Throwing Yourself Upon the Mercy of the Imperial Court
Hero (Ying xiong)
***WARNING: BIG SPOILERS***
My amusement of the day yesterday was seeing “Hero”, the two-year old Chinese megahit directed by Zhang Yimou that Miramax just now decided to release to a significant number of theaters since Quentin Tarantino beat Harvey Weinstein in thumb wrestling or something. I saw Zhang’s “Shanghai Triad” in theaters back during its theatrical release in 1995; I still recall certain images, there were so vividly burnt into me (especially those coins falling onto the dock… ahhhhhh), so I was certainly looking forward to what he’d do with the ‘ass-kicking’ genre, as I like to call it. The plot concerns Jet Li, a nameless prefect in ancient China, who has apparently killed the three greatest warriors in the land, all of whom opposed the Emperor’s war for unification of various tribes.
And it all certainly looks nice. It has a very confidently unreal style; the film is secure enough to break up a fight for a while just to have Jet Li and Tony Leung chase each other around the surface of a lake for a few minutes. It’s the sort of movie where, upon a warrior’s death, all of the yellow autumn leaves in the forest magically turn red. It acts as a nice litmus test for exactly how much cheese ball stylization I can stand; I have a big appetite for wire-work but CGI seems to be where I get lost. Characters making impossible twists in the air is fine, some of the more awkward pause and turns sort of bug me but no big deal. But when Jet Li whooshes through the air in slow-motion flicking away shiny crystal raindrops like PS2 glass, that’s when the eyes start to roll. Perhaps I’m too grounded in my tastes for fighting? Wirework looks sort of semi on the plane of reality, but CGI still proves distracting, perhaps because I find one aspect of the unreality significantly less convincing than the rest; the all-computer stuff simply suffers in comparison.
The fighting is pretty nice though. I’ve heard the film was created as something of an ’answer’ to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, and I’d say the fight editing is a little better here; the early fights in “Tiger” were just to frantically cut for my tastes (I had the same problems with some of the earlier battles in “The Fellowship of the Ring“), although it did slow down a little more as it went along. Here the fights achieve a better balance between visibility and visual kinetics. Of course, this sort of thing gets especially subjective; you might feel quite differently.
The real issue I had with the film was its politics, or maybe its philosophy. Basically, the film cheats around with its moral drive, to the point where I couldn’t really believe the characters anymore. To put it bluntly, Jet Li is actually here to assassinate the emperor for his crimes against Li’s tribe, but he’s convinced by Tony Leung not to kill the Emperor, even though the Imperial army has killed both of their families, because the Emperor is the only one who stands a chance of uniting the land and putting an end to inter-tribal fighting, through the extinguishment of ’tribes’ and the creation of a national identity. Jet Li mentions this to his majesty, who then bursts into tears and warbles that finally someone understands the good motives behind his warfare (try to imagine Jet Li saying this to Hitler during his own campaign of ‘unification‘). His Highness then comes to the realization that only through war can peace arrive, but peace must reign supreme after the war is done; the warrior must transcend the use of the sword, or something. Then the imperial court demands Jet Li be executed for attempting an assassination (or else the throne will be undermined by a show of weakness or whatever), and Li lets the Emperor have him killed to ensure the stability of his reign, and then China is unified and everyone sheds a tear and Li is buried a hero of the realm. I couldn’t help but imagine David Bowie’s classic tune ‘Heroes’ playing as Jet Li takes a whole swarm of those fatal arrows, leaving a Jet Li-shaped hole against the Imperial gate, which was kind of silly. Oh, and Maggie Cheung (another warrior) thinks Leung is a complete fucking tool for saving the Emperor (her family got extinguished as well) so she kills him, but then she realizes that she's killed the only man she truly loves, and she kills herself. The end! Oh, and Zhang Ziyi is in there too, but she has nothing to do but have sex and be a headstrong young fighter.
The problem is, the moral drive of the characters is as stylized as the action itself. Leung fights the Emperor himself at one point, and comes to realize that he’s a swell fellah underneath and he won’t at all subjugate the people of the tribes that he doesn’t personally belong to and he only has good intentions at heart because… well… he just sort of does. Because among Leung’s abilities is the power of 'historical fiction hindsight', where he knows (since he’s a character in a film made in 2002) that China will eventually be unified. There doesn’t seem to be any other reason why Leung would arrive at such a long-view, since everything else the Emperor has done (outside of his rhetoric) has resulted in violence toward his tribe. And Maggie Cheung gets to play the juicy role of straw-man in the debate, as the rebellious warrior. At one point, Leung mentions to someone a platitude along the lines of “What use is the suffering of one against the good of many?”. I would hope that whomever he said it to, being in the same position and possessing an intellect above the level of mental retardation would respond with “Er, yeah Tony, but what about the 200,000 or so other kids who’ll have their families wiped out? Aren’t they ’many’ as well?” But no, Jet Li senses the benevolence of the Imperial fist and Maggie Cheung discovers that adhering to violence will only destroy the ones we love… um, unless the violence leads to peace… which we know will happen with the Emperor because… er… he’s the emperor and stuff, so his violence is ok… unless he adheres to violence after the war, which he won’t because... everyone knows he’s enlightened... because… he just is.
Sorry folks, my eloquence has failed me; that’s the clearest expression of the message of “Hero” that I could muster. Some other people tried too as we walked out of the theater:
“So it’s like, anti-war?”
“Well the movie’s pro-war. Because peace only comes through war.”
“So it’s pro-war and anti-war?”
“I think it’s just anti-‘assassinating the Emperor’.”
Ah. That did it!
So basically, the film’s message is painted in such broad strokes and relies on such contrivance to get there that it’s not quite offensive to me (J. Hoberman called it "the essence of shallow gravitas" and I tend to agree); it’s just bullshit. And rather naive bullshit at that, throwing its weight behind those with the most power because they can reach a higher goal simply because they are in power. We didn't elect them or anything, so we’ll just have to cross our fingers that they’re as enlightened as we assume.
But you know what happens when you assume, right?
*Tune in later tonight for more comics reviews!