Wednesday, September 01, 2004


the new fall fashion

Zhang Yimou's new Hero was #1 this past weekend. Provided, it's late August and the movie "only" made $18 million but Pop Life isn't hating even though we had some ideological issues with the film.

I didn't expect this, but there's been a ton of chatter in the comments section about this and I wanted to repost Jeff Chang's comments here:
    "Great review. I vaguely recall that Zhang had funding and political issues with the Chinese government, which may have led him to change the message a bit.

    But that possible excuse aside, I actually kind of disagree with your main point. I found the movie to be incredibly ambivalent.

    There is the scene where Wu Ming and Qin Shi Huang discuss the problem of translation, and the King offers that he'll just standardize the language when he conquers the entire country. Wu Ming looks stunned. It's the first narrative inkling you have that he's not on the King's team. But that moment--not to mention the way Zhang uses the desert as a romantic backdrop (not unlike Ang Lee)--becomes very political.

    In contrast to the eye-blasting individual style each of the assassins conveys, the King's armoured minions speak and move as one--the resemblance to the delegates at the Republican Convention this week (let alone its obvious critique of the CCP) is pretty clear.

    And the real hero, of course, is not Wu Ming, who dies a martyred fool, but Tony Leung's character Broken Sword--who discovers the truest transcendent completion of the warrior. (Here again the tension between individual liberation and dulling groupthink is pretty clear.)

    The ending shot of the Great Wall seems to me to epitomize the ambivalence. I think Zhang's made a movie about the limits and consequences of unity--whether that be won within a solitary person or the body of a nation.

    Broken Sword's achievement of a personal unity fractures his relationship with his lover and his apprentice. The King's achievement of national unity is based on a lie that Wu Ming accepts--as you said, that peace must proceed from war. But the way Zhang casts it, the King realizes he must be pragmatic and set a limit to his own ambition.

    The Wall, then, is a reminder that the lie only works within the space of the national body. Beyond it lies someone else's lie. That's the lunacy of Bush's wars. Like the terrorists, he has given his ambitions no borders. (Let's leave Kerry for another day.)

    I think Zhang has done something really interesting--he's taken the foundational, epic myth of China and recast it as a really unsettling meditation into ambition. Its strange timeliness makes it even more disturbing.
My reply:

"That's an interesting read - not one that I disagree with at all. It's intriguing that you raise the specter of the Wall since I've seen other people make mention of it as one of Qin's enduring legacies - sort of symbolic proof that his methods, however reprehensible, produced some important facets to China's national/cultural identity and legacy. I don't think Zhang builds a critique of that symbolism: after all, The Wall, impressive as it is, was about as successful at keeping Western invaders out of China as the Maginot Line held off the Germans. Had Zhang made more out of this contradiction: the visual spectacle of the Wall vs. its relative failure, I would have bought into that ambivalence more but in the subtitled versions of the film I've seen in both China and the U.S., that critique, whether implicit or explicit just wasn't there.

Also, don't you also think the film suggests that one must sacrifice the needs of the individual - even entire communities (the Zhao for example) - for the betterment of the nation? Tien sha, baby! In this, I agree that there is a big ambivalency here: the film is called "Hero", suggesting a focus on the individual but to me, the overall message was that you have to dedicate yourself to the One, as in nation, rather than the one as self. Or better said, as Tony Leung's character learns, the transcendence of self means dedication to the larger needs of the nation."

And Jeff's last round back:
    "Yes. What's great about the movie is it lays out opposing ideas of what it means to be Tien Sha. On the one hand you have Broken Sword's insight that a warrior's life is ultimately one of sacrifice for the greater good. On the other you have the King's minions who literally move as a unit, suppressing dissent in the process.

    This is why Wu Ming must die, by the way. And why he is venerated. He is the potential threat because he has come closest to uncovering the lie. His execution is recast as a martyrdom to Tien Sha. It allows the King to secure the lie in plain sight. (Bush's pronouncements that his wars are not about killing Muslims are the modern-day example. He's not so adroit, though, that he'd be able to pull off the latter.)

    These are opposed worldviews, and I think Zhang gives them both play. (Again, here's where someone could weigh in on the censorship issues involved in the government's funding of the movie.) I think it's also clear ultimately what side he thinks he's on, just check the color palettes.

    Anyway, I think Zhang and the movie are brilliant. Imagine if someone was able to pull off the same thing with a movie about the American Revolution. I can't think of a single American director who could do it. Gangs of New York might be a good example of a similar attempt that failed."

Also: read what Beautiful Atrocities has to say on the movie.

The comparisons to Leni Riefenstahl are provocative (made by The Village Voice's J. Hoberman), and what flashes to mind are similar accusations made towards Lord of the Rings by critics who thought Peter Jackson's vision of the Tolkien world seemed resplendent in neo-Eurocentric/imperialist garb. The main difference though is that, with Hero, the ideologies (ambivalent or not) are pretty much in your face rather than having to be implicitly read out of Rings.

All I can say is the following:

1) The film is still visually gorgeous. Christopher Doyle is godly. Please, go see Last Life in the Universe when it opens to wider release on 9/14.

2) Zhang's next film, House of Flying Daggers is supposed to be what The Score was to Boof Baf. If that just went over your head, translation = it's supposed to be much, much, much better. C'mon - it stars Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Let's just hope it's better than this Andy Lau sword-fighting movie. Wire-fu gone bad (though Nick Cheung was hilarious in it).

3) Would it friggin' kill someone to make a happy movie starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung as lovers? Maybe one where they, you know, kiss or something? Until that day, just go rent this Maggie Cheung/Leon Lai film.