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Trying to catch a Hero by the tail

For the last few years, I've had problems with Zhang Yimou, whom I consider one of the slipperiest filmmakers working today. As much as he's loved by many as a gifted visual and dramatic artist, he is hated by an equal number of critics as a commercial hack who sells Orientalist imagery to push a pro-authoritarian Chinese agenda. I've gone back and forth between these two poles, which has pushed me to think of Zhang Yimou's films as case studies of what it means to try to make compelling mainstream cinema in China today. The following are reflections taken after three different viewings of HERO over a 16 month period (stay with it; it gets more intense as it goes along):

February 17, 2003 The long, strange career of Zhang Yimou reaches epic heights in this mythical blockbuster: a mysterious swordsman (Jet Li) recounts to the first Emperor of China how he killed three notorious assassins from a rival kingdom. Zhang's movies have always been as enigmatic in their meanings as they are evocative in their effects, functioning as whatever the viewer wishes them to be, and with this baby he really outdoes himself. Zhang breaks new ground in a unique idiom of grand hyperbole, with wall-to-wall action, dramatic gestures gone miles over-the-top and colors so rich they make the eyes water. The film would be a work of complete stylistic abstraction if it weren't for Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (once again proving that they are the greatest screen couple of our time) on hand to invest the film with their tremendous emotional reserves. After watching this twice, I still can't decide if this is a spectacularly aestheticized, Zen-like meditation on the art of martial arts cinema, worthy of the great King Hu, an over-produced commercial attempt to capitalize on the global appeal of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON; or a coded, submissive, possibly ironic 2-hour propagandistic commercial for the Chinese government. As frustrating to interpret as it is glorious to experience, this may be the pinnacle of Zhang's artistic achievement, rivaling Eisenstein's IVAN THE TERRIBLE in its iconoclastic beauty and quizzical intent.

July 14, 2003 My feelings for this amazing spectacular film fluctuate with each viewing; this time I'm caught at a nadir. I go back and forth as to whether this film is a ringing, uncomplicated endorsement of the Chinese government, or a nuanced statement on personal transcendence in the face of social turmoil. Of course the two aren't mutually exclusive, and in some ways what Zhang is saying about people who wish to change the world for the better stinks of complacency. It was really the ending this time that left me feeling empty -- which casts a new light on all the dazzling spectacle that preceded it. I had previously thought that this possible masterpiece was the second coming of A TOUCH OF ZEN, but I'm not sure if Zhang is nearly as invested in the Buddhist spiritual principles of forbearance and transcendence as King Hu was -- as has been the norm in his recent government-sanctioned period of productivity, this slipperiest of auteurs seems too careful to appease all sides. Whereas Hu's masterpiece shines with an uncompromising philosophical vision, here the martial arts scenes are as much an opiate for the moviegoing masses as a means for personal discovery. There is no doubt a lot of brilliance in this film, but it is hard to discern among the glossy packaging. #4 for 2002, between THE PIANIST and GANGS OF NEW YORK

August 18, 2004 From a message board:

In reply to: I'm not entirely sure about _Hero_, but I agree that it's more of a real > film than Crouching Tiger.

The paradox being that it's a far more abstract film than the character-oriented prose poetry of CTHD. On the one-hand we could say HERO is even more of an abominable hi-gloss bastardization of old- school wuxia elements repackaged for mainstream global consumption than either CTHD or KILL BILL Vol. 2. But in defense of HERO, I'd say that this film distinguishes itself from its contemporaries because it can be seen as actually commenting on this contemporary tendency to monumentalize the genre, and takes the monumentalizing impulse as an occasion to create one of the most epic show-downs shot in recent cinema: not Maggie Cheung vs. Zhang Ziyi or Jet Li vs. Tony Leung, but the fight between narrative vs. non-narrative, story vs. spectacle, as the locus of cinematic meaning and wonder. For more on this I highly recommend Shelley Kraicer's review in CINEMASCOPE:

August 19, 2004 From a message board:

In reply to: Critic and independent filmmaker Evans Chan has written a really interesting article on HERO in the FILM INTERNATIONAL Web page noting its disturbing political and ideological tendencies. It is still a visually beautiful film but Chan has read it within a significant cultural perspective not normally available to those of us not versed in specific areas of Chinese history.

Tony Williams

Tony, that's quite a formidable article by Evans you mentioned -- here is the link for all to look at: I could post a very long response to it but I'll just say that as invaluable and full of insight as it is, it still isn't the full story. The last paragraph of the Kraicer article I linked to can serve as a worthy qualifier for now. Zhang Yimou is such a bundle of contradictions, and always has been -- what he and his films represent has always been a bone of contention. Defending him is often a dubious enterprise, which is exactly why it is necessary to do so (and I say this as someone who has lambasted Zhang Yimou on many occasions). He is to Chinese filmmaking what Spielberg is to Hollywood -- someone who could be seen as trying to create engaging, meaningful films while serving and profiting from the existing power structure, which makes it convenient to deride them as villainous symbols of everything that's wrong and ideologically debilitating about mainstream cinema. The problem is that these critiques end up being just as limited and limiting, in what alternative interpretive approaches they are unwilling to consider. The chief problem with Chan's critique (which happens to be tied with its many virtues) is in how it tries to nail Zhang's film down as a simplistic apologia on behalf of beneficent totalitarianism (Zhang as the new and improved Chinese Leni Riefenstahl). Even as he supports this argument with a lot of substantive observations on thematic and narrative tendencies throughout Zhang's career and their implications in constructing a new popular nationalist ideology that conforms with the agenda of a dubious regime, I feel that he sidesteps how these films can be argued in the exact opposite direction, the very quality that makes Zhang's cinema so elusive -- an elusiveness that in turn can be viewed as rich ambiguity or cunning fence-straddling. I can understand Chan's impulse to grab Zhang's elusive filmmaking by the tail and strike at what sinister ideological implications may lurk at the heart of his movies, but I think this risks being too reductive towards the film. Because it is quite possible that with HERO, Zhang has made the Chinese answer to IVAN THE TERRIBLE PART I, a film of nearly infinite and often contradictory meanings. Kevin

August 20, 2004 In, "iangjohnston" wrote in reply:

Kevin, I suspect this comes down to how close to "China" one is standing. For myself, being married to a Taiwanese and living in Taiwan, I found the film's ideology oppressive and monolithic; there were no signs for me of "infinite and contradictory meanings". Ian

Hi Ian,

For the record, I have family and personal ties to both Taiwan and China (and I have more family in Taiwan than in China), and I do not endorse China's plans to re-incorporate Taiwan into the mainland.

I can certainly see how HERO can be perceived as a rah-rah call towards embracing a monolithic nationalism -- this was my own prevailing sentiment after my second and third times watching this film. I just don't think the discussion should end here. For one thing, if we want to criticize the film for apparently endorsing a nationalist sentiment that borders on rigid neo-fascism, we must also be aware our own critical tendency towards rigidity in defining the film along these terms. Otherwise we remain entrenched in an oppressive dialectic -- where the oppression comes as much from our own definitions of the terms of opposition as from the forces we are trying to oppose -- and we end up supporting the dominant power structure, instead of truly subverting it.

I think what can be seen as truly subversive about HERO is, in how much it seems to dutifully depict the noble formation of a totalitarian state, it shows how disastrous and tragic this state formation really is. All the major protagonists, played by charismatic Hong Kong superstars are killed, even the ones who ultimately changed their minds about their resistance to the Emperor -- Evans Chan might dismiss this as a bogus endorsement of heroic sacrifice, but I don't consider this much different from what I see in my favorite John Ford movie, FORT APACHE. Multiple narratives are suppressed to form a single authoritarian narrative. Even on a visual level, the rich color palettes that alternated through most of the film are abandoned for an oppressive black -- if this is pro-fascist I certainly don't find it inspiring me to say "Heil Hu Jingtao" (the Chinese president). Along these lines, I don't find this film necessarily more "fascist" or "monolithic" in its conclusions than, say, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE -- and couldn't one say that the ending of RASHOMON works in a "fascist" manner, by asserting a monolithic sentimental humanist conclusion for us to accept as "Truth" instead of remaining in the far more complex realm of competing subjectivies? Hell, along these lines you could even call CITY OF SADNESS, one of the most brilliantly anti-fascist movies ever made, a fascist film for depicting the violent unification of a multi- cultural society with an ending that may be characterized as a tepid fatalist resignation. But that would be totally mischaracterizing the film!

Now, is it dubious to make this kind of anti-monoideological argument on behalf of HERO, when there seems to be so much evidence to the contrary? It certainly is, especially when most Chinese viewers probably don't seem to appreciate the film quite this way. But if you believe Evans Chan, you'll believe that a billion people were duped into adulating this film and became more dutiful slaves to the capitalist totalitarian state. But why should we believe Evans Chan any more than we would believe the Chinese government for their respective attempts to spin the movie into a simplistic ideological package? My point is that we can't lie down and take the film's meaning -- or to be more precise, our own interpretation of the film's meaning -- as a given. If we really care about defending complexity and diversity on behalf of the freedom of the world, then we have to practice what we preach.

One thing that might help is to try to understand the social forces that have brought the film, its maker, its approving government and its audience (given that they made it the top-grossing film of all time in China) to this point, otherwise we are merely engaging in neo-Imperialist China-bashing (and by extension paying lip-service to Taiwan's effort for self-recognition). I see this inadvertent China- bashing (whose political ramifications should not be ignored in evaluating post-Colonial power struggles between China and the West) in one of the most salient quotes in Chan's essay, when he labels the film "a rallying cry for the populace to mute dissent, and to accept the ruthless flogging of the authoritarian, post-socialist capitalist machine that is spinning in full force, with Zhang himself as one of its most valuable export items." Given how Chan here describes the Chinese government as exploiting its own people in the service of global capitalism, why not direct as much scorn to global capitalism itself? So I propose that we understand this question of nationalism not as a phenomenon created in a vacuum, but as a cultural reaction to China's relatively recent entry into global market capitalism. Similarly, in Zhang's film, I think the idea of nationalism should be approached as a question, not as a truism asserted by the film.