Snoop Dogg, Akshay Kumar and Singh Is Kinng (2008): More Transnational Film Professionals

July 29, 2008 at 2:02 am

View here Snoop Dogg’s and Akshay Kumar’s video for the still-to-be-released Indo-Australian Singh Is Kinng (2008), posted by johalballin on YouTube. Like is the practice in Bollywood, the music is released before the film to create hype and momentum.

Not just an encounter between Bollywood and Hollywood, the film is yet another prime example of the transnationalisation of highly skilled labor in filmmaking which I have been covering over the past few days. A look at the ‘below the line’ sections of the crew reveal whole teams of non-Indian assistant directors, art designers, and special effects people, who come with background from productions like Inspector Gadget or the Australian Western, The Proposition. The stuntspeople have been not only in Australian and US productions, but also in films made in China, Japan and other Asian hubs, and many of the miscellaneous crew members have Bosnian or Croatian-sounding names, reminding me of the forced dispersal of families from former Yugoslavia to all parts of the world nearly fifteen years ago, just about the time needed for their children to grow up and get entry level jobs in transnational filmmaking.

See also Part I and Part II of Transnational Class of Film Professionals.

© Dina Iordanova
29 July 2008

Transnational Class of Film Professionals II

July 28, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Valley of the Wolves: Iraq (Kurtlar vadisi – Irak) is a Turkish action film made in 2006, set in the conflict zone in Iraq near the Turkish border. The film opens with a reenactment a real incident from the summer of 2003 (pictured), where a group of Turkish border guards are arrested in their own headquarters and publicly humiliated by American troops, who are officially their ‘allies’. The incident leads to the suicide of one of the border officers who feels he has been dishonored by such treatment on the very territory he is supposed to guard and protect. Opening with a set up that clearly questions the nature of the American ‘allied’ involvement with Turkey, the rest of the film pictures in truly dark shades the travails of various shady American figures and mercenaries operating in Iraq, and the resistance they encounter from brave undercover Turkish patriots. There are many action scenes, weddings that end up in bloodshed, blown-up minarets, spectacular fights, suicide explosions, as well as reconstructions of scenes that remind of the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures, smartly interwoven into the plot.

The film made quite a splash internationally, and even though it has not been shown in America, it has been extensively discussed as a work of anti-Americanism. A discussion on NBC even mentioned that American troops stationed in countries where the film was screening have been explicitly prohibited from seeing it, out of fear that they may become subject of attack by enraged audiences. And even if the film was not distributed in the US, the two American actors who were cast in it, Billy Zane and Gary Busey, were publicly denounced for taking part, and declared anti-patriotic racist mercenaries, like in this image seen at a blog-site called ‘Villagers with Torches‘.

It is not my intention to go into this controversy here, as I have discussed it elsewhere (BBC World Service, December 2006). My interest in Valley of the Wolves is in relation to the emerging transnational class of film professionals, and it is this film that gives me the chance to most powerfully illustrate my point. The stunts, for example, were handled by a group of Czech-born professionals, who mostly work in Hollywood but also have regular international outings. Dusan Hyska, the stunt coordinator for the production, comes with credits from films such as Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and has worked on productions by directors like James Cameron (Titanic) and Scorsese (Gangs of New York). His fellow-stuntsman Jiri Horky was in Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and, more recently, in the second installment of the Chronicles of Narnia (2008) while Jan Petrina, Billy Zane’s stunt double, has also been in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). If we move on to the special effects department led by industry veteran Mark Meddings, one discovers a wealth of overlaps with key American films by directors Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg and Oliver Stone. Employed on Valley of the Wolves as coordinator of special effects, Meddings comes with credits as senior special effects technician on Saving Private Ryan (1998), and has to his credits films such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003), and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). The project that immediately preceded his involvement with Valley of the Wolves was Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a film showing the clash of Christian and Islamic civilizations.

Here is a clip of the film. The Hollywood touch shows; the style seen in this sequence is reminiscent of the bazaar scene in Indiana Jones (I believe it was in Raiders of the Lost Ark), mixed with sequences from Black Hawk Down.

In the ‘bonus’ section of Valley of the Wolves DVD, Meddings and his colleagues are seen setting up scenes of destruction with dummies, bloody body parts, artificial severed limbs and a variety of other props and prosthetics. Watching the ‘Making of’ documentary I could not help a feeling of a ‘deja vu’, thinking of many other similar ‘Making of’ documentaries found on the DVDs of Hollywood action epics, showing teams of equally committed special effects professionals engaged with setting up the pyrotechnics, the stunts, and the prosthetics for each new film. The plastic severed limbs and the little pumps that splat blood used in the Valley of the Wolves clearly have their prototype in the well-familiar bloody body parts and guts scattered all over Omaha beach in the famous scene that created the memorable heart-wrenching reaction on seeing Saving Private Ryan‘s opening scenes.

The bottom line is that the creative specialist force behind this epic entertainment is the same, and it operates transnationally. The same people whose skills and ingenuity helped create the unforgettable visceral images that enhanced American patriotism in Saving Private Ryan can happen, on occasion, to apply those same skills and wit in the context of productions that may encourage a very different view of the world. It is not realistic that the special effects profession or the stunts people, many of whom may be working in Hollywood but are often not even Americans, could be bound by patriotic loyalties or political allegiances that would bar them from taking on assignments across the world. It is an aspect of globalization that needs to be acknowledged and reckoned with.

For Part I of his post, click here.

© Dina Iordanova
29 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).

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 Steamroller and the Violin/ Katok i skripka (1961, USSR) Andrei Tarkovsky

July 26, 2008 at 2:01 am

Tarkovsky’s diploma film, a 43-minute long novella, is of interest to see from several points of view: first, it allows to trace the formation of Tarkovsky’s future cinematic style; secondly, it allows to see and contextualize the building blocs of the narrative approach in which the director was trained; and third, it reveals a certain degree of homoeroticism.

As far as style is concerned, in this color film one already stumbles upon some of the images that we know as Tarkovsky’s trademark, mostly the the interplay of light and shadow on walls (which can take a wide range of moods, from unsettling to playful) and the close up shots of static or moving water. Many of the stunning crisp black and white imagery of Tarkovsky’s next film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), already appear here but have lesser impact in color (apples, metal rods, confined cellar-like spaces, shiny water surfaces, and so on). I could not help marveling to what extent one can see the direct influence of Mikhail Kalatozov’s work here. There are shots that appear as if directly borrowed from the image inventory of Cranes are Flying (1957) — shiny puddles of water, prolonged shots tracking the protagonists moving along an iron-cast fence, and so on. Of course, by now it is clear that this generation was vastly influenced by the camerawork of Sergei Urusevsky, the unsung hero of Soviet cinema of the period, so this should not be such an unusual discovery.

When it comes to the plot, I cannot help feeling somewhat cynical, as The Steamroller and Violin ticks all the right boxes for the required/approved narrative of the period. Co-scripted by future director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovski, himself an offspring of the politically well-heeled Moscow elites, the film features a working class protagonist, an encounter of old and new, and a subtle class conflict which presents the bourgeoisie in critical light.

Seven year old Sasha is one of these tormented children that have to spend three hours a day practicing a musical instrument just to satisfy the sick ambition of their parents. Already alienated and withdrawn as a result of his peculiar routines, Sasha quickly regains his innocuous charm when he accidentally meets and befriends worker Sergei, who works on a steamroller in their upscale Moscow neighborhood. Sasha and Sergei hang out in the courtyard, and then make a date to go to the cinema in the evening to see ‘Chapayev’ (equivalent to an intention to go see Indiana Jones). Once Sasha’s mother returns, however, the plan meets with her disapproval; Sasha is to stay in their bourgeois-style apartment to welcome a set of approved guests. Thus, the meeting of the new generation (Sasha) with the exciting working class (Sergei) is prevented by the stuffy routines of the bourgeoisie (Sasha’s mother). But this status quo will not persist. Old and new are shown meeting and clashing in this film (through images of old buildings destroyed to reveal shiny new architectural gems of the Stalinist skyscrapers variety), and the new always prevails. Sasha may not be going to the cinema tonight and may remain confined to his high-brow violin routines for a while; but in his heart he is already irreversibly seduced by the bold life of proud socialist construction out there.

Watching this film in 2008, in an age when children are not left to walk alone on the street until they are teenagers and when media constantly warn us about pedophiles stalking from all over in real and cyber-space, this film contains scenes that would be every present-day mother’s nightmare. Sasha moves through the city unaccompanied and without any supervision (precisely as I did when I was a child in Sofia in the 1960s); he is free to meet unknown men and to hang out with them in isolated places. It is not possible to see this film today without shudder — which also allows us to judge the extent of moral panic on this particular topic.

But there is also the homoerotic dimension: even though there is a woman who hangs around clearly available and interested, the male protagonist, Sergei, prefers to be in the company of the boy. It is a matter of mutual attraction between superior human beings. When the boy does not materialize, Sergei succumbs going to the cinema with the woman. Similar subtle hints are present throughout Ivan’s Childhood, where, among other subplots tackling the relations between the sexes, the fragile teenager Ivan (who is every bit as attractive as Tadzio of Death in Venice) gains all the attention of the handsome Lt. Galtsev, with the lieutenant droping his pursuit of a female fellow-soldier for the sake of tending to the exhausted boy.

© Dina Iordanova
26 July 2008

Vedreba (The Entreaty/Mol’ba, Georgia, 1967), Tengiz Abuladze

July 25, 2008 at 4:32 am

Based on the work of Georgia’s national poet Vazha Pshavella (1961-1915), Vedreba is a loosely structured visual poem that follows the plots of Pshavella’s epics and talks about pride, honor, revenge, and mourning. Set amidst the mighty swipe of the Caucasus mountains and making full use of the inconceivable natural imagery of geological forms and unusual architecture, of strong facial features and costumes, of sounds and winds, this is a truly memorable cinema of image creation.

Watching the film I felt I was missing a vast array cultural references that could have helped a better understanding (the same feeling of cultural inadequacy one experiences when watching films like Sergo Parajanov’s Color of Pomegranates). Evidently, the people in the film were Muslim, whereas I know Georgia as a Christian stronghold, so I cannot say to what specific part of this truly multicultural land the setting referred to. Many other details remained out of grasp, but this only enhanced the attraction to the powerful imagery.

The most important realization that came to me in the course of watching this film is that this type of highly artistic cinema seems to be more or less exclusive to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is possible to point at singular Western films that have undoubtedly had influence over the development of the style (like Bergman’s 1957 Seventh Seal, for example). However, there is no movement and no strand of filmmaking in Western Europe that could be identified as corresponding to the phenomenon that is almost entirely restricted to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Because, it is important to understand, that making this type of films here was not a matter of singular breakthroughs of individual visionaries like Tarkovsky and Parajanov. There is an array of other directors, whose names are little known today beyond the borders of their own countries, who created similarly powerful visual poetry. One would need to uncover the works of these people and reconsider it in a context that would show that they really worked in creative dialog with each other.

Over the years, due to the isolation of the Cold War period and the turbulent changes in the years that followed it, many of the films that belong to the corpus of poetic cinema’s strand have fallen through the cracks of international distribution and remain unknown. Checking them out one by one at the IMDb leads to the realization that they are almost non-existent in the public mind today. I am talking of remarkable films such as Yuri Ilyenko’s A Spring for the Thirsty (1965) from the Ukraine, Binka Zhelyazkova’s Attached Balloon (1967) from Bulgaria, or Zdravko Velmirovich’s Dervish and Death (1971), all based on important literary sources from their respective countries. I do not know how to explain why it is that at least cinema historians from these countries have not bothered to make more information available. And why it is that so many years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, films from Georgia, Ukraine or Kazakhstan are still listed on the IMDb solely with their Russian titles (and not with the ones in the original language they were made), and as films in the Russian language (which is not really the case). Aren’ t there people in these newly emancipated countries (scholars, critics, film bureaucrats) that would take up the project of making at least some information of their cinematic heritage available to the world via this most frequently accessed source?

I obtained the Vedreba DVD at a seedy shop in Hong Kong, located on the ground floor of the infamous Star Arcade, but was nicely surprised to see that it is also listed on Amazon (even if difficult to find). The DVD is a RUSCICO release, the company that makes former Soviet films available internationally (I wonder how they cover for the copyrights of those creative personnel who are no longer part of Russia; in this case we are talking of a Georgian film, made almost entirely by Georgian contributors within Georgia). The film is featured both in its Georgian and Russian version, and has subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Italian.

© Dina Iordanova
24 July 2008

Russkies (1987) Rick Rosenthal

July 22, 2008 at 11:11 pm

This film will remain known in the history of film mostly as the first cinematic appearance of Joaquin Phoenix (completely unrecognizable as one of the boys here). However, Russkies has also got its historical importance as an interesting attempt of ‘positive propaganda’ from the end of the Cold War, a period during which the previously demonized Russians begun being humanized in the context of Hollywood (and thus in the context of an all American discourse).

Misha, a Russian military sailor who has always loved all things American (he also happens to speak flawless American English somehow) has jumped ship and wants to stay in the US under Reagan’s presidency. The teenage boys who accidentally stumble at his lair have not yet managed to develop the commonly shared prejudice to ‘commies’ which would plague every other ‘normal’ adult American. So they take Misha for what he is and even defend him in situations of confrontation, in the course of all this revealing that Russians are people like everybody else, not that different from their fellow-Americans. There may be some Russians with sinister intentions, indeed, but the misunderstandings are easily cleared. The message is that Americans do not need to fear Russians as, once members of the middle class can meet face to face, the ice melts away and people can reach out to each other.

© Dina Iordanova
23 July 2008

The Yacoubian Building/ Omaret yakobean (2006) Marwan Hamed

July 22, 2008 at 12:38 am

The Egyptian Yacoubian Building, based on Alaa Al Aswani’s 2002 novel by the same name and set in Cairo of 1990, begun as a neighborhood saga and went on like this until the middle, pretty reminiscent of other international films of the sort. It reminded me very much to the Mexican blockbuster Midaq Alley (El Callejón de los milagros, 1995), which is, notably, based on another Egyptian novel by Naguib Mahfouz, and while originally set in Cairo, it is transferred to Mexico City for the film. The other film to which it compares directly is the Turkish Agir Roman (1997), also based on a popular novel (by Metin Kaçan) and set in Istanbul, and similarly tracing the evolving relationships and complex dynamics of the life in a neighborhood.

About an hour into the Yacoubian Building I thought it would stay confined to tracing the relations within this large apartment building in Cairo, pushing its several parallel narratives evolving around sexual, power and commercial intrigues, and revealing various aspects of human lust and greed. In spite the somewhat pompous black and white overview at the opening, placing the building and its inhabitants in a wider historical context, there was very little to suggest that there may be interest to linking to some bigger overarching themes.

But then the story gradually begun addressing deeper issues, to turn into a subtle political critique of a society that is undergoing Islamic radicalization. An impoverished student grows estranged from his pragmatic upwardly mobile fellow-students. Soon he is brainwashed at the nearby Mosque, takes part in street confrontations, is then arrested, tortured and raped, later on breaking up with his girlfriend and renouncing the world at large, descending irrevocably into radical Islamism and resorting to terrorism at the end. Even if his final desperately suicidal act is a personal revenge and does not allow him to ascend to a true confrontation of ideologies, the downward path of this protagonist persuasively reveals the factors that lead to the radicalization of young men who begin by receiving Westernized education but are then rapidly disillusioned and easily descend into the more welcoming and comfortable milieu of fundamentalism.

The adverse consequences of radicalization are powerfully ridiculed in Persepolis (2007). Tackled in a very different but equally powerful way, related matters of personal descent into the abyss of grass-roots level fundamentalism were addressed in the more intimate Pakistani-British film Silent Waters (Sabiha Sumar, 2003). There is a range of other recent films that, similarly, take the effort to clarify the logic of indoctrination and reveal the powerlessness of those who try to pull young people off the slippery path of Islamic fundamentalism. Typically these are films made elsewhere (India, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran) and very little seen or covered in the West. Their effort is to offer a glimpse into the logic of radicalization and explain the triggers of personal dissatisfaction and disillusionment that are behind it all. It is about loss of trust and abuse. It would be worthwhile to pay more attention to these films and to the stories that they are telling.

© Dina Iordanova
22 July 2008

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