Absence as spectacle: Zhang Yimou's Hero
About 30 minutes into Zhang Yimous new film Hero [Ying xiong], we see two women, Flying Snow and Moon, poised sword to sword, suspended as if by magic in a sea of whirling red, orange, and yellow leaves. Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Loves [Huayang nianhua, 2000] cheongsam-sculpted lover, and Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragons [Wohu canglong, 2001] primly ferocious warrior-maiden, are ostensibly opposing Qin dynasty swordswomen. But in this impossibly beautiful scene, painted in pure colour by Zhang Yimou, photographed as dream poetry by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and staged as a dance of angels by action choreographer Ching Siu-tung, the two women are aloft, suspended in vortices of twirling leaves. Its hardly a combat: more like an ecstasy of swordplay, a soaring of the spirit, a dazzle of free flight. To my eyes one of the most beautiful scenes ever recorded on film, it is only one of a profusion of spectacles that Hero offers an audience that should be prepared to be dazzled.
Audiences in China have responded to Hero with a fervour thats completely unprecedented. Helped by availability the film is playing continuously (as of this writing) in most of Chinas first-run urban theatres and by strict control over illicit DVD copies, which are only now appearing on the streets almost four weeks after Heros Beijing premiere in the Great Hall of the People, Chinese audiences have made this the most popular Chinese film ever released in the country. In a weird twist, these bootlegs, shot on video from the back of a theatre, were actually released by the official rights holder, who claimed that they couldnt wait until the authorized release date without losing substantial sales. It is the second most popular movie release in Chinese history, after the Titanic (1998) juggernaut, and receipts are still rolling in. (The box office of the previous Chinese-language record holder, the dutiful anti-corruption film Fatal Decision [Zhongda xuanze, 2000], was inflated by mass ticket purchases by government work units.) A friend reported in January (with only slight exaggeration) that the traditional Chinese greeting of Chibao le ma (literally: Have you eaten?) has recently ceded to Ni youmeiyou kan Yingxiong (Have you seen Hero yet?).
An alarming concentration of star power in front of and behind the camera certainly helps. Starring along with Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Cheung are Jet Li, the most popular exemplar of the swordplay hero in contemporary Chinese cinema, and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Cheungs co-star from In the Mood for Love. Leung and Cheung are now Chinese cinemas dramatic couple par excellence: both A-list movie stars at home, and both arguably the two greatest actors currently working in Hong Kong cinema. Behind the camera, Zhang Yimou is a household name in China, and has been building a popular following in recent years by abandoning controversial art films unappreciated in China by official censors and mainstream audiences (e.g. Ju Dou , Raise the Red Lantern [Dahong denglong gaogao gua, 1991], and To Live [Huozhe, 1994]) in favour of less-demanding and non-controversial crowd pleasers like Not One Less [Yige dou buneng shao, 1998], The Road Home [Wode fuqin muqin, 1999], and Happy Times [Xingfu shiguang, 2000].
But Zhang has never before tried his hand at a period genre like the wuxia pian (conventionally translated as swordplay film or martial chivalry genre). Not to be confused with the kung fu movie, which involves sustained scenes of often brutal hand-to-hand combat with much leaping and kicking, wuxia films exist in a more idealized realm of legendary heroes living marginalized, carefree lives on the edges of everyday society. Weapons of choice are swords, spears, or daggers, wielded with fantastical skill allied to a spectacular ability to leap and soar at will. A typical wuxia pian draws the swordsman into the everyday world in order to fight, reluctantly, but with a firm moral compass, to defend the helpless against corrupt officials or leaders.
The genre has been a regular part of Chinese cinema since the 20s. King Hu launched wuxia pians modernist phase with exquisitely crafted, gracefully kinetic works like the recently restored Come Drink with Me [Da zui xia, 1966], Dragon Inn [Longmen kezhan, 1967], and A Touch of Zen [Xia nü, 1971]. It took Hong Kong master Tsui Hark, in collaboration with Heros choreographer Ching Siu-tung, to propel wuxia pian into the postmodern era. Their delirious extensions of King Hus innovations including A Chinese Ghost Story [Qiannü yougui, 1986], the Swordsman series (1990-93), and Dragon Gate Inn [Xin longmen kezhan, 1992] were wildly popular with Chinese audiences, and attracted the attention of a subculture of Western filmgoers and festival programmers. Postmodern wuxia films, in the hands of Tsui and Ching, were critical and radical (though the many followers who cashed in on the new wuxia wave produced more than their share of backward-looking nostalgic pap). Through acceleration, intensification, and distortion, they reconfigured the genres key elements in works that were tributes, commentaries, and deconstructions, addressing sources of Chinese culture and film history, as well as Hong Kongs mutating contemporaneity.
Wuxia pian seems, once again, irresistibly tempting to several internationally celebrated Chinese directors: witness Wong Kar-wais Ashes of Time [Dongxie xidu, 1994], Ang Lees Crouching Tiger, and Tsui Harks Legend of Zu [Shu shan chuan, 2001]. Even Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien has claimed recently that he wants to join the wuxia club. With Hero, Zhang Yimou addresses the present by looking backwards and sideways. Backwards to the 90s postmodern wuxia period, and sideways to Hong Kongs commercial cinema. Systematically absorbing the subversive innovations of Hong Kong filmmakers Tsui Hark and Wong Kar-wai, Zhang simultaneously digs back to his roots and recreates, as wuxia pian, the cinema of pure spectacle and philosophical meditation that he (as cinematographer) and Chen Kaige created, in 1984, with Yellow Earth [Huang tudi].
Spectacle rather than storytelling: this is one key to opening up the complex world of Hero, and to the violently opposing critical reactions that have already greeted it in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Zhang Yimou follows Wongs strategy in Ashes of Time, cutting off wuxia pian from the firm, stable satisfactions of simple narrative. Wongs film proceeded by focusing on its characters free-floating longing, which seemed only tangentially pinned to a non-chronological, heavily elided, virtually irresolvable story. Zhang, on the other hand, gives his film multiple narratives, too many stories. Based on historical accounts, the story in its straightforward version has been made into many films, most recently by Chen Kaige as The Emperor and the Assassin [Jing Ke ci Qin Wang, 1998], and, before him, by Zhou Xiaowen in the superior The Emperors Shadow [Qin song, 1996]. Zhangs version centres on the King of Qin before he conquers the surrounding kingdoms, unifies China, and becomes its first emperor. Four mythical assassins vie to stop the kings brutal accumulation of power and territory: two lone swordsmen, Sky (Donnie Yen) and Nameless (Jet Li); and two lovers, Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). Moon (Zhang Ziyi) is Broken Swords faithful student.
Hero is a film about storytelling, or, to put it more abstractly, a film that puts narrativity itself into question. The tales its characters tell (recounted alternately by Nameless, and by the King of Qin) are mutually contradictory. Nameless arrives for an audience with the King and tells him a straightforward tale of chivalry: how he defeats the Kings enemies one by one. But the King discovers this to be a false tale, and offers an alternative story, in which Nameless and his adversaries become co-plotters against him. Once the cycle of story/counter-story has started, its difficult to stop. Nameless offers a new revision, more complex than either of the preceding two. One effect (salutary to me, but extremely frustrating to some of the audience) of this stream of mutually contradictory stories is to prevent the viewer from investing in the delights and comforts of narrative: a suspension of disbelief; a temporary surrender to the standard rhythms of tension, crisis, and release; a comforting though illusory satisfaction in being able to draw a line between whats real and whats imagined in the diegesis.
Instead of a struggle within narrative, Hero stages a struggle among narratives. It puts control of narrative into question. Its really all about who gets to tell stories: Nameless or the King. Zhangs best recent films, The Story of Qiu Ju [Qiu Ju da guansi, 1992] and Not One Less, incarnate this favourite theme: speaking stories to power. Each is constructed as a chain of encounters between its heroine and various avatars of state power. Each celebrates its apparently powerless heroines ability to speak to power in such a way as to extract a series of small victories, whose sum adds up to something like a formidable triumph. Nameless, following in their footsteps, is just another hero-storyteller, but all of this yields a sneaking suspicion that there is an autobiographical dimension to Zhangs fascination with narrators. Zhang is also, of course, a storyteller. He has had to confront powers counter-narratives quite often in his career. His earlier films, from Ju Dou to To Live, pushed the boundaries of acceptable stories with little caution, and became struggles with authority over who gets to tell the real story, and how divergent it can be from the official line. All were banned from exhibition in China at the time of their release, though only To Live (with its unacceptably critical history of the PRC from 1945 to the 70s) remains officially banned today.
Rather than narrative tout court, Hero offers pleasures more rarified, more abstract and profound: a cinema of spectacle allied to a philosophical program. That program can be provisionally allied with Daoism, a set of ideals and a way of living that finds fullness in absence, transcendence in renunciation, in letting go of struggle, of desires, of the material world. Daoisms founding texts, the Laozi (Lao Tzu) and the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) originated during the Warring States period of anarchy and turmoil, the end of which was marked by the grand unification of China (221 BCE) under Qin Shihuang. (In Hero, he is still years away from this grand conquest, and merely King of Qin.) Heros characters, themselves, led by Broken Sword, learn progressively to renounce what they have been striving for, and grow to accept that their goals were merely provisional, way-stations on the path to something greater, though less tangible. All except the King, who alone at the end in possession of his authority has a power now approaching unchallenged hegemony. But this is a power that seems empty, whose value is completely degraded when compared with the understanding his rivals, the assassins, have achieved.
Spectacle, rather than storytelling, teaches Heros philosophy. It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the filmmakers aesthetic achievement: the set-pieces crafted by Zhang Yimou, Christopher Doyle, and Ching Siu-tung are as ecstatically kinetic and as rapturously beautiful as any Ive seen in a wuxia pian. The fight among the leaves; Nameless and Broken Swords pure crystalline standoff, suspended above a lake; Nameless and Flying Snow versus a blizzard of Qin arrows; Broken Sword and Flying Snows astonishingly convincing battle against 10,000 Qin soldiers guarding the Kings palace: all of these have the power and the beauty to thrill all but the most jaded filmgoer. But they also serve a specific function. They progress, more or less systematically, from closely pictured combat through abstracted jousting to ethereal non-combat, from the ground to the air, from physical conflict to spiritual opposition. As more and more of the material content of the fights/flights is pared away, absence, silence, space, and peace begin to predominate. The films most insistent visual motif is the empty circle; a zone of complete emptiness that a hero creates around him or herself, a zone whose authority leaves the hero, invulnerable, isolated, and, at least temporarily at peace.
These ideas emerge in the dialogue, as Broken Sword, then Nameless, learn to articulate the power of renunciation explicitly. In this they are apparently accompanied by the King, who justifies his yearning for absolute power, for control of all under heaven, by explaining that this is the necessary condition for peace, defined as an absence of fearful chaos. This is where Hero gets into serious trouble with almost all Chinese critics, who jump all over Zhang Yimou for purportedly building an ideological justification for absolute power, for tyranny as a necessary means to a peaceful end. This is nothing new: the directors careful balancing act presenting films that seem to offer enough to win mainstream (and censor board) approval while maintaining their moral autonomy, richness, and provocative ambiguity vis-à-vis power is always vulnerable to being (sometimes deliberately, by now automatically) misread by all sides.
Viewers who want to align themselves with the world view of the King of Qin will find a paean to Chinese unity and totalitarian brutality, a reading there for the taking (perhaps present for censors looking for an excuse to greenlight Heros ideological approval-worthiness). But such an argument is not only circular, it fails to take into account the films clear strategy of distributing hence undermining the limited authority of any single character, and of the idea of narrative closure itself. Hero celebrates absence as spectacle; it glorifies absolute renunciation and perfect non-violence as preconditions for peace. Like Nameless, it addresses authority, undermining powers grip on narrativity. As filmed philosophy, it is both historically apt and disquietingly contemporary, challenging any state or empire that strives for total power both ancient and modern, Chinese and otherwise with a force and a beauty impossible to ignore.
[as published in Cinema Scope Magazine vol: 5, Issue: 1, (issue 14; Spring 2003), p. 9]
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