[Amblin Entertainment/ Spyglass Entertainment/ Red Wagon Entertainment]
It's staggering just how much work goes into cinematography to create a film’s look alone. Some unfortunate movies don’t really achieve much past their mesmerising visuals and sometimes it’s just enough to save them. The best film-makers however, use visuals as a rich and diverse tool to aid in the telling of their stories.
With that in mind, here’s a look at just a select few of the most beautiful movie scenes of the 2000s.
The red leaves, Hero (2002)
[Sil-Metropole Organisation / CFCC]
If ever there was a movie that could be considered the filmic equivalent of an ink painting, Hero would be it. Most likely due to the intentional use of colour to represent the wuxing elements of Fire, Water, Wood, Metal and Earth. Even without the intention, director Zhang Yimou’s visual record which includes films like House of Flying Daggers and Raise the Red Lantern, speaks for itself.
Based on the story of Jing Ke's assassination attempt on the King of Qin in 227 BC, Hero is widely considered the most visually stunning movie of all time. The scene that is referred to often when the conversation comes up, is the leafy fight between Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love) and Moon (Ziyi Zhang, House of Flying Daggers). Flying Snow retains a chillingly calm demeanour as Moon’s revenge-driven rage gets the better of her as she seeks redemption for her fallen master.
As one would expect in a Yimou film, the scene oozes slick slow motion and gliding robes as the ladies do battle in a scene that could rival any L'Oréal commercial. The falling leaves and forces of nature becomes a character of its own as the season of autumn sets out to prove that it can be far more visually appealing than its counterparts. And after the final blow is struck, the leaves turn from a seasonal orange to a menacing maroon of blood and death.
The thousand hand Guan Yin, Samsara (2011)
As movie fans, we are constantly so caught up in the beauty of the fictional ‘real’ world. But there’s nothing quite like the wonders of the real, real world.
Samsara is Ron Fricke’s third non-narrative documentary and follow up to his 1992 meditative journey Baraka. Samsara, like its predecessor, is a vicarious journey around the world and a blissful exploration of all the sights, sounds, culture and marvels that our planet has to offer.
What Baraka and Samsara attempt is to show how we as humans are as similar as we may be different and with the absence of dialogue, can showcase our understanding of each other without the need for spoken language. Truly exhibiting the most beautiful and also the most horrendous parts of our existence without words.
Strictly speaking, Samsara may be the most visually beautiful film of all time and to pick out a single scene and declare it the most stunning is blasphemy. But perhaps the scene with the thousand hand Guan Yin is it. The Buddhist bodhisattva Guan Yin is associated with compassion and that is perhaps what Samsara sets out to teach us.
The precise movements indicate an order and structure along with a kind of fragility but ultimately the purity of our existence. A purity that may not even be known. As Buddhism teaches, to truly understand is to reach Nirvana.
Additionally, all the dancers in this sequence are actually deaf, making it just that much more impressive.
The evening city strolls, In the Mood for Love (2000)
Wong Kar-wai's stylish and sultry masterpiece is often regarded is one of the greatest films of all time. As stunning as it is poetic and whilst the visuals and presentation alone would place it on any 'most beautiful movies' list, it is what lies beneath the surface that makes it special.
Following two characters (technically four, although their faces are never shown) in the form of Maggie Cheung (Police Story) as Su Li-zhen (referred to as Mrs. Chan), Tony Leung (The Grandmaster) as Chow Mo-wan (Mr. Chow) and their respective spouses in 1962 Hong Kong, who coincidentally rent apartments next-door to each other. Both Mrs. Chan's husband’s and Mr. Chow's wife’s jobs often demand overtime shifts or traveling abroad for business trips, leaving the two by themselves. In turn, one of the leading themes of In the Mood for Love is loneliness. The loneliness of being without their spouses or, in fact, being with them.
This particular theme is perhaps best represented in the (few) scene(s) in which Mrs. Chan walks through the busy areas of the city, reflecting the slow passing of time (quite literally… the scenes use slow motion) as she often leaves her apartment to get noodles, claiming that she does not like cooking for herself. Her strolls to the noodle stall could just be an attempt to give her mundane existence some sort of purpose. Also during these scenes, the same piece of music is played over and over: the string motif composed by Shigeru Umebayashi, titled Yumeji's Theme as it is originally from the soundtrack of Seijun Suzuki's 1991 film Yumeji. This could also represent the repetitious nature of her life.
In addition is the constant repetition of the environments. The same scenes are always come back to, and always from the same angle, creating a further sense of her monotonous way of life. We go down the stairs and through the corridor, down to the noodle stand, through the streets, and back again.
At the beginning, I mentioned that what’s beneath the surface of In the Mood for Love is what makes it special. Well the surface has barely even been scratched. There are so many more layers to this film that it could easily demand a highly detailed write-up of its own.
The snow dance, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
[Amblin Entertainment/ Spyglass Entertainment/ Red Wagon Entertainment]
Rob Marshall’s movie adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha is a film which, like the book it is based on by Arthur Golden, splits audiences right down the middle. The majority of criticism aimed at its historical and cultural inaccuracies regarding the life and work of a geisha—being quite clearly altered to fit the tastes of mass audiences. Plus the fact that casting includes Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li as the three leads. Whilst they are three of Asia's leading actresses, what they aren’t is Japanese.
However, be that as it may, nobody can deny that the movie looks like a Shimura Tatsumi painting come to life. The colours are vibrant and gorgeous, the environments vast and curious, the outfits are elegant and the experience utterly immersive. What Memoirs of a Geisha lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for with its Academy Award-winning visuals.
The scene in question here is the culmination of Chiyo’s (Zhang Ziyi) journey from being taken from her parents as a child and sold to a geisha house, her rise to the top and all of the jealousy, greed, betrayal, hate and depression that came with it. The dance could be representative of all that, whilst also retaining the possibility of a different narrative altogether.
Whilst it is vastly different to what an actual geisha performance entails and has more in common with Kabuki theatre, the impact of it is, all the same, undeniable. We watch as Chiyo uses her body to tell the story of a life of calm beginnings, a descent into fear, madness and eventually, downfall. That is open to interpretation, however.
It is also worth mentioning that for those interested in a factual look into a the real life of a geisha- Mineko Iwasaki, whom Arthur Golden was initially basing his story on, also wrote her own book. Iwasaki was unhappy with how Golden twisted her accounts and thus felt it necessary to tell the truth. Titled Geisha of Gion in the UK and Geisha, A Life in the US.
The goodbye, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya by Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) may hold the distinction of being the most beautiful animated film to ever grace our screens. As animation veers further and further into CGI and ultimately losing a lot of its classic, honest charm; Princess Kaguya is truly a breath of fresh air. Not only is it reminiscent of the hand-drawn tales of yesteryear, but also boasts a Ghibli uniqueness of its own.
The Princess Kaguya, which is her given name, was discovered as a glowing miniature girl inside of a bamboo shoot, believed to be a divine presence and thus placed on a royal pedestal. It is learned that she has descended from the Moon and broke its laws in the hope of being exiled to our planet in order to experience mortal life. During a difficult Earth situation, she asks the Moon for help, and the Moon listens.
The chill-inducing closing scene sees Kaguya having to leave a life on Earth that she has grown to love, a life that she has expressed her reluctance to give up. She is departing from her surrogate parents whom have grown to love her like their own, her family, her friends and all the wonders that our planet has granted her. Her new appreciation for life, for love, hurt and ultimately just being. Although not only will she be figuratively departing from this life, she will also quite literally be doing so, as once she does, her memory of it all will be completely erased.
A procession of celestial sky people descends from the moon led by the Buddha to ensure her return. The army that was created in order to prevent them from taking her has no effect as their arrows turn to flowers and their efforts no match for the power of the deities from which she came. After memories are erased and she has ascended the sky, she takes a final, tear-filled glance at the planet that she has called home, noticing the love from the people who were her parents.
The pool, Let the Right One In (2008)
[EFTI/ Filmpool Nord/ Sveriges Television]
Death is a staple of cinema. Often when we describe a death scene as being ‘beautiful,’ it’s because its poetic, perhaps metaphorical, or has some other significance to the surrounding story. Whilst this scene from the Swedish vampire romance Let the Right One In by Tomas Alfredson and based on John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel of the same name is certainly not short of plot significance, it is the visual approach that makes it stand out amongst the horror genres long and rich history.
The surrounding story is of a sensitive and bullied young boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), befriending his mysterious and moody new neighbour, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Initially apprehensive of each other, the two slowly form a bond before she reveals to Oskar her true nature. Things develop and Eli eventually flees after making a few too many enemies. Whilst the relationship between the two occupies most of the screen time, there is also a significant subplot revolving around Oskar and his struggles against a group of bullies.
The film’s penultimate scene sees Oskar threatened by the group at the pool whilst seeking revenge after one of their own was unexpectedly thwarted with a hockey stick in a triumphant response to all of their torment. The bullies give Oskar two chilling options: Stay under the water for three minutes, or lose an eye as the leader wields a knife.
Tense and shiver-inducing as bully Jimmy forcefully holds Oskar’s head under the water, who closes his eyes and accepts his fate. The camera stays in a fixed position under the water as we watch Oskar struggle for air. Just as all hope seems lost, a pair of legs speed across the screen before a severed head crashes into the water, followed by the arm that is holding Oskar.
The action happening completely off screen and Oskar remaining completely oblivious and innocent to it all. He is grabbed by a hand and lifted back up to the surface. As he opens his eyes, he sees Eli. He is radiating a feeling of pure bliss as the two share a smile. The bloody scene that Eli has created is then revealed to us.
(Written by Alex Leptos, owner of Outside The Spotlight)
(Originally posted on Vocal Media)