Monday, January 03, 2005

HERO: AM I PROPAGANDA OR NOT?: So I got Zhang Yimou's Hero for Christmas and I had this preconceived notion before watching it that it was, in fact, a propaganda film, given that the Chinese Communist Party was supposedly firmly behind it and--perhaps because of that--the fact that Jet Li's character, Nameless, willingly allowed himself to be executed to preserve national Chinese peace was interpreted as a Strongly Worded Suggestion to Taiwan, that they follow Nameless' example and put aside their silly independence notions in the name of unity. (I am too lazy to provide link-based evidence for the above assertions. I give you my word as a blogger that they are true.) There were additional interpretations that the Li, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung threesome represented Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong in some combination--maybe in this reading Nameless is Hong Kong, willing laying himself down for overall Chinese prosperity, and the Ziyi Zhang character is poor forgotten little Macau, but that is probably a far too literal interpretation of the film.

I actually read a lot of reviews that argued not the above exactly, but that did argue that Hero was a big Riefenstahlian nationalistic story: gorgeously presented, unflaggingly in favor of Our Land, China. And thus simply part of the increasingly illegitimate Chinese Communist Party's attempt to hold onto power by shifting attention away from their own corruption, and towards a fascistic nationalism. I was starting to agree with them, until I read this review (watch out--it's a pdf):

However, such a view is unfortunate, because the film can easily be read the other way, even if it may stray from
conventional interpretation.

In case they [film critics] forgot, Zhang ’s earlier films – from Red Sorghum to Judou – have always been critiques of China ’s leadership.

At the core of the movie – and the controversy – lies the question: What defines a hero? In a typical Hollywood shoot-’em-up,it will be a protagonist who will not think twice about spraying bullets or slitting throats to save the world.

Zhang ’s model is one that is deliberately distanced from that.Hero purposefully highlights the "xia"(honour)instead of the "wu"(fighting)in the "wuxia"genre.It is the pacifist side of the pugilist,where,in the words of Jet Li (who plays the assassin Nameless), the whole ethos is that of "da, jiu shi bu da"(fighting, is in not fighting).It is perhaps this aspect of the movie that confounds the audience.I mean,what kind of a hero dies without a fight?

Yet, in puzzling the general audience and the Western media, Zhang may have hit the nail in addressing the opinion divide towards China's administration.

In being tasked with assassinating the Qin king, Jet Li ’s
character embodies the ideals of the anti-Chinese
government establishment. It is perhaps to address this
ambiguity, which can encompass anybody from the
young idealistic Chinese to the disdainful West, that
Zhang calls this character Nameless.

Colour is a key element in this movie. Zhang had
previously mentioned that the colours red,blue and
white stand for jealousy, love and truth respectively.
In telling his original story, Nameless paints a red
picture of jealousy, hatred and revenge among the
three assassins,suggesting the three states as an
entangled, unhappy mess.

On the other hand, Qin’s (and hence, the authorities’) blue vision is one of love. It speaks of the ultimate sacrifice when Maggie Cheung’s character Snow willingly gives up her life for her cause and her lover.
Qin’s story is a parallel to how the Chinese authorities see their relationship with their subordinate states – one of
closeness and unbreakable bonds.

Zhang ’s take, however, is that the pure, white truth is somewhere in between – where there is anger and resentment among the parties over past disagreements, but at the same time a very real, if unexpressed, love.
The fact that the pro-and anti-government factions – best personified by Snow and Tony
Leung’s Broken Sword – cannot see eye to eye is ironically playing itself out in real life, where
the general attitude of the critics towards Zhang and his Hero is: "If you’re not with us,
you’re against us."

But anyone who needs evidence that this movie isn ’t simply pro-establishment
rhetoric need only watch the critical scene where Nameless spares Qin’s life
but tells him:"Always remember the lives of the people you take."
Subsequently, Nameless’ stoic stance to a bombardment of Qin arrows
brings to mind the one man who stood in front of a Chinese tank during
the Tiananmen incident and personified a whole generation.
Zhang amply displays in his movie that confrontation need not
always be the best form of protest or the most effective channel for
change. As someone who has had almost all his movies banned
by the government, he should know more than most.
In changing his approach to filmmaking, the fact that Hero
has reached out and spoken to more people in China than
all his previous movies shows that it’s perhaps Zhang who
has the last laugh – even if his Hero is not what people want
it to be.

By Teo Cheng Wee--whoever that is. It's a Singaporean site, so he probably isn't a CP apologist. Anyway--let me say that I like this reading of Nameless as Tiananmen Square Guy, effecting change by highlighting just how brutal the people he's up against are. It explains why Zhang Yimou is suddenly making propaganda films--he isn't, even if he fooled a whole lot of critics and the Communist Party into thinking he was. It's a thinly veiled message, maybe too thinly veiled, but it's not like the Chinese state came out looking good at the end of Hero. The King gave in to his own cowardice when he had Nameless killed, egged on by his Greek chorus of hangers-on. In this reading, Nameless is a hero because he does not fight--not because he dies so that China may live.

It's a nice reading, though clearly a minority opinion. But it does fit Hero in to the rest of Zhang's films (some I haven't seen in years, or ever, I should mention) and not force us to accept that he's suddenly a total sellout. Oh, hey--did I like it? Yes, I did. The late Tony Leung (looking weirdly like Eddy Guerrero the whole time) was all meaningfully gazes into the camera. Jet Li didn't do a lot of Jet Li stuff, but it didn't really matter. Zhang Ziyi was stuck in there I guess so all the people who saw Crouching Tiger would see this. (I guess this was the big martial arts art flick for Leung, Li and Maggie Cheung, like what Crouching Tiger was for Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh. It's nice that all the old Hong Kong stars are making big budget art movies now after the decades of cheapo, cultish Hong Kong stuff.) Maggie Cheung is Maggie Cheung. It's good stuff.

No comments: