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Hero (Time, 2002)

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 02, 2013 12:44 am    Post subject: Hero (Time, 2002) Reply with quote

'This Film Was My Boyhood Dream'

By STEPHEN SHORT and SUSAN JAKES / Hengdian Sunday, Jan. 21, 2001

Time Magazine,9171,1962248,00.html

Zhang Yimou's martial-arts epic Hero has a boffo cast, a big budget, an award-winning crew — and the burden of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Responsible for such hits as Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home, the award-winning director spoke recently to TIME Asia entertainment correspondent Stephen Short and Senior Reporter Susan Jakes on the set of Hero in Hengdian, China. Edited excerpts:

TIME: Watching you shoot this morning, you looked a little stressed. Are you worrying a lot about this film?

Zhang Yimou: I always worry about actors during the fight scenes. About 10 years ago I acted under action director Tony Ching. Gong Li was the female lead. And in the middle of a fight scene I broke my leg. It was a real drag. It took four months to heal. So I'm always fretting about the actors' safety.

When we last met in Beijing last year, you talked about making a kung-fu movie. You hadn't made one before, and you sounded a little trepidant. So how are you coping?

I'm actually not doing too badly. I still have so much interest in the project. I still have so much affection for it. And I have an action director who's an old friend of more than a decade. That's made it a lot easier. And then there's the cast — Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi — four of the most talented actors in China. It's just a joy to work with them. It takes the pressure off to work with such skilled people.

What about the pressure of making this project on the back of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? It's a very boring question, very predictable and all, but what do you think?

First of all, I have so much respect for Ang Lee for making the movie such a success. I loved it. And it sparked unprecedented international interest in Chinese films and in martial arts. But I also believe that just because someone's made such a successful film, it doesn't mean we have to feel intense pressure. Everyone's imagination is different. Each director has his own goals, his own aesthetic and dramatic aspirations. Like Ang Lee, I'm a huge fan of martial-arts cinema. I can't get enough of the stuff. I've been that way since I was a kid. I'm completely in agreement with something Lee once said on the subject: "Every male director's dream is to make a martial-arts flick." It's been my dream since I was little.

From what we've seen the visual palate in this film looks very lush, even sumptuous. Was that a choice that was made very early on? Or did it come about later as a result of discussions with people like cinematographer Chris Doyle?

The aesthetics of this film are inextricably bound up with the plot. The idea of using colors to tell the story came about quite early in the process of conceptualizing the film. The look of the set, the costumes and so on was developed in concert with the script itself. I had an image in my head for a long time and then worked through the details of how to realize it through talking with the other people working on the film.

You must be learning a whole lot of new things as a director working in this genre. When Ang Lee started shooting Crouching Tiger he said he was completely at sea. How are you coping with the challenges of shooting an action film?

I'm probably just as lost as Ang Lee, maybe more so. I love the story in this film, but there's so much to keep in your head once you start shooting. All these stars, all the complexities of the action scenes. I definitely have a lot to learn. I love this feeling, though, of trying difficult things for the first time. I love the challenge.

Is there any one shot that you wanted to shoot but weren't able to because it was too complicated, technically or otherwise?

Yes, tons. Some we couldn't do because of the limitations of the actors' martial-arts ability. Others we couldn't because of safety. And then there were scenes that were just too complicated. We're using computer enhancement on many of the scenes. It can be a drag, because you don't know when you're shooting, or what the scene will actually look like. You can't see it. And then of course there were things we couldn't shoot because of environmental conditions, the weather for instance. This isn't unique to action films, it happens all the time.

From an aesthetic point of view, is the film going to be very surprising? Are people going to look at it the way they looked at your directorial debut, "Red Sorghum?" Is it going to have that kind of effect? Are people going to see something very new here?

That's a possibility. It's certainly what I'm trying to achieve. I've been looking at some of the rushes and I'm confident that we'll be able to give the audience something completely new.

You told us that Zhang Ziyi feels a lot broader to you as an actress than she did when you were working on The Road Home with her. Does she now give you that same sense of being able to wrap a scene in one or two takes that you talked about with regard to Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung? Or does she still need a lot more cajoling to achieve the kind of performance you want?

On this film, she's almost there. In the past, I had to spend a lot of time talking through each shot with her. Now she catches on much more quickly. Of course, she doesn't have the variety of experience of Tony or Maggie. She's still young. But she's got the ability.

Do you think that's a function of her increased familiarity with your demands on her as an actress? Is it that she simply has a better sense of what you want from her in a performance?

Partially, yes. But it's just as much to do with the development of her craft as an actress. I'll give you an example. When we were making The Road Home, there were several times in the film when she needed to cry. And as far as I was concerned these were crucially important parts of the movie. I'd call for quiet on the set. There had to be total silence, because crying in front of so many people is not easy. I knew we could only do one take. The lights, the film, everything had to be perfect, because I was afraid that on the second or third takes the tears wouldn't come, or the acting wouldn't seem sincere. But on this film, she's been amazing. We have technical problems all time. There's always one reason or another to re-shoot the scene. We're doing five or six takes for every shot. And she cries on command. It only takes her a few seconds to get in and out of character. It has surprised and impressed me. This is real change in Ziyi's acting. Now if I have to shoot her crying, I'm not afraid of shooting multiple takes, because there's always a possibility that the last take will be the best one. Maggie's got the same talent. And I've caught Ziyi studying her performance very intently. It's a smart move. There's a lot Maggie can teach her.

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 02, 2013 12:46 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

In the Mood for Swordplay

By Richard Corliss Sunday, Dec. 15, 2002

Time Magazine,9171,400044,00.html

Zhang Yimou sounds defensive when he speaks of Hero as "a genre piece." The implication is: just a genre piece, a diversion, a long sword fight played by grownups. Perhaps the director is thinking of his last purely frivolous work, the 1989 Codename Cougar, a goofy skyjack thriller that outfitted his severe star and muse at the time Gong Li in a tight stewardess uniform. If so, Zhang is underestimating both the power of the movie-epic form and his ability to inhabit and revive it.

For Hero—Zhang's attempt to explode in the worldwide movie market as Ang Lee did with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—is a lucid and cunning drama: ancient history (3rd century B.C.) refracted through a modern skeptic's sensibility. It views the birth of a nation through the murky motives of some of the first Emperor's potential assassins. For they are as duplicitous in their emotional lives as in their fatal politics.

The plot is a series of tales told by the warrior Nameless (Jet Li) to the Qin King (Chen Daoming). Any or none of the stories may be true; this is Rashomon with a Mandarin accent. But the moral, or rather the ethic, is as clear as it is bleak: man must make war to secure the peace.

Nameless has three main adversaries: Sky (Donnie Yen), a master martial artist he defeats in the film's first, superb battle scene; Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a calligrapher who is as adroit with a brush as with a saber; and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword's soul mate. Flying Snow has a side skirmish of her own with Moon (Zhang Ziyi), Broken Sword's smitten apprentice. Loyalties are tested, alliances made and sundered. Death is the price for betrayal—of the King or the heart.

Zhang made his reputation as a cinematographer. And in his early films as a director, cinema became the acutest form of rapture. These movies were tales of perfidy played out in lush tones and textures; the camera and color not only told the story, they were the story.

Hero marks a return to that precise, luscious style after a decade in which Zhang flirted with less beguiling visual and narrative strategies. A triumphant return thanks to his work with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has shot many of Wong Kar-wai's films. Zhang, of course, controlled the design of Hero, but Doyle's hurtling, poetic personality shines through; you can sense the camera in his hands as surely as you could feel the brush in Jackson Pollock's. He is a calligrapher with light.

Each image is ravishing: clouds rushing over low mountains; a sword point that slo-mo slices through drops of water; lovers curled into each other, sleeping under red silk; a sword fight in a grove of golden leaves that turn red, plum, magenta and fall like fat confetti; soldiers squatting in a circle, caked in clay; a gray landscape of dunes daubed with Cheung's turquoise gown.

Here, color creates context. Each story Nameless tells is draped in a different hue: gray, red, blue, white, green. (In the fifth episode, a lake shimmers like lime Jell-O.) At the end, reality forces a new color on Nameless: black, for death.

To stage the fights, Zhang chose Ching Siu-tung, a renowned choreographer who has also directed 21 features, including such Hong Kong classics as A Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman II and The Heroic Trio—not to mention a 1989 quickie called A Terracotta Warrior, starring two kids from the mainland, Gong Li and Zhang Yimou. The very first set-to in Hero is a terrific one between Li and Yen. (Each man first imagines the fight, like a chess player visualizing his opponent's possible moves.) How swift their swords! How eloquent their body language!

The film's later duels might lack the buoyant grandeur of Yuen Wo-ping's action scenes in Crouching Tiger, but they have a stateliness that suits the gravity of the plot. These are working warriors with a deadly goal. Several of them are also artists and calligraphers. They believe that every stroke of the pen or the blade must be justified. They don't fight to dazzle; they fight to kill.

Hero is a reunion of sorts for the principals. The four Hong Kong stars—Li, Yen, Cheung and Leung—have combined on various projects before. Ching has put them all through swordplay and wirework. Doyle had shot six films with Leung and three with Cheung. Li and Yen go way back: in the late '70s, they trained together as teens in Beijing. So their rain-soaked battle in Hero has the savor of an ancient schoolyard grudge match.

Leung and Cheung, who smoldered so sadly in Wong's In the Mood for Love, get to express the gamut of emotions in a couple who know each other's tricks. They are Rhett and Scarlett, Tristan and Isolde; and they end their time together in an image so startling and beautiful that it stabs the viewer's astonished heart.

For a quarter-century, from early Bruce Lee to late Jackie Chan, martial arts was the pulse to which Hong Kong films ticked and kicked. Those were expressions of the industry's vital adolescence. Hero shows how the same vitality can serve a thoughtful, resonant, mainland maturity. This is a story of noble insurgence against noble fidelity, and of the ways love may find its fulfillment only in death. Zhang Yimou may have dipped his cinematic pen in "mere" genre, but in doing so, he has inscribed a masterpiece.

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 02, 2013 1:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote


It took the slow boat from China, but Zhang Yimou's dazzling martial-arts epic has finally come to American movie theaters. It was well worth the wait.

By Charles Taylor

Friday, Aug 27, 2004 01:00 PM PDT

Adventure movies usually go by at much too fast a clip to be described as reveries. By applying that word to Zhang Yimou’s martial-arts epic “Hero” — finally, finally arriving on American screens after a two-year wait — I don’t want to give the impression that the movie is in the static tableaux-style that made Zhang’s earlier movies like “Raise the Red Lantern” so lifeless. “Hero” may be more contemplative than visceral but I think you’d have to be dead not to be thrilled by it. It’s not too much to say that “Hero” is one of the most ravishing spectacles the movies have given us.

A director who takes on a movie of this scale for his first foray into martial arts is setting himself a daunting task. The incredible speed of the great martial-arts performers requires a director who can keep pace, who can render the lightning-fast moves clear to the audience. There are sequences of one-on-one combat in “Hero” that feel as if they are whizzing by us while still imprinting every movement on our mind’s eye. When Zhang and his editors Zhai Ru and Angie Lam intercut a fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen with shots of rain dropping onto a chessboard, or a musician’s hands strumming his instrument (each note counts in Tan Dun’s spare score), everything on screen seems to be moving to the same enveloping rhythm. Perhaps more than any other martial-arts movie, “Hero” makes us feel what it means to experience the harmony that the genre’s characters are always claiming they seek in their craft.

Zhang isn’t afraid to take his time to set up a sequence. In one shot, Li runs in slow motion through raindrops that look as if they are suspended in midair. He can also thrust us into the middle of the sudden chaotic spectacle of Li and Maggie Cheung bursting through windows like whirling dervishes to fend off swarms of deadly arrows sent sailing through the skies by impossibly vast armies.

The tone of “Hero,” austere and elegiac, is far removed from the self-parodic derring-do of Western adventure tales from Alexandre Dumas to Douglas Fairbanks and beyond. But the tone is appropriate for a Chinese filmmaker working in the long tradition of the wuxia (the Chinese martial arts genre) tale. And a Western viewer can’t help but see the links between a performer like Li and Fairbanks — even though Li is aided by process shots, they both delight us with the sheer physical improbability of their movements.

The story of “Hero,” set in the third century, centers on Nameless (Li), a rural prefect who has been summoned to the palace fortress of the King (Chen Daoming, whose performance has a subdued sly wit) to be honored for defeating the assassins who have been out to kill the monarch for 10 years. What follows are three versions of Nameless’ involvement with the assassins, Sky (Yen), Flying Snow (Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Broken Sword’s assistant Moon (Zhang Ziyi). Unlike “Rashomon,” to which “Hero” has been compared, there is finally no ambiguity about what happens. The third telling of the story arrives at the truth. What the events mean is another matter.

In America, the main controversy surrounding “Hero” is why it has taken so long to open. There appears to be no real reason beyond Miramax’s usual perfidy when it comes to dealing with Asian films, and the meddling of mogul Harvey Weinstein who’s come to be known as Harvey Scisscorhands. At less than 100 minutes, “Hero” was reportedly still too long for Weinstein. The movie is appearing under the imprimatur of Quentin Tarantino, who apparently forced Weinstein to restore the cuts he had made. Asian film fans, fed up with Miramax setting premiere dates that came and went, went online to Chinese video stores to buy import DVDs (as they did with “Shaolin Soccer” and have done with the upcoming police drama “Infernal Affairs,” which Miramax is opening here on Sept. 17).

Another controversy has been brewing since the movie’s 2002 release in China (where it is not only the most expensive movie ever made but the most successful) and Hong Kong. Zhang’s detractors accuse him of everything from making a movie that kowtows to power to one that embraces fascistic nationalism. In the film, the King explains that he intends to conquer all of China’s provinces for the purpose of uniting them, and he says that sometimes the happiness of the individual has to be sacrificed for the good of the many.

Apart from the offensiveness of charging a filmmaker whose films have been banned by the Chinese government — and who has been prevented from traveling to collect the honors those films have garnered — of suddenly licking the government’s feet, the anti-”Hero” arguments don’t take into account that the film ends not in a surge of patriotic feeling but on a pronounced mournful note of contingency and skepticism. And they ignore how the movie forces the King to live up to the ideology he so glibly spouts about sacrificing the happiness of the individual for the good of all. In our final glimpse of the King, the man has been dwarfed by the trappings of his power.

The real shame of the political quibbling that has taken part in some quarters over “Hero” is that those arguments have nothing to do with how enjoyable the film is. Above everything, it’s a great adventure tale with both scenes of individual combat and battle scenes whose grandeur and geometric formations of troops recall Akira Kurosawa and the Stanley Kubrick of “Spartacus.” Zhang renders the martial-arts scenes lyrical without blunting their excitement. When Nameless and Broken Sword face off on a secluded lake, the camera goes underwater so we’re looking up at the ripples their feet make as they gently disturb the surface. The finale of a showdown between Flying Snow and Moon is just as breathtaking, with a landscape of golden leaves turning a vivid red before our eyes.

Each section of the film is shot primarily in one shade — red, blue, green, white. “Hero” suggests that — after his work on “The Quiet American,” on the current “Last Life in the Universe” and with Wong Kar-wai — Christopher Doyle may be the greatest cinematographer now working. The movie is utterly gorgeous to look at but Doyle’s work is never merely “pictorial.” It always has the dramatic impetus of the scene in mind. He is a master of lighting, shading, hues and precise yet subtle camera movement and is one of the least fussy masters imaginable. And as dazzling as the landscapes are, the close-ups are just as beautiful. At times, “Hero” might be an essay in the art of the close-up. Doyle and Zhang bring us so close to the actors that we become privy to the tiniest gradations of mood.

During the last two decades, Asia has produced more than its share of genuine movie stars. For fans of Asian movies, the quartet of stars in “Hero” are a dream combination. For American audiences who haven’t encountered them before, seeing them could be a revelation.

Li has the hardest role, requiring a stoicism and carrying the ambiguity of the movie’s title on his shoulders. Leung (as he does in “Infernal Affairs”) has the sort of understated masculine presence that we associate with the likes of George Clooney. Ziyi, as she’s shown before, manages to combine moments of reticence with sudden firecracker eruptions. And Cheung is simply extraordinary. If this performance had been given in a silent movie, it would be legendary by now. For most of her screen time in “Hero,” there’s a profound stillness to her. She lounges with the indolence of a cat and her eyes are capable of transmitting hauteur, disdain, wounded eroticism and unutterable sadness. In “Hero” Cheung exudes a poetry and mystery that’s Garboesque.

“Hero” took so long to be released here that Zhang’s next film, “House of Flying Daggers,” another martial-arts picture starring Ziyi, is finished and will be out here at Christmas time. Zhang’s career is turning out to be a particularly interesting and varied one. After the subdued (too subdued for me) style of his early films, the gangster pastiche “Shanghai Triad” showed a fondness for melodrama that hadn’t been evident. And two films that followed, “Not One Less” and “The Road Home,” were the exact opposite — exquisite pieces of humanist filmmaking in which Zhang removed all the barriers between us and the characters. “Hero” is yet another twist, the sort of crowd-pleaser no one seems to make anymore, which is to say one that doesn’t dumb itself down in search of a wide audience. He hasn’t just made a great, romantic adventure tale — he’s made a rare film that delivers gravitas with grace.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 16, 2013 11:08 pm    Post subject: Hero Reply with quote

Title: Hero.
By: Chen, Pauline, Cineaste, 00097004, Winter 2004, Vol. 30, Issue 1


Produced by Bill Kong and Zhang Yimou; directed by Zhang Yimou; screenplay by Li Feng, Zhang Yimou, and Wang Bin; cinematography by Christopher Doyle; edited by Zhai Ru and Angie Lam; music composed and conducted by Tan Dun; production design by Huo Ting Xiao and Yi Zhen Zhou; costumes by Emi Wada; starring Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Dao Ming, and Donnie Yen. Color, 99 mins. A Miramax Films release.

Zhang Yimou's Hero opens with the trope, common to martial arts films from King Hu to Bruce Lee, of an unknown fighter of mysterious powers emerging without warning from obscure origins. The petty official Nameless (Jet Li) is being whisked to a private audience with the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) for singlehandedly slaying Sky (Donnie Yen) and the lovers Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), the King's deadliest enemies. Sitting only ten paces from the King, a reward for his extraordinary services, Nameless explains how he has vanquished the three legendary fighters. As Nameless first describes how he waylaid Sky playing chess at a tea-house, the camera cuts from the throne room to the scene of the encounter. Again following the conventions of martial arts films, Sky effortlessly repels the concerted attacks of seven lesser fighters, before finally facing Nameless.

At the climactic moment, when Sky and Nameless face each other with weapons drawn across the teahouse's rain-spattered courtyard, however, the film jumps the track of martial arts conventions. Nameless asks the blind zither player of the teahouse to perform another piece. As the irregular twanging fills the air, the water drops slow, and the fighters stand motionless. Then the screen, now black and white, erupts into motion as the fighters swoop and leap in the most dazzling fighting of the entire film. Nameless's voice-over, however, pronounces that the scene is not actual but imagined, as each combatant maps out the ensuing battle in his mind. Intoning about the similarities between swordsmanship and the art of zither playing, Nameless explains that the outcome of the battle is thus determined before the first thrust is even made.

This, the earliest fight scene, gives the first foreshadowing of the themes and motifs explored by the remainder of the film. On the one hand, the insertion of a stylized musical performance to retard a moment potentially of great suspense, demonstrates the film's persistent drive to create esthetic set-pieces, sometimes at the expense of coherence or plausibility. Like Zhang's earlier works, Hero indulges its audience with an enjoyably dramatic and picturesque vision of ancient Chinese culture, including scenes of students practicing calligraphy amid a fire storm of arrows, or Tony Leung breaking a sweat and tossing his hair to write two (extremely simple) characters in the sand. Many of these scenes, however, might make a student of Chinese history either titter or shudder.

On the other hand, the choice to undercut the impact of what could be a climactic battle between Jet Li and Donnie Yen, the film's most accomplished fighters, suggests how little the film is interested in actual combat. On its surface a martial arts film, Hero yet repeatedly deconstructs the breathtaking combat scenes it shows on screen, revealing them to be imagined, fabricated, or staged, their outcomes already determined by prior agreement or psychological victories. Few, if any, are contests of physical prowess, with real suspense as to the outcomes. In the dialog, fighting is repeatedly figured as something else, an art like music or calligraphy, or a mirror of a spiritual state. By the end of the film, moreover, more than one of the film's legendary fighters have come to the conclusion that the only reason to fight is to achieve a world in which fighting is unnecessary.

Thus, despite the bravura fight scenes, no doubt in part responsible for the film's commercial success, Hero's real struggles are not physical, but psychological. The seeds of the film's plot are probably various assassination attempts on the notoriously ruthless King of Qin recorded in historical sources. The most famous assassin Jingke (treated in Chen Kaige's 1999 film The Emperor and the Assassin) was prevented by the guards from stabbing the King with a knife secreted in a map purporting to show territories to be ceded to Qin. Another, Gao Jianli, dug out his own eyes to pose as a blind zither player in order to get close to the King. He attacked the King with a shard of metal concealed in his instrument, but was also stymied by the guards. Like these figures, Hero's Nameless has also engaged in a painstaking and elaborate ruse to approach the King in order to kill him.

His hand is stayed not by physical obstacles, however, but by his own growing uncertainty as to whether he should complete his mission, and as to what would be the most 'heroic' course of action. Indeed, the film's keenest struggle occurs not between Nameless and any of the legendary fighters, but between Nameless and the King of Qin as they face each other across the throne room, narrating alternate accounts of how and for what purpose Nameless has come to see the King. Their weapons are their conflicting views of reality. Each story of the past projects a different course of action in the future. Which story is judged true will ultimately decide whether the King will live or die.

Hero utilizes the resources of film to give immediacy and contrast to the narrated accounts, by playing them out on screen, each version drenched in its own distinctive hue. The first version, rife with romantic intrigue and betrayal, is red. The second version, presenting an idyllic vision of Snow and Broken Sword's love, is blue. In a paradoxical twist, this version, in some ways the most flattering to the King's enemies, is offered by the King himself. The third, 'true,' story, extending beyond the frame story and into the future at the film's end, culminates in the demise of three of the film's protagonists, and is shot in white, the color of death and mourning in China.

The battle of wits between Nameless and the King of Qin gains nuance and dimension from its roots in China's rich tradition of psychological warfare, expounded in such works as Sun Tzu's Art of War, which pays less attention to the disposition of troops, than to the importance of gaining a psychological advantage over one's enemies by knowing them and anticipating their actions. The film repeatedly shows that, ironically, it is our enemies who understand us best. When Nameless claims that the lovers Snow and Broken Sword have been driven by jealousy to destroy each other, the King unhesitatingly refutes the story on the basis that having crossed swords with them, he knows they are both too noble to be swayed by such petty passions. Broken Sword, more than any of the Qin ministers, turns out to have fathomed the King's motives for conquering the country, and is enthusiastically hailed by the King as a zhiji, or "kindred spirit." Finally, in the film's baffling denouement, Nameless seems to anticipate without any need for explanation that, even though he has just chosen to spare the King's life, the King will nonetheless execute him.

Unfortunately, why the King rewards Nameless's mercy with such brutality, may be less easy for audiences to understand, especially as the King has just purported to have an epiphany about how peace, "the hand and heart both free of the sword," is the ultimate goal of fighting. In some sense, the film's structure of three juxtaposed stories may prove its downfall. The final, 'true,' segment is filled with other such farfetched actions, with insufficient time (at least in the twenty-minutes-shorter version released in the States) to flesh out what may be subtler or more abstract motivations, and ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Would Snow really attack her lover, Broken Sword, in a fit of pique at the failed assassination? More centrally, would Nameless really abandon his mission, for which he has prepared tirelessly for ten years, for two words written in the sand? How plausible is it that the King of Qin's motive for conquering his rival states is really to achieve peace, and why would Broken Sword be convinced of this motive?

Finally, if peace is the King's goal, how does the execution of Nameless further this purpose? The film suggests that the King's ministers persuade him that Nameless must be killed in order to uphold the rule of law, necessary to unifying the country. This is not altogether convincing, however, given that China's rulers have traditionally been absolute monarchs, above the rule of law. The film's closing titles, floating over a picture-postcard shot of the Great Wall snaking over misty hills, then give a perfunctory encapsulation of the King of Qin's mixed legacy, by stating that he did indeed succeed in unifying the country.

The film's ambiguous and flawed ending has allowed for a multiplicity of interpretations both in China and the United States. While some critics dismiss the film for having little substance beneath its flashy images, others have attributed the basest of motives to director Zhang Yimou. Seeing an expression of support for the Communist regime in the film's sympathetic account of a tyrannical ruler's sacrifice of individuals for the greater good, some American critics have compared the film to Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda pieces, while Chinese critics have derided Zhang's 'servility' to the government. More specifically, the film has been read as either justifying the Communist government's massacre of its own citizens at Tiananmen in 1989, or as supporting the mainland's goal of eventually 'unifying' Taiwan as well as Hong Kong and Tibet.

In the United States at least, such interpretations are to some degree justified by the film's subtitles and opening and closing titles, which give the film a more nationalistic slant than is present in the original Chinese. In the most misleading example, when Broken Sword writes two characters in the sand to persuade Nameless not to kill the King, they are rendered in the subtitles as "Our Land." The characters, however, are tianxia, which might more literally be translated as 'All under Heaven,' or 'Mankind.' Broken Sword is arguing not for some grandiose concept of nationhood, but simply that endless fighting creates hardship for the people. This key term then appears in the final conversation between Nameless and the King, as the reason that Nameless should stay his sword. It is again rendered as "Our Land."

That said, I would argue that the film, at least as seen in Chinese, does offer political commentary, but it is less clear whether this commentary applies most aptly to the current Chinese regime. In one of the most explicitly political exchanges I have seen in a recent Chinese film, Hero raises the thorny question of the degree to which local culture is suppressed by 'unification.' The King asserts that when he has conquered his rival states he will do away with all the various local writing systems in favor of one standardized script. Nameless is shown looking deeply pained at this prospect. An earlier scene of an attack on Zhao has movingly shown the Zhao people defending their writing system at the cost of their lives.

Is it possible that the film is commenting on a universal problem, one that has played out both in China's past and on other parts of the globe, or must a Chinese filmmaker's vision always be confined within his own borders and in the present time? We Americans may forget that the Chinese have a far longer history to come to terms with than the last ninety or so years with which we are most familiar. Every year, Chinese audiences devour novels and soap operas set in historical times or based on historical figures, probably without recourse to interpretations involving the contemporary government. While it is true that Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four were notoriously fond of discovering 'revolutionary' or 'counterrevolutionary' content in historical works, it seems that this tendency on the part of the communist government has at last receded in recent years, allowing historical sources to be used with greater artistic freedom.

At the same time, in watching the film, I was also struck by the free play of diverse cultural influences in the film, perhaps suggesting China's rapidly growing openness to 'outside' effects over the last decades. Hero's cosmopolitanism is a far cry from the first Fifth Generation films, when a few classmates from the Beijing Film Academy got together at a state-supported studio to make a film. The film represents the contributions of an international crew, including Australian Chris Doyle's cinematography, Itzhak Perlman's violin solos, and Emi Wada's costume design. Its representation of the Qin army, with its clattering phalanxes of chanting soldiers in plumed helmets, seems inspired not by Chinese historical sources but by Hollywood depictions of ancient Rome in films such as Gladiator. The Qin ministers, moving and speaking in unison in flowing robes across a proscenium-like dais, reminded me of nothing so much as the chorus in a Greek tragedy.

In addition, the film is enriched, not only by the performances of Hong Kong stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, but also by the larger-than-life stylization, artful cutting, and gravity-defying action, typical of Hong Kong cinema but so far absent from mainland productions, no doubt due to the action direction by Hong Kong film veteran Tony Ching Siu-Tung. Given Hong Kong's 'reversion' to the mainland seven years ago, one might expect to see the characteristic features of Hong Kong cinema blunted or diluted, if Hero's argument about unification's suppression of local cultures holds true of China. While it is true that Cheung and Leung perform in Mandarin, the mainland's official dialect, rather than their native Cantonese, the look of the film itself would suggest that Hong Kong cinema remains as distinctive as ever.

In fact, if Hong Kong cinema is struggling these days, it's suffering from the same crisis afflicting mainland directors like Zhang Yimou: the erosion of the market for locally made films in the face of Hollywood's onslaught. Beginning with 1993's Jurassic Park, Hollywood blockbusters have become top grossers in Hong Kong. In mainland China last year the cap on imported films doubled from ten to twenty, a further shock to Chinese filmmakers in a market where the average run of a locally made film is already half that of a Hollywood production.

In this climate, Hero strikes a much-needed blow for the continued survival of the Chinese film industry. Drawing Chinese audiences with a high-budget, high-tech retooling of the venerable martial arts genre, and American audiences with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's surefire combo of action and estheticism overlaid with mystical meanings, Hero has broken box office records in both countries, an unprecedented feat for a mainland Chinese film. At the same time, because Miramax paid a reputed $20 million for the English-language release rights, more than half of the film's production costs were in fact covered by an American studio. Zhang Yimou has negotiated an uneasy peace with an all-powerful monolith that crushes local cultures, only it's not Communist China, but Hollywood.
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