Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2002 (2004 U.S.
Posted: August 30,
It’s critically lazy to label Zhang Yimou’s Hero (Ying Xiong)
as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon filtered through a Rashomon-like
framing device. For starters, Hero was conceived before Ang Lee’s ode
to the wuxia (martial arts) genre, with its skywalking sword battles and
heroic leads exhibiting superhuman abilities. (King Hu's classic A Touch
of Zen and Hero action director Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the
Death, A Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman II are more
notable antecedents.) Secondly, where Akira Kurosawa’s flashback-driven
Rashomon explored the subjectivity of truth, Yimou utilizes his
backwards-glancing narrative to ratchet up the tension between would-be
assassin Nameless (Jet Li) and his intended victim, future first emperor of
China, Qin (Chen Daoming).
Yimou is less interested in crafting a genre-defining wuxia epic, or
understanding what reality means, as he is in exploring the individual’s
place in the larger fabric of society. Set during the end of the fractious
Warring States period (221 BCE), Hero is structured around a meeting
between Qin and the warrior Nameless, vanquisher of three dangerous
assassins -- Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow
(Maggie Cheung) -- who have been harrying the king for the past ten years.
Nameless is granted a rare audience with the justifiably paranoid ruler, and
asked to explain how he defeated such formidable foes.
Nameless recounts how he bested Sky in a duel, and then pitted estranged
lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow against one another. Qin is impressed
but sees through Nameless’ tale, correctly deducing that Nameless is
actually in league with the three and somehow coerced them to die by his
sword in an effort to get close to the king (a prime example in miniature of
sacrificing oneself for the larger whole). Exposed, Nameless then explains
the actual truth of how he conspired with the trio to assassinate the ruler.
The larger point being made is this: However terrible Qin is -- and he’s
pretty brutal -- one rule by a despot is still better for the land and its
people than prolonged war amongst rival provinces. Yimou fails to arrive at
this conclusion as emphatically as he might have (the climactic “showdown”
between Nameless and Qin lacks the pulse-quickening drama the scene all but
demands). The director still deserves credit, though, for concentrating on
weightier issues regarding the unification of China than worrying over
artfully executed swordplay.
Not that the battle scenes are lacking. Yimou and ace cinematographer
Christopher Doyle, however, choose to emphasize the visual poetry of the
gravity-nullifying fight sequences over hardcore gore. There is no blood in
Hero -- it would disrupt the specific red, blue, white, and green
color schemes defining each conflict. And the movements of the characters
are more like bold, calligraphic strokes than realistic action movements.
Yimou takes the internal struggle of his leads and externalizes them in
hand-to-hand combat. What this lacks in visceral gratification (Enter the
Dragon certainly has nothing to worry about), it more than makes up for
with a deeper, more resonant examination of the struggle to define oneself
in a larger collective. Nameless has the power to change history, and
realizes what an awesome burden it is.
Hero, despite its epic trappings, is executed in a minor key. Yimou
downplays melodrama and grand spectacle in favor of intimate expressions and
melancholy emotions. He’s a director who prefers framing the face as opposed
to orchestrating massive armies charging into one another. In that respect,
Hero falls short of greatness, simply because Yimou rarely ventures
outside his area of expertise. He doesn’t risk failure in the way Kurosawa
often did, and, as a result, manages (by his lofty standards) but a modest
triumph. It will be interesting to see what Yimou does with his second wuxia
House of Flying Daggers due out in Asia this year (and,
hopefully, stateside not too long afterward).
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