It refers to the moment when Amza’s outlaw friends manage to charm and fool the local Christian monks, a move that allows them to get access to the cave where their friend is imprisoned and manage his bold release.

The film is edited on a fast pace, the characterisation is convincing; all in all it makes for an excellent example for the achievements that East European cinemas had in these genres (see my discussion of another representative of these films, Estonian Viimne Reliikvia). The copy which I watched was black and white, so all I could do was to imagine what it would look like in color, especially as the photography proficiently focused on dynamically-staged fight scenes interspersed between spectacular and breathtaking mountain views. The film is influenced by some of the Polish historical epics of the early 1960s, but also by swashbuckler extravaganzas like Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) as well as by spaghetti Westerns (most clearly seen in the pub and shoot out scenes at the beginning of the film).

The spectacular death of Sabru is interestingly staged: he is hanged on a church bell and his body keeps bouncing up and down for a while. This same set-up is seen in several of the films of Emir Kusturica, most notably in Time of the Gypsies and in Underground (where Marko’s brother commits suicide this way). The Outlaws was most likely distributed in Yugoslavia, and it is quite possible that it informed Kusturica’s artistic vision, as the director is known to frequently re-stage visual tropes from other films in his own works (see my 2002 monograph Emir Kusturica for a more extended discussion on this matter).

I was able to see this film due to the friendly assistance of Marian Tutui from the Romanian National Film Centre of which I am truly grateful.

© Dina Iordanova
26 October 2008

Viimne reliikvia/ The Last Relic (USSR – Estonia, 1969) Grigori Kromanov

September 5, 2008 at 6:50 am

The Last Relic is seen by many as the best Estonian film. It is, undoubtedly, the most popular Estonian film as well, a prime example of the attempts of the Soviet Union to produce appealing mass entertainment (other classical illustrations of this endeavor were films like Neulovymie mstiteli, a truly entertaining gem from 1966). The film has all elements of a good romantic adventure: love affair between two extremely good looking protagonists, who manage to be together against all odds and by overcoming all sorts of difficulties that an assortment of disguised enemies (clergy, ambitious suitors, envious rivals) put on their way. There are gorgeous horses, chases through lovely forests, exciting river passages, night scenes at burning castles, treacherous cloister underground corridors, funny jokes, and memorable songs.

The film is based on a classical Estonian book for children, which was substantially changed in the process of adaptation. One of the important new aspects was the introduction of dynamic songs which are still popular today (and which are performed by different singers and in different musical arrangements for the Estonian and the Russian versions of the film). In the documentary that is appended to the DVD, the makers of the film openly acknowledge that they were influenced directly by films like the French Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) and the classical version of Robin Hood (1938, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland). But they also indicate they had in mind many other adventure films of the time as well. The cameraman spoke of being influenced by Antonioni, but it seems to me there were influences also from the East European school of filmmaking with their long shots (mostly Miklos Jancso) — one scene that is reminiscent of a Pieter Bruegel painting includes a two-minute long uninterrupted take including over 200 extras in a complexly choreographed traveling shot.

The Last Relic was made for about one million roubles, a truly sizable budget for the time. At the time of its release it was seen by nearly 45 million people within the Soviet Union alone, and it was exported to 63 countries. Most of these countries, notably, are located in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe — a glance at the list of these gives a very interesting outline of the geopolitical distribution of the cultural sphere of influence of the Second World at the time. These also happen to be precisely those territories that we know very little about in terms of cinematc exposure.

One of the remarkable features of The Last Relic is that it puts the love affair in the center of the plot, and tackles it quite openly, by including erotic scenes of a type that has not normally been seen in Soviet cinema; in one instance Ingrid Andrina, the lead actress, is shown naked — the scene looks like out of a Scandinavian film of that time. The role of the nun Ursula, a young woman permanently attracted to men, is played by the well-known Eve Kivi (who enjoyed somewhat of a similar reputation in real life). Even though for an outsider like me Ursula’s presence appears to be a minor supporting role without any particular significance, it seems that due to the actrress’ special reputation the character acquires a much bigger importance, is given tremendous attention in the discussions of the film that I have come across and is credited as nearly key personage in the context of the film.

Even though billed as Estonian (as it is made in Estonia and based on Estonian material), the film is a true example of the Soviet dimension in filmmaking. Alongside beautiful Ingrid Andrina (as Agnes) and feisty Eve Kivi (as Ursula), several of the most important roles are played by Russian actors – Aleksandr Goloborodko (Gabriel) and famous Rolan Bykov (as Brother Johannes)*. Elza Radzina (best known from her roles in Grigoriy Kozintsev’s Shakespeare adaptations, here as the Abtiss of the Monastery), also has an important role. The role of Ivo Schenkenberg, a real historical personality, was initially planned for Lithuanian star Juozas Budraitis (but then went to Estonian Peeter Jacobi, who delivers a fully competent performance).

Here is one of the musical numbers, a song about fighting for one’s freedom. In the ‘making of’ documentary, the author of the lyrics said he worked on these precisely at the time when Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague in 1968, thus he truly embraced the chance to create a song about liberty and rebellion.

The entire film is available to view on YouTube , cut into ten minute-long segments, but these are only in an Estonian version. It is interesting that from over twenty videos that have been posted here, none has subtitles nor any explanation in English. Evidently, those who posted did not imagine that anyone beyond Estonians would be interested in it.

The Last Relic was restored with the assistance of Finnish collaborators and re-released in 2002, 33 years after its original premiere. It is available to purchase on DVD with English, German, Russian, Finnish, Latvian and Estonian subtitles.

* At the time of the shooting Bykov was simultaneously working on his own directorial Vnimanie, cherepakha!/Attention, turtle!, a great childrens’ movie of the time released in 1970.

© Dina Iordanova
5 September 2008

Transnational Class of Film Professionals I

July 27, 2008 at 12:17 am

Russian director Sergei Bodrov, Chinese cameraman Fei Zhao, Czech cameraman Igor Luther

The emerging class of transnational film professionals consists of American and other international specialists who have gravitated around Hollywood but who regularly contract on productions from various countries, and of specialists who are based in a range of other countries, but whose dispersal does not prevent them from grouping and regrouping in various team configurations, again to work on a wide range of productions made internationally. It is in the context of epic cinema that this highly skilled labour is most easily seen and discovered, maybe because it is these large-scale productions with their sizable crews of below the line personnel that create the need of outsourcing arrangements that would bring in professionals that offer their services in the sphere of transnational filmmaking.

It is about stunts specialists, special effects people, the folks engaged in CGI, the musical effects department, and so on. As this is a highly-skilled and well-paid workforce that needs to be kept employed on an ongoing basis, the companies that employ these specialists often take on assignments coming from international sources. The result is that, no matter if the film is billed as Chinese or American production, its underlying stunts, special effects, sound effects, and CGI are often generated from within the same group of transnational professionals. Even though most of the crew who worked on House of Flying Daggers are Chinese, the sound and visual effects were outsourced to American companies, and ended up being handled by people who were also involved in productions such as Moulin Rouge, Lord of the Rings, 300 and The World Trade Center. It is only Indian superproductions for now who manage to source all departments entirely from within their own workforce.

Of course, the talent working above the line are more often than not transnational professionals themselves – like Russian director Sergei Bodrov, who worked for the Kazakh government on Nomad and who then made Mongol as a Kazakh/German/Russian/Mongolian production. Mongol used a Japanese star, a Russian and a Dutch cinematographer, an Icelandic editor, and a Finnish composer, as well as scores of Chinese, Koreans, Germans and Russians employed in ‘below the line’ roles. The Chinese cinematographer of The Emperor and the Assassin, Fei Zhao, also shot films for Woody Allen. Czech cameramen worked on Suryiothai one of whom, Igor Luther, has worked across Europe with directors like Andrzej Wajda and Volker Schlöndorff. It is more of less the same like in Hollywood, which is used to cherry-picking international talent in putting together multinational crews, where Oliver Stone’s Alexander had a team comprising of a Mexican cinematographer, a Greek composer, an editor who mostly works in the Arab world and an editor who mostly works with Luc Besson.

It is still too early to say to what extend this pragmatic transnationalism, often driven by pure practicalities and matters of convenience and often remaining behind the scenes and below the line, impacts on the look and feel of epic films, if at all. In the second part of this post, I will discuss an example where I saw it clearly pronounced and deployed in an interesting context.

© Dina Iordanova
27 July 2008

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

The Emperor and the Assassin/ Jing ke ci qin wang (1998) Chen Kaige

July 20, 2008 at 9:54 pm

The Emperor and the Assassin, a co-production between China, Japan and France (with some German participation), preceded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s success, and thus remained somewhat less visible than it would be if it had been released in the aftermath of Ang Lee’s phenomenal success. It was directed by another Fifth Generation figurehead, Chen Kaige, whose credits also include the beautiful Life on a String (1991) and the Cannes winner Farewell My Concubine (1993). Like Curse of the Golden Flower, it also stars Gong Li and has been similarly described as a ‘compelling epic’ an as ‘Chinese history with a Shakespearean twist’.

The film is set in 3rd century BC and features court intrigues related to the establishment of Ying Zheng, heir to the Kingdom of Qin, as powerful emperor whose ambition is to expand his rule beyond his immediate kingdom.

It was shot entirely on location in China and is one of the first productions meant for distribution abroad that clearly took advantage of the fact that labor was so much cheaper in China. In newsgroup review Edwin Jahiel estimates the budget between $10 and $30 million. If this indeed is the case, it is likely that the film was not particularly successful commercially; while it has probably returned the investment, it is not really likely that it has surpassed it more than twice. There are very limited data on its box office, and it is not clear what it made in territories in Europe and Asia. Released December 2000 in the US where it played at a handful of screens (maximum 37) its gross reached $1,328,435. There are no data on revenues from the DVD distribution, even though this is probably a key potential source of revenues. Like many other of these epics, the film, even though it is available on DVD, is also an easy target for pirated Torrent download.

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

Curse of the Golden Flower/ Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (2006), Zhang Yimou

July 20, 2008 at 3:27 am

Based on a classical Chinese play and set around the end of the Tang Dynasty of 10th century AD, Curse of the Golden Flower is the most lavish of Zhang Yimou’s costume epics, featuring more than 1000 extras along the world’s most bankable Chinese-language stars (Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li), extensive battle scenes and superbly elaborate sets and costumes. It is the film that comes the closest to the Western concept of an epic film in that it places large-scale historical movements in direct relation to the intrigues and the intricate relations of the royal court, and in that its plot is most directly reminiscent to a classical Western-style tragedy. With the density of emotion and feeling confined within the closed world of the family, the story is reminiscent to ancient Greek dramas, or it can be directly compared to Shakespearian tragic plots.

And indeed, in an interview at the film’s world premiere (notably taking place as part of the AFI fest in Hollywood), actor Chow Yun Fat articulates clearly that the film’s team were conscious of how close this film is to classical Western narratives, by comparing it to tragedies like King Lear and Hamlet.

In this reportage realized by Asia Pacific Arts (with the reporter making the remark that the premiere does not seem to have received much coverage from the mainstream networks), director Zhang Yimou is seen claiming that the absence of China-specific historical and cultural background knowledge should not impede the Western viewers’ reception, as they will undoubtedly be able to appreciate the epic tale simply as a profound human drama.

The utterings made in the context of this reportage are really noteworthy in that they reveal important aspects of the dynamics of transnational considerations in filmmaking: clearly, the film was pitched to investors as a project of great commercial potential precisely because of its dramatic/tragic plot (comparable to the very popular Shakespeare) that would make the culturally specific background irrelevant and thus supply it with the cross-over potential for a commercially successful project.

According to the (incomplete) data made available at Box Office Mojo, the film’s worldwide gross was $78,568,977. US domestic revenues are about 8.4% ($6,566,773) while the international ones account for an even bigger proportion of 91.6% ($72,002,204). Handled by Sony Classics, the film had a run of about 14 weeks, between January and March 2007, reaching its widest US release at 1,234 screens. Internationally it has played in theatrical distribution across 35 or so territories, in North and South America, Asia and Europe. About a dozen or so companies were involved in the film’s international distribution, half of which are overseas arms of Hollywood players such as Buena Vista International (Singapore) or Columbia TriStar (Argentina).

The revenues from the film look good, but this changes as soon as one realizes that the budget of Curse of the Golden Flower is actually at about 50% higher than that of Hero (at the time the most expensive Chinese film). Hero was made for about $30 million, whereas the estimated budget for Curse of the Golden Flower is $45 million. Thus the revenues that the film has realized, less than 200% cannot really compare with the 600% that the two other previous epics of Zhang Yimou brought in.

Like the previous two epics, the credits for the sound effects and the visual/CGI departments are heavily populated by Western names of professionals belonging to the growing class of transnational specialists working in these industries.

What I find particularly striking in the case of Curse of the Golden Flower is that while being the film that comes the closest to what a Western costume epic is like in plot and style, this is also the film that is least commercially successful of the three. Is this indicative of a wider trend when ‘foreign’ epics are concerned? It may well be the case, so this will be a question I will be asking myself in looking at another Chinese epic that did not seem to do very well, either, Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (1998).

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Emperor and the Assassin), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

© Dina Iordanova
20 July 2008

House of Flying Daggers/Shi mian mai fu (2004), Zhang Yimou

July 19, 2008 at 2:11 am

Zhang Yimou’s second installment in the wuxia genre, House of Flying Daggers came to the West just a few months after the delayed release of Hero (2002). In this context, the procrastination that surrounded Hero‘s release may have played a positive role in enhancing the impact of this second film. But it can also have been the other way around, as in this instance the second film really came too soon after the first one (between two and four months in different Western countries); Miramax had been concerned about releasing Hero too soon after Crouching Tiger (see my discussion of this here); such fear may have been more applicable in this case with the two Zhang Yimou films. Whereas in real terms there had been a two year gap between the making of the two films, to viewers in the West they came within the same season.

House of Flying Daggers was made for an estimated 100,000,000 CNY (c. $15 million US) and within China it made about CNY 55,000,000 on theatrical release (c. $8.1 million US). Clearly, the film could only make successful business on the realization of international revenues. Distributed by Sony within the USA, by Focus films internationally, and by about another 15 companies regionally, the film made a total of $92,863,945 worldwide during the 18 weeks that the Box Office Mojo has monitored the release in 2005, of which about 88% came from international revenues ($81,813,851) and only 12% were domestic US ($11,050,094 at 1,189 screens).

Judging by these numbers, it appears that the domestic U.S. revenues may have indeed been damaged by the timing of the release, just two months after Hero. But it is also important to note that the gross revenues are at levels similar to those of the other film. Made for about $30 million, Hero made this amount about six times over. Similarly, made for $15 million, House of Flying Daggers also made it about six times over. What is different in the revenue patterns of the two films is the balance between international and US box office revenues.

Set in the time of Tang Dynasty in the 9th century AD, the film evolves around intricate stories of betrayal, romance, and honor, and features spectacular and impeccably choreographed sword fight routines. Zhang Yimou’s love for colors, seen in his early classics like Ju Dou (1990), here comes to full swing; the art directors’ work could easily rival the concepts of top fashion designers. Watching House of Flying Daggers can best be compared to the experience of visiting a Shanghai Tang store.

The film’ reception in China has been quite critical, as reported in the Wikipedia article on the film. The critical reception in the West is more or less summarized by Jason Blake who describes the film as ‘ravishing to look at but dramatically inert’. When the IMDb users are asked to rank the three Yimou recent spectacular epics, almost unanimously the vote goes in favour for Hero, maybe because it is the purest form of an action film. One of the voters says: ‘The second film focused as much on opulence as action, and the third was an exercise in opulence’.

I found myself agreeing with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who assessed House of Flying Daggers contextually as a work of transnational cinema:

Entertainments like this have been criticised as Sino-American inventions, cumbersome magic-realist versions of martial arts, custom built for western audiences, which piously subtract the comedy that Asian audiences have traditionally enjoyed. Added to this criticism is the recent suggestion that Hero, with its bullish theme of Chinese unification, was in tune with a new reactionary patriotism. I can only say that if this Hollywood-ised wuxia is a new form of the genre, it’s all the more exciting for that. As for its alleged chauvinism, this movie’s content is much more ambiguous than that. The government is corrupt; the rebels are virtuous; we hardly know who is on whose side and the disguises and subterfuge are almost a reminder of Andy Lau’s cynical Hong Kong cop thriller Infernal Affairs. House of Flying Daggers is hardly an uncritical piece of cheerleading for the Chinese state.

Most of the crew involved in the making of House of Flying Daggers are Chinese, except crew members from two departments — sound and visual effects. Some of the specialists involved here, also worked on films such as Moulin Rouge, Lord of the Rings, 300, of the World Trade Center. Thus, the film is only partially representative of the tendency to employ transnationally the globally developing workforce in special effects.

© Dina Iordanova
16 July 2008

Hero/Ying xiong (2002), Zhang Yimou

July 17, 2008 at 11:41 pm

During the third century B.C., before becoming a united Empire, China is split into a number of warring feudal kingdoms. Jet Li, the ‘Hero’, is an ordinary peasant of extraordinary fighting skill. He comes to the service of Qin, the ruler, and puts his amazing skills to work for his protection against various assailants, played respectively by Asian stars such as Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi.

Here I am interested in looking into the film’s distribution and reception history, as I believe it shows important patterns of the changing dynamics in world cinema. With Hero we have a situation where a non-Western film gains reputable and even superior standing in comparison with more traditional products of global Hollywood without necessarily becoming fully dependent on the exposure granted by Hollywood’s global distribution machine.

Made for an estimated 30 million US dollars and thus being the most expensive Chinese film to date, Zhang Yimou’s Hero is often referred to as China’s ‘frank attempt to surpass Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Roger Ebert). Other reviews usually develop an argument about the potential of foreign film, frame it through the success of John Woo and Crouching Tiger, and cover it as a Hong Kong film. The article in Time magazine, is representative in that it summarizes Hero as ‘the most ambitious martial-arts epic since Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars in 2001 and broke the box-office mold by becoming the most successful foreign film to hit the U.S.’

Confronted with the question as to what extent his work on Hero is triggered by the success of Ang Lee’s film (which at its time had the best box-office for non-English language film), director Zhang Yimou responds:

I don’t know much about the West. I’m not Ang Lee who knows so much about western market and the taste of western audiences. My English is not as good as his. In the past, am I just a farmer director? (laugh) But I think we need the international market. The budget is high. To make sure the boss (investor) make money, only focusing on the domestic market is not enough. Piracy has destroyed the domestic market. Now a movie with 30 million returns would be something very incredible and the producer can only get 10 to 15 million. This is only 100 thousands US dollars. This is not enough!

Hero‘s distribution history in the US seems to be the most interesting aspect in the film’s life, as it is reveals patterns that may be more significant that they seem. The film was released in 2002 across Asia, and rapidly became a blockbuster hit; it was one of the nominations for a foreign Oscar in 2002. Miramax had originally acquired U.S. and some international distribution rights in 2002 after the film’s great success in Asia but, as it has often been the case with other films acquired by Miramax*, a significant period of time passed before before the release of the official U.S. version. Meanwhile, the film gained a cult following in the States via copies of the DVD imported from other countries, a completely legal practice given the absence of a US-labeled product. In newsgroup reviews, Homer Yen remarks that because of the delay, by the time of its theatrical release the members of the sizable Chinese community in the US had already seen the film on DVD, either pirated or imported from HK. Another newsgroup review claims that Miramax have been dragging their feet with Hero‘s release as they apparently did not expect to be able to garner a significant income from another ‘wuxia’ film so soon after Crouching Tiger. They were evidently wrong, as Hero quickly ended up among the highest grossing foreign films in the US. Here is J. Hoberman’s account on the story behind the release, from the Village Voice:

Hero’s backstory is also action-packed. Having acquired the most costly movie ever made in China back in 2002, Miramax sat on its U.S. release, diddling with the running time, until other forces came into play. Quentin Tarantino persuaded his padrone Harvey Weinstein to restore the movie to its original length. Then, Weinstein’s estranged padrone Michael Eisner released some extra bucks to facilitate the movie’s release, acting to placate the Chinese officials whose help he needs for his Sino Disney World.

On release in the U.S., Hero had Tarantino’s names attached as a ‘producer’, clearly revealing the insecurity of the distributors who evidently did not believe the film could have a life of its own, without the endorsement of an American cult icon.

During the opening weekend at the end of August 2004, however, Hero made $18,004,319 (playing at 2,031 theaters with a $8,864 per screen average, and soon reaching its widest U.S. release at 2,175 screens). According to the IMDb, the opening weekend grosses were, respectively, for the UK £1,005,571 (26 September 2004; 254 screens), Australia AUD 2,258,748 (6 November 2004), for Italy €1,689,089 (10 October 2004; 313 screens) and for Spain €461,720 (16 November 2003; 91 screens). For more detail, see the good overview of the box office and reception of film at the Wikipedia entry.

According to Box Office Mojo Hero‘s worldwide gross came to $177,394,432, of which the international box office accounts for 69.7% ($123,684,413) and the domestic U.S. market, for 30.3% ($53,710,019). There are several observations that need to be made here: a) The distribution of Hero‘s revenues pretty much replicates the revenue balance of a typical Hollywood epic distributed internationally, with about one-third coming from the domestic US market, and roughly two thirds — from international markets. b) In the case of Hero, however, this is achieved by a combination of over ten distributors who handled the film in various countries and not one distributor that handles the film across multiple territories, as is typically the case of a Hollywood (even though one should also note that some major Hollywood players have been involved with the film internationally). c) Box Office Mojo’s data cannot be complete as there is no full reporting in the context in which they operate, nor do they include reliable DVD figures. It is likely that the film’s revenues could be thus, significantly bigger, especially as it is clear that nobody is keeping track on the piracy that plagues non-American releases. d) There have not been attempts to estimate if and what Miramax have lost by delaying the film’s release. Still, it is important to speak of this situation as economically important as it is about losses incurred (or potential profits not realised).

By way of comparison, again according to Box Office Mojo, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was made for an estimated 15 million dollars, made about 60% of its revenues from the domestic US market ($61,231,307) and only about 40% from international territories (circa 40 million dollars), totaling slightly over 100 million dollars in 2001.

Hero is a co-production between China and Hong-Kong (even though these are officially ‘one country’ today, they still co-produce between/within themselves). The realization of the film is largely a Chinese effort, with a line-up of Chinese and Hong Kong actors, led by diasporic legend Jet Li. When it comes down to visual effects, however, the credits list includes Hollywood specialists who have also been involved with films such as Moulin Rouge or The Matrix. Thus, the film is also partially representative of the trend to internationalization in special special effects, which I am discussing elsewhere.

Maybe because it cross-referenced two popular genres, the ‘wuxia’ martial arts film and the lavish costume drama, the response to Hero and the film’s media coverage was massive, including scores of interviews with the director and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who received numerous awards for his work (alongside the scores awards and nominations for the film, among which were nominations at the Oscars, the Golden Globe awards, and so on). A breathtaking number of user comments on the IMDb (790) is suitably matched by the number of external reviews linked here (245), indicative of the number of printed reviews that are not linked. (It is interesting to note that participants in the on-line exchanges are mostly based in the US, UK and Canada, thus one cannot say that much of cross-cultural discussion is taking place). The critical receptions, however, vary. On the World Socialist’s web-site the film is deplored for compromising with the status quo of cinema dictated by pragmatic box-office interests, while on the imdb message board a user interprets the film as an overt communist propaganda (with its low class protagonist-freedom fighter and its values of patriotic self-sacrifice). And while most reactions to Hero are in the ‘Wow!’ range, acknowledging it as a visually stunning poetic masterpiece, featuring jaw-dropping art direction and martial arts, there are reactions like the one of a newsgroup reviewer who complains over misleading marketing which made him expect a Tarantino-type film and which put him off due to the subtitling.

Besides Ang Lee’s Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000), in the context of various discussions Hero has been cross-referenced to films ranging from Leni Riefehstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934), through Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Ran (1985), coming to present-day texts such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003/2004) and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). Other references include Tsui Hark’s Jet Li classic Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China, 1991), The Last Samurai (2003), Alexander (2004) and Beowulf (2007).

* See Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent classical essay, The World According to Harvey and Bob, also Peter Biskind’s book on Miramax.

© Dina Iordanova
18 July 2008

Asoka (India, 2001) Santosh Sivan

June 19, 2008 at 12:30 am

I will not discuss the plot of Asoka here, as it is summarized very nicely at the Wikipedia article about the film. It is sufficient to say that the story is based on a real historical personality who lived in the 3rd century B.C., a warrior king from the Mauryan dynasty who was committed to spreading the Buddhist teachings, who united various groups and made secured the prosperity of his kingdom in India. Made by Shah Rukh Khan’s production outfit, relying exclusively on Indian talent, and starring Shah Rukh Khan as the controversial protagonist and Kareena Kapoor as his love interest, the film focuses mostly on Asoka’s formative years. It is scripted, directed and shot by acclaimed cameraman Santosh Sivan, and features beautiful cinematography (including location filming in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajastan and Maharashtra), a memorable musical score, and impressive scenes of epic battles and lone endeavors.

Released in the same year as Lagaan (2001), Asoka was the second Indian film of epic scope to make inroads into UK’s mainstream film culture in a year which, with a wealth of other events, proved crucial for the advancement of Indian diasporic culture in the West. Here it opened in October 2001 on 76 screens, in the widest release for an Indian film up to that point, and made half a million pounds within the first three weeks. Distributed by First Look, the widest release the film got in the USA was on 66 screens, making a total of about $700,000 theatrically. It played at theaters in a number of other territories, including India, South Africa, the Middle East, and Egypt; it was shown at festivals as well, but not very prominently. Even though there are no data on the auxiliary distribution, the DVD is widely available in the UK and the USA, as well as in Germany, France, and Japan. The low price of the DVD in the UK (at £6) suggests that it is priced for a mass release. Asoka has also been shown on TV in China.

The wide international release resulted in a number of reviews that appeared in the West, written either by professional or amateur critics. In the context of Asoka‘s discussion, the film has been cross-referenced to Cimarron (1931), Ivan the Terrible (1944), Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Camelot (1967), Tinto Brass’ Caligola (1979), Braveheart (1995), the Japanese Rurôni Kenshin: Meiji kenkaku roman tan: Tsuioku hen (1999), Gladiator (2000), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot (2000), and Alexander (2004) — most of these sagas of lonesome warriors who persisted in their visions, but also films that attracted audiences transnationally. The Indian references are to Utsav (1984) and Agni Varsha (2002), apparently there are not too many epic films here are based on real historical characters.

The other commentary found in the reviews, however, is by far more interesting: as Asoka was one of the pioneering non-Western epics to get a wide release, it triggered some sincere and somewhat wide-eyed reactions, like the one from the writer who admit that he is familiar with Asoka mostly as a restaurant name. Excellent reviews appeared at Teleport City and Flak Magazine, both framing the commentary on Asoka with reflections on the writers’ process of overcoming Western cultural bias and inadequacy.

Most of the mainstream reviews are simply geared to preparing the potential viewers what to expect, asking them to suspend conventions of genre and style, relax and try enjoying the film. Acting may be overdone (a viewer remarks that she found ‘rather indigestible idea of Shah Rukh Khan in the role of a great emperor’), the film may be fairly melodramatic, the length excessive, the musical numbers punctuating the narrative — unusual, the comedy subplots — stupefying. And yet, it is worth seeing it, critics insisted. Covering Asoka for the BBC, Neil Smith’s review talks of a ‘big sprawling epic’, and promises that viewers would find it invigorating, only if they manage to leave their prejudices at the box office. Clearly operating with a pretty homogeneous view of who is the audience (presumably white, Western born and educated), the recommendation read: ‘To an audience reared on mainstream American product,’ — Smith writes — ‘this rich mix of action, romance, comedy, and drama may be hard to swallow in one sitting. A swordfight will segue into a song, a battle will be interspersed with slapstick humor, and a movie that started off as a whimsical romance may wind up as an overblown tragedy.’ Another UK critic remarked that even though Asoka has been screening at the mainstream chain ‘Odeon’, the publicity on the film is non-existent; he doubts it if the chain is likely to keep it running for a longer time. (This presence at the mainstream theater in the context of absence of any media mentions is typical for many similar releases of non-Western epics).

Trade magazine Variety, on the other hand, covers the new releases for a readership of distributors and exhibitors in the West, so their reviews are normally expected to assess a film’s commercial potential. Here is an excerpt of David Rooney’s review of Asoka in Variety, who assesses the film as an ‘entertaining saga’:

‘”Asoka” provides further evidence that Bollywood is poised for wider commercial impact beyond its already substantial established niche. And while the ambling, uneconomical nature of popular Indian storytelling makes major crossover business unlikely in this case, some degree of general arthouse attention appears indicated […] While pace is uneven, the story unfolds in a solidly accessible style, driven by Sivan’s muscular camerawork and dynamic visual sense and by editor Shreekar Prasad’s agile cutting. Production values are highly polished. Romantic scenes are suitably overripe, battles are staged with bold assurance and the colorful, imaginative musical interludes are a delight, although the fact that all three of them come in the first half of the film creates an imbalance. Khan cuts a dashing figure as a soulful hunk in the traditional Bollywood mold, while Kapoor plays ornately tattooed Kaurwaki as a lively mix of flirtatious coquette and feisty warrior woman, kind of like J. Lo meets Michelle Yeoh.’

In an article entitled Asoka, Afghanistan and Horrors of War, appearing on South Asian Women’s Forum on 12 November 2001, Indian playwright Sunny Singh gives quite a different reception account. It is not clear if she is seeing the film in India or in Afgnanistan (she is either there at the time, or has just returned from a visit). Talking of her viewing experience, she links her reaction to Asoka to present-day violence, to the political context in which she lives, and talks of the film from a completely different perspective yet framing it within a similar set of references (‘the film seemed to combine the best of world filmmaking, with the editing of a Tarantino, subtlety of a Kurosawa and the lush, hyper-real aesthetics of our very own Bollywood. If the kalari sequences were reminescent of a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the philosophical moorings were far more profound. If cinematographically, the war sequences reminded one of “Braveheart,” the emotional devastation was clearly rooted in our own ideals of ahimsa. I have to say, Bollywood has come of age this year: with “Lagaan,” “Dil Chahta Hai” and now “Asoka,” transforming the idiom of the commercial Hindi film, and paving the way to truly memorable cinema.’) What I find particularly interesting about this type of account is that it powerfully brings into the reception discourse an angle that has traditionally been ignored or excluded, and a voice that has usually been silenced.

© Dina Iordanova
19 June 2008