I'll do anything for the Empire

dir: Zhang Yimou


Yes, yes, a beautiful film. You know that, I know that, but does that mean it’s a decent film as well? Surely a film needs more than stunning visuals to make it worthwhile? I mean there are a tonne of pornos that have stunning visuals and amazing views of that which one rarely sees in their own lifetime, but that doesn’t make them Oscar quality films to show the whole family over Christmas dinner, does it?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but really, who wants to be watching midget gangbangs when they’re trying to choke down their mother’s dry turkey? That’s not an elaborate euphemism either, I mean the kind of food you get on that holiest of days. I seem to be digressing from the point in record time, which amazes even me, so I’ll get back to talking about the film, my brethren and sistren.

Hero is a stunning (looking) film that has nothing to do with either Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Rashomon, yet every review (including this one obviously, pedants) seems contractually obliged to mention both of them in close proximity. It’s like the call / response stuff performers used to do with hip hop / soul r & b acts where someone used to plaintively command the people in the audience to throw their hands up in the air. You always knew that the next recommendation would doubtless be that they wave them around like they just don’t care. You just knew it, didn’t you, deep in your dark heart of hearts, where nameless horrors slither and hide from daylight and regular scrutiny?

Crouching Tiger and Hero have nothing in common thematically, conceptually or in any other way apart from the fact that the majority of the members of both casts seem to be predominately Chinese. I’m not sure about that so I’ll get back to you about it at a later date. Also whilst there was a similar attention to mise en scene and set design, Hero is genuinely less of a martial arts film. Except for the entirely perfect first fight scene betwixt Nameless (Jet Li) and Sky (the sublime Donnie Yen), which is a triumph of cinematography, choreography, editing, sound use and design (which I’ll elaborate upon later), the rest of the film isn’t really concerned with having any even remotely realistic fights between any of the protagonists, not that it really gets in the way of the story. But the fights are definitely, though there is no ‘magical’ aspect to the story, of the more fantastical variety than the expected level (though when people’s benchmark is ‘they’re fighting on bamboo branches in between flying!’ it’s hard to clarify what I mean).

Suffice to say that if you have a high tolerance for the fantastical, an appreciation for astounding visuals and relatively attractive people doing amazing things all helped out by your healthy and willing suspension of disbelief then this film could have you squirting all over the place. For the rest of you cynical ragamuffins and tatterdemalions (like me), then this film is something of a harder sell.

Nameless is the prefect (minor government official) of a distant area, summoned to the palace of the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) as a reward for besting three of the king’s most feared enemies. Three extremely proficient fighters, Sky, Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) have fallen to Nameless’ sword, and the King of Qin wants to reward the chap and understand how a lowly prefect achieved the seemingly impossible. Nameless then relates his tale to the King, with each episode having its own perspective and colour / thematic scheme.

The King of Qin is no fool, though, and begins to detect inconsistencies in the tales, and then offers his own reading of events. Though he may be a brutal general and warmonger, he is tired of bloodshed and longs for an end to war and confusion by uniting the various warring states of the region we now know as China.

At first Nameless relates his besting of Sky in what is for me the best realised of the segments. I sorely wish that Sky played a bigger part in the story, because Donnie Yen is a truly astounding martial artist, but the film’s not about him. The two warriors fight in a tea house during a rain storm, a fight that occurs more in their minds than with their hands. The predominant colour scheme of whites and greys sounds plain but is truly beautiful, especially with the cascading water imagery and the amazing camera work. A blind musician plays a string instrument as they start fighting, and when he gets up to leave Sky asks him if he could stay and keep playing. It’s one of those moments in film, for me at least, one of those truly great moments that is astounding and memorable.

Being accomplished swordsmen, most of the action occurs in their imaginations, as they evaluate various courses of action and foresee the permutations resulting from certain moves, which story-wise occurs in the blink of an eye.

In itself it’s like one of the most perfect scenes in a film I’ve ever seen. Even if the rest of the film had nothing except Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey flailing at each other with wet, rolled up copies of the script for Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, I would still love the film for that scene alone.

With that tale related Nameless is granted various thousands of gold pieces, and allowed to approach 10 feet closer to a paranoid king, whom no-one approaches due to his legitimate safety concerns. Of course as he tells each tale and shows evidence of his kills, an unarmed Nameless continues to get closer and closer to the king…

He tells tales of Broken Sword and Flying Snow and their defeat next, with each getting their own colour scheme and elaborate death. Tracked down to a calligraphy school the story veers into less subtle metaphor by emphasising the importance of letters and their depiction, beyond artistry or precision, as the bedrock of civilisation in all the meanings of the word. As a vast army attacks the master of the calligraphy school urges his students to keep drawing their words as perfectly as possible, despite the destruction that is raining down upon them in the form of vast clouds of arrows.

Broken Sword comes from the brooding, slight-amount-of-facial-hair-to-show-he’s-a-bad boy school of Asian cinema central casting. He broodingly mopes around the calligraphy school before, during and after the attack. He broodingly has languid non-conversations with Flying Snow and Moon (an underused Zhang Ziyi, whose character is annoying). Flying Snow, despite being played by an accomplished actress like Maggie Cheung, also comes from Asian Cinema Central Casting Archetypes Pty Ltd. She is beautiful but distant and talks in a sleepy manner, with one facial expression for practically the entire film. Considering the quality work both Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung recently put into Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love together, I have to say I was somewhat disappointed by their work here. I don’t blame them, the problem is central to the script, if it is indeed a problem.

The central conflict is between Nameless and the King, not the characters as they brawl in their various fight scenes. Thus the real conflict is something simultaneously bigger and less personal, which somewhat detracts from the overall experience, and is also why the comparisons to Crouching Tiger don’t work. Crouching Tiger is ultimately a story about love, unrequited and otherwise, and the lack of choices a woman had as to how to live her life even when she rejected her particular society’s strictures. Hero is about the value of civilisation, as in civilisation as a unifying force, literally civilising large groups of people, uniting them for a common good and the value of a unified state. I’m sure some of you are getting wet and others are getting erections that are thumping the desks beneath your computers just reading about something so inspiring, so fucking hot.

Wow, our obligation to the State! I think I’ll just openly masturbate in the cinema whilst watching this and people surely will understand my passion and not call the cops. It did wonders, after all, for Pee Wee Herman’s career.

It’s almost impossible for me to be emotionally engaged by such a theme even if it engages me on an intellectual level. I’m just not constructed that way. The two aren’t mutually exclusive by any means generally, but here there are unavoidable impediments to that kind of combination.

So there’s my central problem with the film, and even more so with the ending, which I won’t spoil. Important characters make sacrifices, and from a story point of view I can understand why, but from a personal point of view I find it utterly frustrating and unsatisfying.

Also, I find the unrelenting emphasis on that classic staple of Chinese / Asian storytelling (the nobility and convenience of death) somewhat tiresome. I’ll give you an example of what I mean by extrapolating from an American cinema and literary classic. If To Kill a Mockingbird were a Chinese story and made into a film, by the end of the story Boo Radley would have killed most of the people in the town, Calpurnia would have killed herself because she thought Atticus Finch loved the Sheriff, Atticus would have killed himself because he couldn’t go on without Calpurnia, and Gem and Scout would have killed themselves in a lover’s suicide pact just for the hell of it.

Something else that doesn’t help is the fact that, whilst the film is undeniably a triumph of design, cinematography and thematic representation, there are parts that are way too slick for their own good. There are these desert scenes with Flying Snow and Broken Sword that look so overly stylised and artificial that I expected a new Ford 4WD to drive by them as part of a car commercial. Either that or with their hair and robes artfully floating in the same direction with a perfect landscape behind them I thought they’d be launching a new perfume or fragrance. Perhaps Calvin Klein’s Pretentious: You Too Can Stink of Pretention.

It’s not about realism, because I’m not criticising any of the scenes for being unbelievable. The film’s overall strengths are those scenes whose sheer artistry just knock you over with their intensity and try to burn the undies out from under you. A scene in an autumnal forest where lover and spurned lover fight it out with seemingly nought but fabric, leaves and a retina-burning amount of colour. A token fight between a perceived killer and the killed person’s lover, where they artfully brawl on the surface of a lake, where they literally fight on the surface of the lake, where drops of water themselves are weapons, in a location so idyllic even Peter Jackson would kill to have had them included it in any of the Lord of the Rings films just staggers the mind: New Zealand, eat yer fucking Maori heart out. Another scene in a library where Nameless wants to prove just how proficient he is with his sword. There is no shortage of these kinds of scenes, the film is pants-burstingly overflowing with them, have no doubt. But it’s still like I said: all art, little heart.

The film still has great strengths beyond the visual alone. The interactions betwixt the King and Nameless pleased me greatly, tremendously even, especially at the end. The revelation of Nameless’ true intent through the behaviour of multiple candle flames, though inane, still worked for me. Even though I implicitly reject the overall point of the film, the final realisation made by the King of Qin, who does a wonderful job in the role, about the nature of swordsmanship, nationhood and civilisation, works wonderfully in the scheme of things. Also, where there have been critical bleatings about the seeming point of the film being a promotion of Chinese nationalism, I have to point to the uniform chanting of the eunuch ministers, and the idiot conformity that is implied as a certain laughing in the face of that idea. Still, that’s not enough to make the path to the end completely enjoyable.

I am being hard on the film. Perhaps with more viewings (which I look forward to) my feelings toward the film will improve, as they did with Crouching Tiger, which I had at first dismissed as a poor take on the wuxia (martial arts) genre by Ang Lee complete with foolishly overdone special effects and floating people looking a bit silly. Now it is a film I truly love for its beauty, its girl-on-girl action and its heart. Despite my misgivings this film is an embarrassment of riches for me, especially, as a fan of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema. Zhang Yimou is a director I have had much respect for since Raise the Red Lantern, and I look forward to seeing his next fight night extravaganza The House of Flying Daggers. Based on the fact that Hero was actually made in 2001, released in 2002 in Asia, and released in Australia in 2004, I guess we can expect to see House of Flying Daggers some time in 2017 (apparently it’ll actually be some time in February, which is still too late as far as I’m concerned). That’s all a mystery in itself, which I won’t go into, knowing that Miramax, for all its perceived virtues in releasing films worldwide than ordinarily would not see the light of day, likes to fuck around with the self-same releases that they seem to champion (Shaolin Soccer, anyone?)

It’s all too confusing. Hero is, despite its faults still one of my favourite films of the year, though it’s also one of the most frustrating. Make of that what you will.

7 swords inserted into your body which apparently, because they don’t hit any major organs, are okay, out of a potential 10.

Look forward to tomorrow, my people, to reviews of Blade: Trinity, The Incredibles and Saw. Go on, hold thy breaths, let me watch thou turn blue. And then maybe I’ll compile a list of my best and worst for the year. Has that got all your gussets moist or what? Hello? Hello? Is this thing on? *crickets, nothing but crickets in the background* Oh well…

I am Nameless. You killed my father, my mother and pretty much everyone else in my entire stinking country. Prepare to die – a quote that should have been in Hero, but isn’t. Probably because it’s from, in its pure form, The Princess Bride.