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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Hero (2002)

Director: Zhang Yimou
Stars: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Dao Ming and Donnie Yen
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I expected a lot from Hero, given that the names involved are something of a Who's Who of modern Asian cinema, but I found more than I expected. It still plays to me as the epitome of the Asian historical action epic, a great coming together of talent on a picture where everything came out right. Put simply, it doesn't feel like anything else, though it has readily discernible roots in Chinese culture and the wuxia genre of film. Wuxia is all about the use of martial arts in a historical setting and it's easily distinguishable from other types of martial arts films through its styles and conventions, not least its use of wirework in addition to stuntwork and a notable spiritual side. Obviously made as a deliberate attempt to capitalise on the success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the global market, Hero is at once a wuxia classic and something rather more besides.

Most obviously it is truly gorgeous. The partnership of Zhang Yimou, a world renowned director of serious art films here making his first action movie, if you could call it that, and Christopher Doyle, in my humble opinion the greatest cinematographer of the last few decades, is a dream pairing. They run the gamut from the micro to the macro, seeming to encompass 'tianxia', a Mandarin word highlighted in the story that is translated in the US release as 'our land' but more appropriately means 'everyone and everything under heaven'. One scene revolves around a single drop of water, others around vast armies and swarms of arrows that blot out the sun. Some scenes are like paintings come to life, like a fight on a mirror lake surrounded by mountains, every shot and every angle so breathtaking that it's hard not to be bedazzled by the beauty. The fight scenes are so beautifully choreographed that they become performance art.

And yet within this blistering array of cinematic loveliness, which description extends to the lead actors, both male and female, there is a story, a very clever one that evolves over the course of the film and prompts two complete reevaluations of what the title means. Jet Li, appearing in his first mainland Chinese film since his debut in 1982's The Shaolin Temple, plays an unnamed minor official, the prefect of Lan Meng, which is not as important as it sounds. Yet he's been summoned by the King of Qin, the most powerful man in the seven kingdoms, because he's apparently defeated in hand to hand combat the three most powerful Zhao assassins that have pledged to kill the king and destroy his ambition to bring peace through conquest. He's searched with meticulous care and brought into the king's presence, the first time in ten years that an outsider has been invited to approach within a hundred paces of the throne.

The king has never heard of this man and so asks his story, which we're treated to in flashback as he takes on and bests each of the assassins in turn. First is Long Sky, played by Donnie Yen, who he defeats in combat in front of seven of the king's swordsmen, who have already been outclassed by the assassin. The other two live together as lovers, Broken Sword and Flying Snow, in the forms of Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung respectively. Our nameless hero, for obviously Jet Li's character is the hero of the title, defeats them through manipulation of their affections. He has secret knowledge of an illicit night that Flying Snow spent with Long Sky and he sets up the dominoes by revealing the death of the latter and his dying wish that his mistress avenge him. Flying Snow kills her lover, then his servant Moon, finally losing to our nameless hero's swift sword through distraction and mental turmoil.

And it's here that the story really gets interesting, because the whole thing is a fabrication and as the king begins to deconstruct it we start to see alternative versions. These aren't presented like Rashomon as a set of different perspectives from which we can only extract a subjective truth, they're played out more like a game of strategy. When we first meet Long Sky, he's playing a game of weiqi, better known to Western audiences as go, a game easily compared to military strategy. The king and his nameless prefect play such a game with words and stories, persuading each other into revealing history and purpose. We soon find that rather than being the king's greatest ally, Nameless is actually his most skilled opponent, an assassin who can kill him from within ten paces, a distance he can only reach through apparent victory over the king's most feared foes. No wonder he desires no reward, as the entire point is to simply get closer to his target.
You can see the potential for confusion here but that's easily countered by building each perspective out of a different colour. For instance, the earliest scenes at the calligraphy school that Flying Snow and Broken Sword have made their home are shot predominantly in red against yellow, most obviously in the battle between Flying Snow and Moon, Broken Sword's servant, where they're both clad in bright red but fight in a clearing in a whirlwind of yellow leaves. Yet this is the story that Nameless tells. When the king offers his take on what really happened, the characters are primarily clad in blue instead, and when the prefect apparently comes clean and tells the truth, the colours turn to white, except for a flashback within the flashback when Broken Sword tells of how he failed to kill the king three years earlier in which everything from the costumes to the palace sets are shot in a lush green.

You can also see how the gravity defying wirework can be explained away not as literal truth but as mere stylistic exaggeration during storytelling, poetic license if you will. Yet at the same time both sides of this verbal sparring bout tell stories in the same sort of way. You can read into this a respect for the martial arts, for the opposition and for the land itself, 'tianxia', which is the prize everyone is fighting for, whether that be the land of China or the known world or however far up you want to extrapolate it. So we gradually come to realise that while Jet Li's unnamed minor official is certainly a hero, so are the three assassins who have certainly put their faith and may well have given their lives to increase his chances. That makes four heroes and the final revelation is that there's a fifth. If we were paying attention at the very beginning, the opening text reads that 'there are heroes on both sides,' and that can only lump in the king of Qin too.

Here's where the message of the film comes into debate. Some have read a modern Chinese political statement into the drive of the film towards totalitarianism, but while it's fair comment it's also an overreaction. Sure, the Chinese government approved of Hero and provided an estimated 18,000 soldiers from the People's Liberation Army to act as extras, but it would be appropriate to mention that this is really no different from the support the American military has given many Hollywood films as far back as 1927's Wings, the winner of the first Best Picture Oscar. Even something as apparently devoid of a message as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was shot at White Sands missile range and a number of US air bases with the military hardware real and many extras being sourced from the local military populations. For something more overtly propagandistic, Pearl Harbor was even premiered on an aircraft carrier.

I don't believe that Zhang Yimou was trying to make propaganda for the Chinese Communists. I believe he, and his co-writers Feng Li and Bin Wang, were throwing out paradoxes, two in particular. One is tied up in the scroll that Nameless commissions from Broken Sword, a noted calligrapher, and brings to the king. It contains the Chinese character for sword, something that could be written nineteen different ways. Nameless asks for the twentieth, hoping to discover the secret to his martial arts technique through how he paints it, just as he compares martial arts to the playing of a musical instrument called a guqin during the fight with Long Sky, but it's the king who discovers its real secret, a philosophy that explains the ideal warrior, who has surpassed the desire to kill. This leads directly to the conclusion of the film, the outcome of the lead characters and the second paradox, which can be found in the real character that the King of Qin was based on.

He was Qin Shi Huang, the King of Qin between 246BC and 221BC, who to our modern thinking was both a great forward looking statesman and a bloody tyrant. He was a ruthless conqueror, who took kingdoms through war and violence, seeking out and killing his enemies. He ended the era of free thinking known as the Hundred Schools of Thought and he banned and burned books, at one point even burying 460 scholars alive for possession of forbidden literature. Yet he also ended the longest civil war the world has ever known, the Warring States Period, by uniting China, becoming its first Emperor and beginning two thousand years of imperial rule. He built the Great Wall of China, the Lingqu Canal and the Terracotta Army. He introduced a common written language and a single system of weights and measures, standardised the currency and abolished feudalism and hereditary appointments. He even revolutionised transport by setting a defined length for the axles of carts and building massive road networks.
So I don't think there's a crystal clear message of political intent here, however easily such a thing could be spun. Like many wuxia epics it's a spectacular improvisation around a historical event and historical characters. The cast were far from strangers to this concept. Jet Li, of these actors the most obvious breakthrough to the global market, was best known at the time for his portrayal of Chinese folk heroes like Wong Fei Hung in three Once Upon a Time in China movies and Fong Sai Yuk in two movies that carry his name, released in the west as The Legend and The Legend II. He's well known for his wushu talents but he's been less impressive in the west when not fighting, films that avoided martial arts entirely like 2007's War being rather disappointing. Yet here he's magnetic in his banter with the king even though he hardly moves, the subtlety of this performance being magnificent.

Donnie Yen had studied under the same wushu master at the Beijing Academy as Jet Li and he fought him in Once Upon a Time in China II, in fight scenes that revolutionised Hong Kong martial arts choreography. He's probably best known in the west for the Iron Monkey movies or for smaller parts in western films made around this one, like Highlander: Endgame, Blade II and Shanghai Knights. He's Long Sky here and his servant Moon is Zhang Ziyi, by far the most inexperienced member of the leading cast but probably better known globally than most of them because of the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and her next film, the Jackie Chan movie Rush Hour 2. She would also be the only member of this cast to return for Zhang Yimou's more action based successor to this film, 2004's House of Flying Daggers. The King of Qin is played by the only new face to me, Dao Ming Chen, but he's excellent nonetheless.

While many Asian actors combine their western and Chinese names, that's a requirement for Tony Leung Chiu Wai, given that there are no less than five Tony Leungs working in Hong Kong cinema. What's more, one of the others, Tony Leung Ka Fai is just as successful as he is, the pair of them being perennials at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Tony Leung Chiu Wai has seven wins out of eleven nominations, while Tony Leung Ka Fai has four out of thirteen. It's hard to keep track sometimes. This Tony Leung, a tour de force here as Broken Sword, is versatile enough to veer from the seriousness of Bullet in the Head to the wild comedy of A Chinese Ghost Story III, from the unparalleled action of Hard Boiled to the tenderness of In the Mood for Love, from the cult sensibilities of Chungking Express or 2046 to the wild success of Infernal Affairs or Red Cliff. Many of his films, especially those made for John Woo and Wong Kar Wai, rank among my favourite Asian movies.

My favourite Asian actor is Maggie Cheung, who is surprisingly less notable than usual here, letting Leung steal most of the scenes she's in. I first saw her playing Jackie Chan's girlfriend in his Police Story films, but her talent grew quickly and she soon found her way to heavyweight roles. She's played opposite Leung often, especially in Wong Kar Wai movies, though not in my favourites: Leung wasn't in Days of Being Wild and Cheung wasn't in Chungking Express. Like Leung, she's incredibly versatile, performing in three languages in the powerful drug film Clean, and she's appeared in many of my favourite Asian movies, such as The Barefoot Kid and The Heroic Trio, though the most bizarrely memorable has to be Irma Vep, a French film she made for her future husband Olivier Assayas in 1996. Maggie Cheung in black fetish outfits remaking a silent French vampire serial is pretty close to my idea of heaven.

And my raving about Asian actors and Asian films is appropriate because this film turned out to be for many an introduction to that wonderful world, though it was almost never to be. Even though Miramax snapped up the distribution rights to the American market after the film's success in Asia, they continually refused to release it Stateside for two years, constantly pushing back release dates because of some sort of bizarre rethink about its chances at success. When they finally released it in 2004, after pressure from a strange alliance of Disney and Quentin Tarantino, it promptly became the first ever foreign film to open at number one at the US box office, its opening weekend take of $18m second only to The Passion of the Christ for a movie made in a foreign language.

When I confronted a work colleague and film fan who had never seen a film in any other language but English this is what I lent him. He quickly changed his ways and if you're in the same situation, so will you. For a start, when you see what Christopher Doyle can do, you'll never see American films the same way again. Sometimes he's just in a different league entirely to everyone else in the business and there are a lot of talented cinematographers out there. Emi Wada won an Oscar for her costumes for Ran, but she could have done for any number of her films, including this one. Siu-Tung Ching dreams up choreography that is less fighting and more some sort of martial arts dance, fluid and sometimes almost as breathtaking as the settings. There's a whole world out there that many find and few come back from. It's films like this that open the door and make you realise that you're not in Kansas any more.

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