Monday, August 30, 2004
Hero opens heroically in America
The Chinese Wuxia film Ying Xiong, English title, "Hero," debuted in the U.S. last week to guardedly excellent reviews and high praise.
When it opened in 2002, a Taiwanese friend took my husband and I to see Hero in downtown Xiamen, but he first interpreted the story for us. We saw it with Chinese subtitles in the theatre and I saw it with English subtitles in each of my four classes. This film was so popular with my students in Xiamen University last year that I had them write and perform plays on its themes, an assignment they executed with inspiring creativity and zeal.
The film's signature visual device is a historical tale told from several perspectives, each with a different chromatic motif. One team in each class was assigned the blue section, another the red, another the white, another the green, and another the king's court, which was the beginning and the end. Without native interpretation I would still have misconstrued the story in all its incarnations and the underlying message of self-sacrifice and Wuxia, "martial arts chivalry." I saw the film five times and watched 20 student plays about it. I enjoyed it the first time and I have come to feel embedded with Hero's aesthetic, passion and Chinese esteem.
Wuxia 武俠 is not only a Chinese film and literary genre, it is a resonant cultural ethic. So it is understandable why American film critics might miss the points that are important to Chinese, but enjoy the film nonetheless for its cinematic virtuosity. Hero is a contemporary cultural Rorschach test, a film that reveals both authentic and outsider cultural biases of its growing number of commentators, as they debate the message while praising the medium.
Here are some excerpts from New York Times' official review
Hidden Truths in the Court of a King Who Would Be EmperorBy MANOHLA DARGIS
In "Hero," an ambitious period epic about the birth of the first Chinese empire, warriors fly through the air like birds of prey, their swords cutting through enemies and lovers alike. Set during the third century B.C., the story of an assassination plot against a powerful king unfolds with such dazzling bursts of color and blurs of furious action it might be easy to miss the nationalistic message tucked amid the visual enchantments.[snip--]
Dargis then goes on to inadvertently reveal that she didn't watch the movie carefully enough.
The story takes off with the title character, a nameless warrior played by the appealing martial-arts film star Jet Li, en route to the kingdom of Qin, whose ruler hopes to unite the warring Chinese states into an empire. Once ensconced under heavy guard and the scrutiny of the Qin king (Chen Dao Ming), "Nameless" relates how he vanquished the king's most feared enemies, Sky (Donnie Yen), Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) and the most powerful warrior of all, Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai).Buzzer #1. The title character isn't a nameless warrior, his name is Nameless.
When the king rejects the account, Nameless spins a second, a third and finally a fourth version, changes in perspective that Mr. Zhang and his excellent production team signal with startling shifts of color ...[snip]
Buzzer #2. When the King of Qin rejects the account, the next episode is his own opinion of what probably happened.
Watching Hero absent the well-known (in China and only in China) cultural history of these events and making do with the subtitles, these turns of tales might be easily missed as this Chinese author of a reader-review (Which the N.Y. Times carries with its professional reviews) notes:
Nationalism, in mainland China is still considered honorable, as it accounts for the singular longevity of the Chinese nation and culture. But what is virtuous among the mainlanders can be a canard for offlanders. This Hong Kong reader-reviewer expresses quite a different sentiment, indeed.
Reviewer: yauveeAn American reader-reviewer's objections are from a filmgoer who evidently doesn't realize the difference between Wuxia and other popular Asian martial art films. The fantasy element is a characteristic feature of Wuxia films. I heard this same criticism from another American who said the fantistical renderings of the martial arts ruined the movie for him.
Where is Bruce, August 28, 2004Chinese filmgoers couldn't imagine an objection to the flying fighter syndrome. I believe this is because their culture holds Wuxia as a venerable and noble ethic, so the extrapolation made possible by crafty camera work and CGI expresses the symbolism of mythic invincibility. More to the point, supernatural powers in the performance of martial arts is a legitimate and popular tradition of Wuxia films.
I hope Hero has a record-breaking run. I have no illusions that it will illuminate the cultural gap, but it will offer a cross-cultural entertainment experience that will eclipse economic globalism in its penetration and multilateral good will.
Mainer, New Yawka, Beijinger, Californian, points between. News, views and ballyhoos that piqued my interest and caused me to sigh, cry, chuckle, groan or throw something.
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