Thursday, January 06, 2005


After a short break our film season continued last night with Zhang Yimou's Hero. Zhang, of course, was at the forefront of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers that took the world by storm in the late 1980s and 1990s. And his earlier masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern, a parable about the patriarchal, semi-feudal society of late 20th-century China, remains as powerful piece of filmmaking to come out of world cinema as any.

Hero is set during the "warring states" period before the political entity of China had been created. The action is framed around a meeting between the Qin emperor and an assassin named Nameless. Much of the narrative is told in flashback but each segment (and the different versions of the same events they tell) is colour-coded – a device that preserves the formal structure of the plot. Here Zhang owes a great deal to the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, who used the contrasting narrative strands to such wonderful effect in Rashomon, perhaps the finest film to engage with the philosophy of justice.

Of course Hero has been praised endlessly for being ravishing. The work of the renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle and the score by Tan Dun are flawless. In fact, there are times where the formal beauty and exquisite choreography of Hero threaten to overwhelm any sense of who the characters really are. Too often they become mere ciphers than plausible historical people.

Despite these caveats there are also three fascinating themes presented before us. The first is a reflection on the power of storytelling, myths and narratives – discursive power, if you like. The film shows the way in which Nameless and the emperor trade fables, fabrications and feints like in a chess game, writing
China's history in the process. The second is the link that is made between the pen and the sword, between calligraphy and the martial arts, speaking to the long tradition in Chinese culture of the scholar-solider figure. The third, and perhaps most intriguing aspect, is the overt theme of Chinese unification, obviously a resonant topic in contemporary world politics. Some have accused Zhang – who was once the bad boy of Chinese cinema and banned from making films – as offering a justification for centralised rule and indeed tyranny. The film's ultimate message seems to be that unity must, at all times and under any circumstances, trump any claims to autonomy or independence. Others, however, suggest that there are sly hints of subversion and that the heroism of the title is open to ambiguity. "All under heaven" (or "Our Land" as it's translated in the film) is the leitmotif of the warrior-scholar but, at the same time, it is a slogan that is literally written in the sand. Perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate since Zhang still treads a fine line in the machiavellian world of Chinese cultural politics. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he still remains one of the most interesting and political filmmakers working today.


Blogger kotaji said...

A very nice summary that captures the film and its attractions. I have to say that I love it and am completely prepared to overlook any hints of Chinese nationalism. In fact, despite the ending, I felt myself rooting for the other states that are being overwhelmed by the irresistable power of the Qin. The film has quite a strong sense of the premodern Confucian ideal of loyalty to one's ruler and people rather than to the very modern idea of a unified nation.
On the other hand... Zhang's latest film 'House of Flying Daggers' is a load of old kitsch romantic rubbish. Yes, it's nice to look at but it's got none of the sense of history unfolding or the multi-faceted plot that make Hero so great.

7:35 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home