September 29th, 2004


A Hero of Our Time (Spoilers)

I went to see Hero on Monday afternoon. I'd seen a section of this film on a constant loop at Singapore airport where it was playing on all the DVD and computer screens. It looked very impressive.

They were high. Christopher Doyle was doing the cinematography (e.g. Chungking Express), Zhang Yimou was directing (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern). The cast has Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and others. That's an all-star A-list of contemporary Chinese cinema. The story is set in the Warring Kingdoms period. I love Chinese historical epics. Let's go!


One factor that no one involved in the film can be blamed for was the discomfort of the seat. It was hard to relax properly.

I didn't have any real problem with the historical balderdash of the plot. Not at first. The Warring Kingdoms period is a crucial part of Chinese history. It's when China is born and it's a period constantly returned to by its painters. poets, novelists, philosophers, musicians, etc. The story of Hero is rubbish, but that didn't mean the film had to fail. Unfortunately, the Western version starts with a short voice-over that tries to set up the nature of the various clans and their relationships that I doubt was in the Chinese release. According to IMDB, there is a 107 minute Chinese version as opposed to the 96 minute American cut. Mind you, there's also a 93 minute Chinese version listed.

I'm not sure what might have been lost in those cuts, I suspect not much, but I wonder whether we were spared some of those issues that would be common knowledge amongst the Chinese audience. I think we might have been dumbed down. It doesn't matter, the film looks so nice anyway. Mmmm...

Let's start there. The film does look nice and it would make an impressive set of stills, but as film, I don't see how this can be described as the most beautiful film ever made. I'd go for The Colour of Pomegranates, Bresson, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, even Zhang in his earlier career off the top of my head. Visual spectacle needs to be supplemented by an interest in the puppets you move around in the space. More or less the moment Jet Li opened his mouth, I concluded that his character was a c√∏unt as was more or less everyone else. Doyle's cinematography is quite astounding but perhaps not the way it's been edited. You can't astound for two hours just by neurotically adjusting the stock, colour grading and balance. I don't think any of the blame lies with Doyle, but it does with the director and others.

The acting is dour. Only Leung's character managed to salvage any of my interest, I've liked him for a while. There's no humour, hardly a smile is cracked and hardly a single tear is convincing. They resemble chess pieces, an analogy I'll come back to. Okay, the old calligraphy master has a certain air about him.

The fighting is preposterous. Once you've established this impossible-physics style of fighting it doesn't matter anymore. Any attack, no matter how skilful, can be parried. So why should I care? It's a fix. The fight scenes (e.g. flying, on the surface of water) suggests a magical world. Fine, but where else is that magic to be seen in the world of this film? Nowhere, except in the fighting. There's no magical loving or playing or dancing. I didn't quite get why it had to be there. Well, it's because it gets bums on seats. In the world of Arthurian film (our similar period of mythologising history), magic permeates everything. Here it seems artificial, except as long-standing wuxia convention.

Art direction and the rest... the insistent colour coding, the whistle clean outfits, Cheung's makeup, the drab soundtrack, the horror! the horror... Enough about the sensual experience.

The world described by Zhang is a curious one and obviously, with a film centred around the story of China's unification, there are evident parallels with China's relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. I'll come back to that issue, but my main shock in the film was there was no one in it. Yes, there were these characters, but no other people. You had "enormous army" and "enormous number of officials" and "a hundred calligraphers", but no people. How on earth did the Qin leader gather his wealth? There were no signs of agriculture or industry. It was an entirely depopulated land. Considering Zhang's earlier Red Sorghum, which addresses issues of Chinese rural immiserification, I found this odd. It must have been deliberate. None of these three groups were able to develop even a tad of personality, which is something Peter Jackson did manage with various orcs and the like in Lord of the Rings. They all behaved as one.

So what we have is a film about China that is embarassed by the country's great diversity and richness of people. This is story book history of the worst sort. Okay, so my recent background is in social history, but why has Zhang abandoned his previous observations of daily life in China? I'm not asking for these things to be centre stage, but surely just a few people could be wandering around in the background? Perhaps he's suggesting that the common person has never been part of Chinese history. They are always nameless [indeed, Jet Li's character], a vast mass available for the instant movement of capital cities and grandiose construction projects. Perhaps, Chinese source material of the time isn't so rich on the little man. But this is a new history Zhang creates in the film and it's a dangerous myth that I'm puzzled he's chosen to have created.

Is this the China we (the West) want? The China that China thinks we want? The China that China thinks it wants? I can see it's the China that gets us into the cinema. Ain't it purdy? Well, yes, but it stinks! I mentioned chess earlier, it does seem that the film is a version of a chess game and, for me anyway, about as interesting to watch. If only Zhang had allowed a few of the characters a sense of humour for some balance. There's no music to this film. For all its colour, it's resolutely monotone. The supposed Rashomon telling, or maybe One Night at McCools [that's a rather overt strategy of yours to gawp at Liv Tyler again, you've been warned twice now - Ed.], well, in Rashomon the story is retold by different people with their own unclear motives. Here the story is retold by the same two people and their motives are Zhang's alone. As a device, it's confusing (at least in this cut) and rather pointless. It's as it the straight telling of the story wasn't good enough. It's a common enough trick, take a dull narrative and cut it up, tell it backwards, sideways, whatever. Once you've got to the end and reassembled it, it's not up to much and this is the motherfunking unfication of China we are talking about here. One of the most important historical events ever in the known universe! How did Zhang manage to make it so dull?

There's a point in the film toward the end where Leung's character writes a final message to Jet Li in the sand [at this point the Professor and Landlady turned up and rescued me from an evening of continued invective, now it's morning] before he goes off to assassinate the King of Qin. You don't see this character, although you see Tony Leung drag his sword through the sand to make it. I wonder if it's ever shown in the Chinese cut... Anyway, the meaning of the characters is revealed in a later scene. These characters said Our Land. Eh? I don't speak Chinese, but I've got a reasonable knowledge of characters and some important Chinese historical phrases and terms, I'd never heard of the phrase before. They said it a few times and it sounded like tien xiao. So the characters weren't zhongguo, then. It's actually tian xia. This is a pretty loaded historical term. It's the top two characters in this picture. HEAVEN & BENEATH.

It's a bit of a stretch to translate this as Our Land. Whilst tien xia can describe the idealised unity of All Under Heaven, I don't see where Our possibly comes from. This suggests a degree of ownership and identification lacking in the Chinese. Admittedly, the term's meaning to Chinese expands beyond the borders of the two characters. I'm not sure where the All comes from in the normal translation for the phrase. It's implied. What's beneath Heaven? Everyone and everything is. But one resonance that is entirely obliterated by Our Land is the Confucian view of social and hierarchical order. Yes, everything is beneath heaven, but the emperor is at the top through the Mandate of Heaven and we are beneath him and that filial relationship is at the centre of the Confucian world view. It's repeated again from the celestial to the familial in varying degrees of self-similarity. We've lost the cosmology. We've lost China.

As the film concludes, that voice-over returns to say that and so the Emperor of Qin untied the country yadayada....[cut to the Great Wall extending into the distance]... and that is why we call this "Our Land". No, that's why we call it Qina, you feck! No one calls it Our Land, they might just call it tian xia. Was there no way to impress upon the non-Chinese audience the nature of these characters?

In the US/UK release of the film, I'd accuse Zhang of practising an ill-conceived and lazy Orientalism. This is a shame, for his films (which have always tended towards the visually lush) have often given me some insight into China that I wouldn't have found elsewhere at the time. The problem is now I'm very suspicious of these earlier films, which did much to get me interested in China. It's not that the history is bogus, it's that history contained within the film is so suspect and muddled.

Hmm, I haven't touched on the unification issue. I can't be bothered now, thankfully.

Oh well, at least he gave the world Gong Li. [Li! Not Liv you fool! She's now formally banned as a subject for linking - Ed.]