Hero

Chinese-language films released in this post-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon age have to fight twice as hard as they would have done in the past – not only against a sometimes xenophobic public unused to reading subtitles and the ponderous pace of many Asian films, but also against Ang Lee’s film, which towers over all like… well, like Chow Yun Fat up a bamboo pole.

Last year, a new challenger entered the willow-enclosed sand Chinese garden to battle – Kill Bill, which offered grindcore violence and American wit in place of the deeper philosophies usually on display in these sorts of films. It is, then, strange to see a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” credit on the posters for Ying xiong, as it appears to be exactly the sort of source material that Tarantino drew from for Kill Bill – watching Hero is a bit like eating a lovely piece of chicken after you’ve just had chicken soup. I trust that you can imagine what this is like.

The first thing to mention, then, is the look of this film. Entirely unlike Western film-making, this is created with a painterly eye – the colours are bold and beautiful, slow-motion shots of billowing silks fill the screen, and the scenery and landscapes of China are simply breathtaking. The Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle is just at the top of his game here. Extraordinary.

The story concerns Jet Li’s Nameless police constable and his dealings with the three deadly assassins that attempt to kill the first Emperor of China. The story begins with him arriving at the future-Emperor’s palace with the three assassins’ weapons, and the story of how he won them is told three times in flashback, each with a different inclination and motive as Nameless grows to respect the King he has previously only served.

So far, so staple – people have compared the story to everything from Rashomon to Star Trek II : The Wrath Of Khan – and the themes are epic ones – duty, service, respect, love, honour – but like a good haiku, the real mark of quality is in the way you depict the rice blossom fluttering to the ground. (And that is beautifully, did I mention that?)

The acting is great – Jet Li can kick some ass and is a pleasingly warm enigmatic figure, without the unpleasant mugging of, say, Chow Yun Fat. Particularly easy on the eye is Zhang Ziyi – given not a huge amount to do but look fine and have lovely hair.

Ah yes. The ass kicking.

Used sparingly and surrounded by superb Chinese philosophy, the invention and panache of the fight scenes are up there with the best this genre has to offer. Wei Tung does things Yuen Wo Ping dreams of, the wire-fu is balletic and graceful and used with restraint, and there’s this really cool bit with a stick. The only minor gripe I have is the use of CGI, although I contradict myself wildly by saying the bit with the yellow leaves is worth watching out for.

Taken as a whole, Ying xiong is definitely worth a watch if you’re in a worthy mood. Miramax have marketed this well, and the cinema – although filled with Islington trendies on an Orange Wednesday – was full. It’s also a film well worth seeing in a cinema – it won’t be the same on DVD (or on your computer screen, Limewire-fans!)

They Might Be Giants, London Astoria

“Thank you, London!” yells John Flansburgh, “And thanks even more for not being Leeds!”

They Might Be Giants had a bad gig last night, in Leeds. They Might Be Giants might be giants, but they are happy to see us.

But before they come on, we have the delights of Corn Mo, the support act. A guy comes on, looking like the hairy, balding, 1980s clone of Meatloaf. He is holding an accordian, threateningly. He plugs in his accordian to the PA system with a painful thunk. The drunkards to my right jeer at him. He looks sheepish. He stands up and starts playing his accordian. He sings, in a high voice, something that sounds like an oratorio. He then ups the tempo, sings “It’s Lollipop Time with you!” and it turns out he is a one-man ’80s hair metal band. He is fucking awesome. Occasionally, he stamps hard on the ground, and a kick-drum pedal hits a cymbal. Occasionally, he stamps on the kick-drum pedal and fuck all happens. This may be the funniest thing I have ever seen.

Corn Mo sings a song about how people mistake him for the actor Gary Busey. A character in the song says, “Weren’t you in that film Silver Bullet with Corey Haim?” Corn Mo says “No”.

Corn Mo is my new fucking God. His song about his eighth-grade crush which climaxes with the primal howl “I wanna ball you!” has to be heard to be believed. Click here for his website.

And then… They Might Be Giants. The first time I saw TMBG, they were marooned somewhat carelessly on the Barbican stage after a weird collaboration with the writers of McSweeneys. The second half of the show was a regular, balls-to-the-wall TMBG rock show, and I remember being surprised at how much the weedy, geeky songs on record transmogrified into bona-fide rock monsters on stage – John Flansburgh running around like an overexcitable Dr Fox playing exceptionally bad guitar, and John Linnell… okay, John Linnell was still geeky, but it’s hard not to be geeky when you’re a lead singer behind a keyboard.

This time, TMBG are close. Worryingly close. Flansburgh looms over the crowd, throwing rock shapes. Again, the superb backing band give the songs real live muscle and power pop is eked from songs that are perhaps a little flimsy on record – “Cyclops Rock” particularly benefits from… uh… rock.

The devotion of the TMBG crowd is also eerie. The ambience is not dissimilar to a sixth form gig by local heroes, writ large. Affection levels are high – each stupid chorus, crap keyboard solo, invocation of clapping or stamping of feet, is received in a party mood entirely unlike a Thursday night indie crowd in London. One gets the feeling that Leeds didn’t, like, get it.

The experiments are sublime – the specially-penned song about the Astoria includes the line “In the Astor-i-ay / Where the lit-up sign outside reads ‘GAY’ / Tonight, we have to play a show” – and the big hits go down so well the floor creaks beneath the bouncing to “Birdhouse In Your Soul”. And, what’s more, they still seem to be enjoying themselves. Bless them.