Its funny writing a review of a movie, nearly two years after it was released to much acclaim. It is a pity that HOFD took so much time to come to India. And it is an even bigger pity that it runs only for a couple of shows in Bangalore, the other slots being taken by an Indian Indiana Jones movie called “Naksha”.
HOFD has a gossamer storyline. It is the time of anarchy during the Tang dynasty, late ninth century. Various rebel groups are fighting the government and HOFD is one of the leading bunch of anarchists. A policeman, Jin, is sent to a brothel called Peony Pavilion in disguise to check out intelligence that a rebel is hiding there. There he runs into Mei, a blind courtesan, who is arrested after a dazzling dance sequence (the Echo Dance) on the presumption that she is the daughter of a leader of HOFD who was killed by the police. She is later helped to escape by Jin himself, who is acting as a mole to follow Mei to the HOFD. Jin and Mei are chased by soldiers and they fall in love after some elaborately staged fight (or dance) sequences across jungles, meadows, mountains and bamboo forests. Or are they just acting to be in love to meet their own motives. Some more surprises are in store and there is nicely spun tale of morality, love (there is even a love triangle) ending in a climax which is tragic and elemental. HOFD is a love story and please do not go expecting an action movie; the movie is not actually short of action sequences and indeed uses these to propel the love story forward.
Words like operatic and symphonic abound reviews of HOFD. For me personally, whose understanding of either operas or symphonies is next to zero, HOFD is a simply wonderful return to film making in its most pristine and unspoiled form. Films like “Crouching Tiger..”, “Hero” and now “HOFD” show the world and especially Hollywood a way of filmmaking which seem to have been forgotten. That cinema is primarily a visual (and aural) art form, in colour and texture. HOFD re-emphasises this in greater grandeur than ever before. The costumes are lavish and the art direction intricate (witness the floor design and the wall work in the Echo Dance. The action sequences are breathtaking and as (or more) wonderfully choreographed than the ones in Crouching Tiger or Hero (which to me was more mechanical than fluid). You are just dazzled by the way special effects have been integrated into the action.
Some of the sequences are truly memorable scene-of-the-decade ventures. ¬The Echo Dance in the beginning where Mei has to dance to the pat of a bean/ seed on a drum and the Bamboo Fight with its astonishing colours, sounds and movements are both sequences of unadulterated visceral glory. You want to tip your hat to the directors ability to imagine, leave aside execute, these scenes. Even some of the sensitive scenes are shot very well, like the scene were Jin gallops on a horse around a meadow sweeping flowers to give to the blind Mei and the panning shots of Mei and Jun in the meadows after a frantic love-making session. One can just go on.
The music and cinematography are the high points of the movie. Unlike the earlier named Chinese movies which had music by the brilliant Tan Dun, this has music by Shigeru Umebayashi who managed to reach the immense heights scaled by Tan Dun in both “Crouching” and “Hero”. Zhang Yimou, one of the greatest Chinese directors, has been called a “visual sensualist” by some. Movies of Zhang Yimou (himself a photographer) have always had brilliant composition and shot-taking. Colour for him is like dialogue to a Woody Allen movie. Here it is not as in-your-face as the colour- coded “Hero”, but simpler and still elegant and recalls all the visual splendour of Zhang’s earlier movies.
More interestingly, the career of director Zhang Yimou seem to echo the stage and growth of the Chinese economy. In his earlier classics like Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou made around the time of the student rebellion, he ran afoul of the government. However, the growing integration of Chine into the world economy seems to have made him return to more simple story-telling in movies like Hero and HOFD, though not in any way diluting his auteur status. I wonder what sociological conclusions to make from this, it is either mute indifference or an acceptance of the economic boom in China.
HOFD is “rich” in the way Hollywood movies were in the 50s when they were trying to battle television. The movie is a true feast to the senses, a riot of colour and music. I guess you may not catch it on the screen but a DVD rental is surely due. After seeing these movies, I wonder why we, with an equally strong mythology and folklore, don’t venture anywhere near what the Chinese have been doing.