May 05, 2008


Two millennia ago, Ying Zheng, king of Qin, conquered the states of Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, and Wei, declared himself the first emperor of all of China, and began the building of the Great Wall to make its borders eternal.

Like Napoleon, Ying Zheng's administrative and social reforms far outlived his own short reign. He died a natural death, but entwined with his biography—and illustrative of his life and character—are the stories of the many assassins who tried very hard to make it even shorter. When the people trying to kill you are revered as much as you are, hey, maybe you're not everybody's favorite cup of tea. The hagiographic depictions of Ying Zheng in Hero conveniently avoid this nagging little fact.

The assassin who almost succeeded, coming close enough to tear Ying Zheng's sleeve with his dagger, was one Jing Ke, the historical antecedent for two of the protagonists, Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Nameless (Jet Li). The movie begins with Nameless arriving at the Imperial Palace claiming to have killed China's Most Wanted, and requesting as his reward an audience with the emperor. To bolster his claim, he recounts before the emperor in detail how he disposed of them.

Director Yimou Zhang borrows heavily from the Kurosawa's Rashomon, beginning first with Nameless's narrative and then retelling it again from the perspective of each of the people involved. However, unlike Rashomon, where in the denouement Kurosawa produces a reliable eyewitness, Zhang's hyper-stylized version casts aside the idea that an objective reality need exist. Which would be less problematic were we not talking about an historical figure.

This is the third biopic made about Ying Zheng in the last decade. The Emperor's Shadow (1996) and The Emperor and the Assassin (1999) take less fanciful (though no less melodramatic) views of the same material. But they also paint a portrait of Ying Zheng that, at least based on my reading, is fairly accurate.

Ying Zheng was, to be sure, a first-order Napoleonic figure, but also one with the temperament of Nero and the management style of Shakespeare's Richard III. He was the nutcase buried with a terracotta army to protect his immortal soul, which, if the Confucians at the time had any say about the matter, needed much protection. (Ying Zheng and the Confucians shared a mutual loathing, the big difference being that what Ying Zheng loathed he had summarily executed.)

Hero, in contradiction of fairly well-established facts, depicts Ying Zheng as, well, misunderstood. It is, if not in intent then certainly in outcome, an unabashed paean to Hobbes's Leviathan, a tribute to the thankless job of being an enlightened despot. You can just see China's modern-day neo-coms nodding their heads in earnest agreement. Yeah, it is tough being Darth Vader and having to hold the empire together all by your lonesome.

And yet. It is hugely entertaining. The only really depressing thing about Hero is just how much it reminds you of George Lucas's uninspired and unimaginative arguments for the opposing Lockean perspective, the natural rights of man and all that. Hero is the anti-Star Wars.

Besides, it's hard for me to disparage a film in which linguistics factors so prominently in turning the protagonists towards the light (or rather, towards the Dark Side). I mean, how cool would it be if Vader didn't say to Luke, "I am your father," but instead, "I'm going to standardize orthography across the Empire!" And Luke said, "Hmm, you've got a good point there." No kidding, and it's actually a more profound statement than anything Lucas came up with.

To be fair, Yimou Zhang, whose previous films at times ran afoul of Chinese censors, set out from the beginning to make a wuxia fantasy in the spirit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, not a historical biopic. So forget all of the above and treat it the same as those chrome-plated Arthurian cinematic extravaganzas that have zero to do with history and everything to do with what we like to pretend about Anglo-Saxon history, including the silly sword & sorcery stuff.

Yimou Zhang has done much more than choreograph ballet-like fight scenes and assemble casts of (digital) thousands. There is as well the sheer, breathtaking vastness of the locations (these days, no one does vast like the Chinese), all magnified many fold by Christopher Doyle's stunning cinematography. Every time the narrative changes perspective and a new version of events is introduced, the entire color scheme changes--clothing, lighting, sets--from gray to red to blue to green to white.

This isn't subtle stuff at all, and could be seen to spill over into artistic self-indulgence. We're talking about vivid, primary colors, palettes of paint thrown across the screen. But, then, this isn't exactly subtle storytelling. And who cares when it's so gorgeous to look at.

And speaking of gorgeous things to look at, the beautiful Maggie Cheung and the handsome Tony Leung, as two of the conspiring assassins, steal the second half of the movie with performances so over the top, so operatic, as to demand a Puccini or Verdi to really do the material justice. Jet Li, on the other hand, has never emoted much as an actor and here he doesn't at all, so it's hard to care too much about what happens to him.

But at least what happens is so very cool to watch, as is this movie.

Related posts

The Emperor's Shadow
The Emperor and the Assassin

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