TRURO, Mass.—It occurs to me—as I sit here imbibing my second margarita of the early evening, staring out from my deck at the sun setting pink and lilac over the waters of Cape Cod Bay, the only sounds the gentle lapping of the surf and the soft tinkle of my ice cubes—that those of you stuck in cities during these dog days with nothing to watch except the latest serial killer picture (Gandhi II: back to kill serial killers!), or the shark-infested double bill of Open Water and the Republican convention, will appreciate a roundup of the summer's more exotic indie and foreign films. Some I've reviewed already; some I avoided for fear of bellicose e-mail. (Sorry, Garden State fans.) Some were elbowed aside by the latest multiplex crapathon. ( Alien vs. Predator at midnight? Cowabunga!) All deserve at least a fraction of the attention given to dreadlocked Klingons hunting slimy vagina dentatas.
But first, a movie that's opening this week:
If you regarded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) as the blood wedding of martial arts and art-house pictures, welcome to Zhang Yimou's Hero (Miramax), which makes that highbrow Ang Lee/James Schamus concoction look like sleazy grind-house chopsocky. Apart from the superkinetic fighting, Hero is a series of exquisite tableaux vivants accompanied by a sad singing cello: orderly, ceremonial—I am tempted to write, "Japanese." It opens with a dose of symmetry, as thousands of Chinese extras in ancient military garb pay tribute to Jet Li (as "Nameless") as he mounts the steps of the Qin dynasty palace: He has reportedly slain three of the king's would-be assassins and is now allowed within 10 paces of the justly paranoid ruler (Chen Dao Ming). In the course of the film, Nameless recounts how he slew (or engineered the slaying of) each of the king's enemies; the king surmises there's something Nameless isn't telling him and offers his own version of events; and then we see what really happened. And thereby hangs a tale—or, rather, interlocking tales, the moral something other than the one we'd envisioned.
The austerity of Hero makes you realize how cluttered other action movies are. It takes its visual cues from the credo of the king's enemy, Broken Sword (Tony Leung): that calligraphy and swordsmanship follow the same principle of higher unity. Presumably, so does carnal swordsmanship, which might be why Broken Sword's great love, Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), has stuck around despite her fury at him for having punked out on the couple's last big assassination attempt. Nowadays, Broken Sword would rather write than fight: He solemnly executes sand paintings—under the approving guise of his comely protégé, Moon (Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi)—while warriors Nameless and Flying Snow use their swords to bat off hundreds of incoming arrows.
The incoming-arrows thing is one of Zhang's specialty numbers: He gives us a flying-arrow's-eye view as the projectiles (looking like a swarm of insects) descend on Broken Sword and Flying Snow's calligraphy school. The old master exhorts his pupils to keep painting rather than dive under their desks, explaining, "Their arrows can never obliterate our culture." I kept waiting for someone to say, "True, but they can puncture our vital organs"—but then, Buddhists always have taken the longer view. In any case, you are advised not to bring a smartass Westerner's eye to the proceedings. The heroism of Hero revolves around self-sacrifice, not the fashionable vengeance of our own action genre. It seeks a higher unity.
Jet Li's pockmarked homeliness is well used here: Nameless is not a romantic lead, but a lonely, lumpish avenger capable of lightning moves. He isn't a compelling central figure, nor was he meant to be: The Cantonese title of the film is Broken Sword. The emotional core of Hero is the tug of war between Leung and Cheung. Our Maggie is just as gorgeous as ever but now, at 40, is developing some real acting chops, and her silken pirouettes give her fight scenes an angry-whirlybird lyricism. It's Leung's movie, though. If you don't know this guy, you will when Miramax releases Infernal Affairs—the most galvanic, emotionally exhausting Hong Kong police thriller I've ever seen (and slated to be remade by Martin Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio—presumably in Cheung's role—and Matt Damon). Cheung has a volcanic stillness that makes even calligraphy an event.
I'd be over the moon about Hero if Zhang's action scenes were as good as Ang Lee's in Crouching Tiger. The problem isn't the fighting (or the expert wire work) but Zhang's emphasis on quick close-ups over fluid acrobatics. Individual images are very beautiful, especially the Matrix-like moment in which Nameless and his sword surge through a forest of suspended raindrops, as well as the dying vision of a slain young woman as swirling leaves turn from yellow to blood red. But Zhang always seems to cut to something else before a shot delivers its payload. If his fight scenes don't fully intoxicate, though, his color and compositional rigor compensate for much. See Hero on the biggest screen you can find, and sit close enough for all that spiraling silk to tickle your nostril hairs.
More choppy swordplay: It's no mystery why Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, the director and star of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Miramax), enchants formalist critics like the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, who calls him a "blue-collar everyman turned hardboiled absurdist." Kitano works in lowbrow genres using formula plots, but he always finds a way to fracture (and frustrate) our view of his characters and their violent deeds. Kitano has an extremely peculiar, disjunctive style, in which the flow of action is forever being aborted, jerking us out of our revenge-genre-induced hypnosis. I'm tempted to call him a "Brechtian," except that I discern no political intent in his jolting non sequiturs. They might even be the upshot of ineptitude—that is, ineptitude worn with mulish pride, as a badge of originality. A former comedian, Kitano is best regarded as a deadpan jokester, a mutant crossbreed of Sam Peckinpah (via Akira Kurosawa) and Jim Jarmusch.
Obviously, I don't find Kitano's films very satisfying, not even his alleged masterpieces Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (Fireworks, 1997). But Zatoichi is a rollicking burlesque, a slapstick carnival of gore that owes less to the long series of mostly so-so blind-swordsman pictures starring Shintarô Katsu than to Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Clint Eastwood's Italian and American follow-ups. Kitano's blind masseuse with the slashing blade concealed in his cane looks like a peroxided Moe Howard, and you laugh the same way in anticipation of what he's going to do to the clueless 19th-century gangsters who think he's an easy target.
One instant he's immobile, his eyes closed, a faint smile on his cocked head; the next his blade is out, and the screen is filled with bejeweled splatter—fat drops of blood like rubies. There's enough arterial spray for 10 movies, but it erupts in an absurdist vacuum, and the staccato editing renders it abstract. Imagine a porno flick in which naked people gaze longingly at each other—and then there's a quick cum shot. Kitano delivers, all right, but on his own perverse terms; he even throws away the climax. What saves Zatoichi is that it ends—for no clear reason—with a foot-stomping ensemble dance number that is both delightful and unhinging: It sends you home with spasmodic giggles, convinced this Japanese imp has discovered a new path to your unconscious.