I didn't really fully watch either film. I wanted to watch the first one because of my excellent experiences with Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but realized the production value may not be as high. Boy was I right. The final martial arts scene with the ladders was pretty sweet, and I was happy to interest my wife Jess with the commentary from an American martial arts hall of fame guy (forgot the name -- he writes for Martial Arts Magazine or something like that). Jess's interest was piqued because Hong Kong cinema represents women radically different from Hollywood (in action flicks especially). I learned a lot of good background information in Once Upon a Time in China about Eastern filmmaking, differing conceptions (East vs. West) of duty, self and violence, and got reminded about a lot of history I'd neglected. But I think I'll watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and stick to the Eastern films with high production value.
On the relation between film and literature: viewing films is like practice for comparative interpretation. Much like in film one can read the exchange of different styles, different modes and ways of affecting the audience, so too can one do this with the written word. I like to think about this stuff, in a socio-cultural-economic-historic way. Film has been elevated, and is currently "the peoples' media," and we can still see how there is not yet a "world cinema," as we have a definite "world literature" -- i.e. Chinua Achebe and JM Coetzee. And despite its flaws, Once would never devalue its subject by having "all good" and "all evil" stereotypical characters, like America's Angry Arab Terrorist of the 80s and 90s, which of course manifested itself.
Then late tonight I skimmed through my father's suggestion: The Ruling Class with Peter O'Toole. The man is brilliant in the film, fully. I don't know how much he knew about psychiatric symptoms, but he represents a paranoid-schizophrenic-bipolar person as best as I can imagine can be done, and he's given enough time (2.5 hours) to do it. The film moves from a dark comedy to a scorching critique of the already-dead English aristocracy, with O'Toole JC/Jack mirroring the narrative arc of the film. His character is turned from peaceful Jesus to vengeful murderous Jesus, a dichotomy that keeps reifying itself in Christian (and post-Christian) culture. Our current adventure in Iraq can be thought of in just this way: "Well, Jesus said not to kill, but there were those Malochites in the Old Testament, and you can't really get much done without killing people, now can you?" Self-fulfilling prophecy; the most important idea from Hegel, thesis-antithesis. Except, my friends, there's no synthesis. Freud told us the unconscious can perceive no absence, and the synthesis is dependent on the metaphysics of presence/absence. So culturally we're basically in a perpetual swing.
I'd say The Ruling Class affected me more, because of its thematics of the unstable mind, although the sound of the film/DVD was frustratingly poor. But shooting the film couldn't have been that hard; just let O'Toole work.
So, neither film is at that film-film level: production value, radical cinematography, excellent writing for the screen (The Ruling Class is obviously an adapted play, and has that endearing linguistic quality, but it's not for the screen in the way Larry David's work recreates the sitcom as such).
In sum: the strength of China is its people; its focus on balance. The strength of our country seems to be its unacknowledged dichotomiticity, which destinies re-creation. And the strength of the English? Their grim resolve.
_Once Upon a Time in China_ and _The Ruling Class_
No profanes - sacred