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Actions Written on Water

Reflections on a film: Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)

When people talk about "poetic cinema", or films that have the quality of verse, they usually have a very specific type of film in mind. Slow, languorous films about serious subjects, like war, alienation, grief, historical atrocity, or cultural and emotional displacement. Films peppered with beautifully shot natural landscapes, or scenes of urban decay, where the atmosphere of a particular place, its ghosts and memories, is evoked by the filmmaker through a series of drifting, carefully choreographed tracking shots. On the soundtrack, classical music plays as solemn voices intone their deepest and most solipsistic feelings as an aural counterpoint to the images on screen.

Plainly speaking, the term "poetic cinema" no doubt conjures up the impression of works by filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, Abbas Kiarostami, João César Monteiro, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Wong Kar-Wai, Alice Rohrwacher, Sergei Parajanov, Derek Jarman, Maya Deren, Theo Angelopoulos, or the later films of Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few. While the work of these filmmakers is poetic, and sometimes even contains actual poetry spoken as part of the dialog, poetry itself is a form, like literature and painting, and within that form there are several different genres, schools and styles.

Dante Alighieri was a poet, but so is John Cooper Clarke, Dr. Seuss and Pam Ayres. Leonard Cohen was a poet, while Bob Dylan became one; likewise, Tupac Shakur. I'd even argue that there's a poetry in certain pop songs, which stir the soul as deeply as the poetry of the landscape, nature and the cosmos.


The Color of Pomegranates [Sergei Paradjanov, 1969]:

The Mirror [Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975]:

The Tree of Life [Terrence Malick, 2011]:

As a result of both snobbery and inverse-snobbery, few would ever think to call an action film "poetic." However, many of the great action films of the past forty years do have a sense of poetry to them. I suspect this is because action cinema, at its core, is essentially operating on a similar level to that of the musical. These are both genres defined by the physicality of their performers, their grace and agility, as well as the presentation of the human body as a vessel for drama and spectacle. Action cinema is frequently called "balletic", not because it's an adjective that convinces the reader of the author's tremendously rich vocabulary, but because the line between ballet, as an art form, and mainstream action cinema, as a phenomenon, is incredibly faint.

Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), co-written, co-produced and directed by the legendary Tsui Hark, is a film that I wouldn't hesitate to call poetic. Melding themes of historical oppression, violence and xenophobia, alongside moments of slapstick comedy, melodrama and martial arts, it's an unashamedly mainstream film. However, in its stylization, its use of light and shadow, the movement of the camera and the way that it records bodies engaged in the most graceful and intensely choreographed movement, as well as in the generally heightened emotions of the film and its protagonists, it achieves something poetic, or something lyrical or rhythmical in nature.

Once Upon a Time in China II [Tsui Hark, 1991]:

Once Upon a Time in China II reacts both to and against the more conservative political leanings of the first installment, resulting in a work that's richer, both politically and aesthetically. Hark's cinema is liberated from convention here; the camera in perpetual motion, in step with his performers. It moves gracefully, like a flighted bird skimming the surface of a still winter lake. Like poetry written on water, the film becomes a dance between the elements, expressive and emotional.

Screenshots don't do the film justice, as the real thrill of Hark's work comes from the action, the cutting between shots and the way the actors and stunt performers express their tremendous physical abilities. Such demonstrations remind us throughout that the greatest special effect a film can contain isn't something that's been created and rendered on a computer, but the unique talent of the performers on screen.

What Hark does with Once Upon a Time in China II is take a style similar to that of Terrence Malick and apply it to the already vivid and comic-book-like stylizations of the martial arts film. So, the defining factors of the 'Malickian' aesthetic – the drifting camera, the wide angle lenses, the associative cutting between shots (which here emphasizes the minutia of the violent world in close-up against the confident wide-shots that give spatial and physical context to the giddy action) – provide a counter-point to the scenes of heroism, the knockabout comedy and the more conventional blockbuster flourishes. Hark's subsequent films, Green Snake (1993) and The Blade (1995), would push this poetic and delirious aesthetic even further, but the experience of Once Upon a Time in China II is no less brilliant.


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