Friday, December 10, 2004

Hero Reviewed

A review of Hero by Louis Proyect of Marxmail

Zhang Yimou is one of China's most talented film directors. He has also run afoul of the authorities over the years for making films that pushed the envelope of what was politically acceptable. In 1990, "Ju Dou" was banned because it represented a woman committing adultery against an oppressive husband. The 1999 "Not One Less" depicts a teenaged schoolteacher locked in struggle with government bureaucrats over funding for her rural school. Perhaps the censors approved this film because of its happy ending, when the bureaucrats are won over by the plucky youth.

Nowadays Zhang is making films that are a retreat from the earlier films. Dispensing entirely with themes that challenge the status quo, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" seem very much influenced by Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." My comments here are directed toward "Hero," which I saw recently in DVD.

During the 1980s and 90s Hong Kong studios churned out film after film starring Jet Li or Jackie Chan as itinerant swordsman standing up to evil. These films were marketed to a mass audience and made no pretenses to high art. They also relied on combat scenes that relied strictly on the acrobatic and martial arts skills of the stars. Unfortunately, first Ang Lee and now Zhang Yimou decided to use the sort of computer-assisted special effects that were found in the Matrix films where characters defy the laws of gravity routinely.

In "Hero," the star Jet Li floats through the air at the drop of a hat. This allows Zhang Yimou to choreograph some spectacular mid-air sword fights that remind one of a Chagall painting. Since they are so obviously disconnected from physical reality, they tend to convey as much danger as a Chagall painting.

Zhang seems much more interested in visual effects than anything in this elaborate costume drama. Armored soldiers march in formation as if on stage. At the end of the film, they demand the execution of Jet Li in unison. The effect is positively operatic. Zhang does have a demonstrated affinity for opera. In 1997 he directed the Puccini opera "Turandot" in Florence, Italy with Zubin Mehta serving as conductor. In 1998, he and Mehta once again collaborated on a re-staging of the opera in Beijing. "Turandot," of course, is an opera that revolves around vast numbers of Chinese imperial attendants and soldiers marching in and off stage to great effect.

The story itself revolves around the plot of Jet Li and his associates to assassinate the King of Qin, who has decided to subjugate the five other kingdoms in ancient China in order to create a unified state and a unified language. The assassins all come from a kingdom that has suffered from his assaults. Ultimately, "Hero" becomes a Rashomon-type tale in which the King of Qin and his enemies present contrasting accounts of both their involvement and his culpability. I don't think I am giving away anything when I say that the King is ultimately vindicated as a national unifier in the mold of Stalin or Mao. One must conclude that Chinese film-makers operate under tremendous constraints.


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