Worldfest low-budget review: Nine to Nirvana (China)

Note: our friends Chen Zhongshi and Li “Esther” Guang, producer and director of the Remi-prize-winning documentary Home of Mephibosheth, have asked Helen and me to stand in for them at the Worldfest International Film Festival here in Houston. Helen has suggested that I make notes on the movies I watch, for Zhongshi and Esther’s benefit; so here we go.

Nine to Nirvana was the opening-night Chinese film for Worldfest; but as on opening night I was watching Blaze, I didn’t get around to seeing Nine to Nirvana until Sunday afternoon. With Blaze, I wasn’t particularly interested beforehand but surprised myself by enjoying it. With Nine to Nirvana, I was quite looking forward to it beforehand…and was rather disappointed. Just goes to show ya never know, I guess.

Nine to Nirvana is in the same basic genre (武俠 wǔxiá, “martial-arts heroes”) as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. You can have long arguments as to which of the latter two is better — I think the story of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is much more profoundly and deeply moving and that Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh win the acting contest against Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro hands-down, but then Zhang Ziyi in Daggers outdoes Zhang Ziyi in Dragon simply because in the latter she’s the star and takes over the screen, and then, too…has there ever been a more visually enrapturing movie than House of Flying Daggers? It’s a pick-’em based on personal taste, I think, in the end.

At any rate, Nine to Nirvana does not have either Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou for a director — few movies do, of course — and perhaps more importantly, it does not have Zhang Ziyi. I can’t remember where, but I saw a review back when Daggers came out that didn’t bother to waste time on details of Zhang’s performance — having first spent several sentences on the male actors, the reviewer spent just a single sentence on Zhang: “Zhang Ziyi is simply a force of nature.” No more needed to be said. And then there was Stephen Hunter, who having observed that Daggers would inevitably be compared to Dragon, disposed of the comparison thusly:

But [Daggers is] better — more complete, more powerful, sadder, richer, wiser, more fights, more horses, more Ziyi Zhang. You know, um: “better.”

Now it is not at all fair to compare Nine to Nirvana to the two most internationally successful wǔxiá movies in history. But if you’re going to show the movie in America, you can no more avoid that comparison than you can stop the sun from rising in the east — as those are the only two wǔxiá movies most Americans have ever seen. Imagine that the only two American action movies anybody in China had ever seen were Die Hard and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and then you send your indie shoot-’em-up action movie to an international film festival in China. The standard is going to be what the standard is going to be, you know?

Now I actually wasn’t expecting a Lee/Zhang level of cinematic glory; having a Chinese wife, I have seen a few more Chinese movies than has the ordinary American, and I was looking more along the lines of 大笑江湖 Just Call Me Nobody, which is a moderately entertaining sort of translation into wǔxiá of the Pink Panther movies, with Xiǎoshěnyáng playing the Clouseau character. (Helen would replace “moderately entertaining” with “excruciatingly stupid” but then she likes neither wǔxiá nor even — I can hardly force myself to type it — The Princess Bride.) I don’t mean I expected a slapstick comedy; I mean that I expected about that level of quality. I though I would have a generally pleasant time (though I didn’t even bother to ask Helen to go).

But Nine to Nirvana didn’t quite make it even to that level, and the sad thing is that you can see that there was a lot of potential there. The idea that the warrior’s proving of himself must take place first in a dream world of illusion and only after that in the true physical world, had very distinct possibilities. The idea that a simple young man whose only strength is an unusual degree of compassion and a deep romantic love for the girl of his dreams, could be led by his love and devotion down a path that would culminate in his becoming a great warrior who saves his little corner of the world…well, it isn’t very true to real life, but it has plenty of dramatic possibilities for a movie.

But the script just didn’t have what it took. I don’t think that the lead character was supposed to remind me of the Clouseau-esque Wu Di, but he kinda did. And his transformation into a mighty warrior was a magic overnight transformation with precisely zero character development and a level of effort in plot-crafting that it would be unduly flattering to call “perfunctory.” I think we were supposed to believe that he still had Much To Learn; but when he did his Much Learning, that also happened instantaneously. Worse, there was no apparent reason for him to suddenly achieve his enlightenment — no apparent reason, that is, within the movie itself. The actual reason he achieved his enlightenment was all too apparent: the bad guy was about to kill him, and it was therefore necessary for him to suddenly Learn Much in order for the movie to have its happy ending. (Oh, sorry: spoiler alert.)

I walked out of the theatre unimpressed with the acting, but as I thought it over, I came to the conclusion that blaming the actors for their performance in this movie was rather like blaming the actors in A New Hope for being unconvincing: given the script, they didn’t really have much of a chance. Snow Li is never going to be Zhang Ziyi — nobody but Zhang Ziyi is ever going to be Zhang Ziyi, any more than anybody but Audrey Hepburn will ever be Audrey Hepburn — but the fact that she showed relatively little dramatic range in this movie is, I think, mostly due to the fact that the script didn’t give her a lot to work with.

It’s too bad; this had a chance to be a better movie than it was. But they should have hired a better scriptwriter. I enjoyed quite a few parts of the movie; but overall it just didn’t quite work.

Prior Worldfest 2018 posts:

I mislead some nice Chinese girls

Worldfest low-budget review: Blaze (USA)

Later Worldfest 2018 posts:

Congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光…

General observation on the Chinese movies at Worldfest

Worldfest low-budget review: Ayla, the Daughter of War (Turkey, screened but not eligible for an award)

Again, congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光… Platinum Remi!

Worldfest low-budget review: Fiddlin’ (USA, Grand Remi winner I think)

Worldfest low-budget review: Hidden Summer (Houston/China, Silver Remi winner)

Worldfest low-budget review: Grass Ring (China, Gold Remi winner, featuring Ma Liang, winner of the festival’s Best Supporting Actor award)

Worldfest low-budget review: Teacher in the Deep Mountains (China, Platinum Remi winner I think)

Worldfest low-budget review: A Pretty Little Fishing Village (China, Gold Remi winner)

Worldfest low-budget review: Santa Stole Our Dog (USA…where else?)

Worldfest low-budget review: Home of Mephibosheth (China, Platinum Remi winner)

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