[Marxism] Hero

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 9 10:27:27 MST 2004


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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