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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:
Reviewer: moojujuwannan
Hero, which is about the first emperor of China is a very nationalistic movie. It has great scenery visual combined with matrix (not nearly as stupid) style fighting that is not CGI but real. The story line is very simple but you can get lost if you miss a line or two. Every Chinese person knows the ending of the this movie, but for those that are [sic] not, I feel the ending would give you a more honorable impression about the culture of China than you already have. (link to the original)

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: yauvee
Yes, Hero, by Zhang Yimou, was a splendid visual spectacle. It was a very compelling movie, which to me, made its central message all the more chilling.

As a resident of Hong Kong, I am made, with every passing day, the degree to which the People's Republic of China is held together by a heady mix of nationalism and economic success. The country's leadership, lacking the traditional legitimacy bestowed by democracy, maintain a comfortable grip on the country by delivering prosperity to the people, but also by encouraging an ethos of nationalism and of being Chung-guo, or "the country at the center of the world." Its national discourse, such as it is, is a populist nationalism that is uncomfortably close to 1930s style Italian fascism and to other such forms of government long discredited in the West.

Which, to me, made the central message of the movie unacceptable: that all people and individuals, regardless of any sense of justice or fairness, must be subjugated for the good of the state. The loyalty of all of its subjects must be expressed toward the emperor, regardless of whether that loyalty is deserved.
(link to the original)
An 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, 2004
Reviewer: tjd149
It seems that big budget visually stunning martial arts movies want us to believe lately that man can fly. While Hero has many wonderful scenes, an original story line and an unusual ending, the illusion of flight is not one of them and takes away so much from what could have been a great movie.

Choreographed in the vein of Flying Tiger, Hidden Dragon we witness people leaping into fanciful flight both to fight and move long distances. This appears to be the next tired step after the B grade television series that had the combatants leap straight up into trees and onto building roofs.

You have to wonder if Jet Li or the other actors have ever seen a good martial arts movie such as Enter the Dragon. The story line was believable because the actors never appeared as something more than human even with their extraordinary martial arts skills. People bleed, people got up slowly after being knocked down and people acted, well, human. Instead we are treated to flips at the end of a kick without appearance of injury and battle scenes lasting what appears to be several minutes of unaided flight.

In Hero, like CTHD before it, we see people take flight, run along walls sideways and perform as mere puppets on strings. It would have been a really good movie if the combatants had acted like they were real people instead of cartoon characters in a Roadrunner scene. Where are you Bruce Lee? (link to the original)
Chinese 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.

// posted by Ellen @  03:47   //Permalink// 
Ellen says hey
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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