The Blurry Line Between Art and Genre Films: "Hero" and "Nicotina"
by Peter Brunette
A pair of films that, beyond their devotion to further blurring the lines between genre and art films, couldn't be more different, are opening on specialty screens this week and next.
"Hero," the latest outing by a once dyed-in-the-wool art filmmaker, Zhang Yimou ("Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern"), disappointed many cinematic ultra-aesthetes at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival. Zhang had threatened for years to begin making blatantly generic films "for the people," and "Hero" and its follow-up, "The House of Flying Daggers," which has yet to be released, amply fulfill that threat. Yet while both these films shy away from the deeper philosophical, psychological, and political introspection of Zhang's earlier films, they more than make up for their lack of depth with a dazzling, delightful surface.
Zhang has chosen to follow the sure path of the ultra-fantastic in his fight scenes, first laid out for mainstream Western audiences by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Unlike the recent, more earth-bound "Zatoichi," in "Hero" bullets are re-directed in mid-course, leaves swirl gorgeously if unrealistically, arrows are manually repelled, water-walkers battle on a lake, gravity is imaginatively defied in uncounted ways, and the biggest suspense for the audience quickly becomes "how is he going to top that one?" Added to all the balletic pyrotechnics is an intense stylization of color -- a preoccupation that has always been discreetly present in Zhang's films, of course - -which has here been pushed into the realm of the deliciously exorbitant by Chris Doyle, Zhang's Australian-born cinematographer, who has worked with most of Asia's greatest directors. The film's over-the-top obsession with visual expressivity is also enhanced by the attention that the art of calligraphy receives throughout.
For his narrative structure, Zhang has gone further back in cinema history, to Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (1950), in order to borrow its multi-part retelling of the same story from different, conflicting points of view. It's effective here, especially since each story is done in a different primary color, and provides a level of narrative interest that would otherwise be lacking. (Some of the visual imagery -- like multiple arrows sticking out of a body -- recall memorable moments in other Kurosawa films, like "Throne of Blood.")
Still, while it's a film to ooh and aah over, there's little that sticks to the ribs. Then again, sometimes you just want to ooh and aah.
"Nicotina," the latest international matriculee into the School of Tarantino, is a fitfully entertaining caper-movie-cum-romantic-comedy. Filled with the fast wipes and purposely nonsensical discussions about "philosophical" issues like smoking and coincidence that mark "Pulp Fiction" and its world-wide offspring, this film from Mexico, directed by Argentinian filmmaker Hugo Rodriguez, can, at times, be loads of fun. Unfortunately, we have already been subjected to this particular kind of hyperactive fun many, many times now, and it's wearing a bit thin. To its credit, "Nicotina" also features Latin hottie Diego Luna ("Frida," "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights"), but he pretty much disappears after the movie reaches the 30-minute mark.
Luna plays Lolo, a computer hacker whose obsession with his beautiful, violin-playing next-door neighbor Andrea leads him to bug her apartment with hidden cameras and microphones. He's also involved in downloading Swiss bank information that will give him and his fellow felons access to some big money, and when Andrea discovers his cameras and mikes, she goes berserk, in the process mixing up his data discs. From this basic premise, the film extrapolates into a visit to a pharmacy inhabited by a bickering married couple, one of whom is trying to quit smoking, and a barber shop also inhabited by a bickering married couple, one of whom is a greedy bitch. Oh, the Russian Mafia and a bunch of swallowed diamonds also form crucial parts of this jam-packed plot. A well-orchestrated comedy of errors ensues, and many will find it clever and even exhilarating. By way of a grand finale, the film moves decisively into Grand Guignol territory, providing the gross-out payoff that most viewers who have stuck with the film this far will be waiting for.
"Nicotina" is buoyed, here and there, by amusing little observations about human life, but ultimately Rodriguez is much more interested in pummeling us with high-octane technique from beginning to end. All telephone conversations are done in split-sreen, punctuated with perky wipes. Instead of close-up inserts on objects to which our attention needs to be drawn, the director offers mildly amusing high-tech cut-outs that recall similar shots in "Pulp Fiction." The music on the soundtrack pounds relentlessly, as is de rigueur for the genre. Perky musical accents rhyme cleverly with physical actions, convincing us that, on a technical level at least, Rodriguez knows what he's doing.
A fitfully funny motif about smoking (a better, droller version of which appears in Jim Jarmusch's "Cigarettes and Coffee") segues into a desultory conversation about fate vs. free will and the prevalence of coincidence (that staple of contemporary cinema), but this theme is never seriously pursued or cleverly developed in a way that would make "Nicotina" stand out from the pack.