Fighting for Peace (and Art Films), Zhang Yimou on “Hero”
by Liza Bear
China, Third Century BC: All War, All the Time?
Not if you allow Emperor Qin to unify feudal societies, build the Great Wall of china, and rule all the Warring States, supposedly putting an end to bloodshed and suffering for their folks. That seems to be the premise of Zhang Yimou‘s first martial arts movie Hero, in the eyes of its ironically-named hero Nameless (Jet Li). Of course there’s a bunch of assassins out there who don’t agree, and he has to dispose of them.
Trying to see things from an Emperor’s perspective at a point in our own contemporary history when “empire” has again reared its ugly head, one may wonder at the red, white and blue coloration of “Hero“, but it would be culturally presumptuous to read too much into it, especially on the basis of a very short interview via translator.
Arguably the most internationally esteemed, versatile, and rebellious of Fifth Generation filmmakers, Zhang Yimou, whose unconventional wedding photographs won him entrance to the Beijing Film Academy as a cinematographer, clearly thrives on aesthetic and bureaucratic challenges. Acclaimed for his stunning compositions shooting Chen Kaige‘s “Yellow Earth” (1984), he soon made a mark with Red Sorghum , his directorial debut, followed by the not-to-be-missed trilogy, Ju Dou , Raise the Red Lantern , and the Story of Qiu Ju [1992). These early masterpieces, set in the first half of the 20th century, were strongly centered on China, the land and its people from a sensual, nuanced perspective of gender and generation far removed from social realism. [It took them a while to woo the censors.] With “Hero”, set in 212BC, Zhang delves into ancient China with a fictional tale about Nameless, a loyal low-level functionary who eliminates three potential assassins of the ranking Emperor Qin with his invincible swordsmanship. These feats grant him a close audience with the Emperor. In differently colored flashbacks, three versions of his exploits are recounted.
At a ten-pace distance, disabling the brutal tyrant would be a cinch. Yet, unconventionally in martial arts terms, Nameless spares him. Succumbing to the yells of the crowd to execute him–much as Pontius Pilate was to do in 33 BC–Qin doesn’t return the favor and has Nameless executed. He is nevertheless buried as a hero.
How to read the official endorsement of “Hero” as China’s next Oscar nomination? As an acknowledgment of its box office success, or as a surge of national pride in the highest-budgeted Chinese film ever made? After all, however fictitiously, “Hero” draws on deep history: the birth of China as a nation.
Memorable for its finely-judged performances, superlative sound design and stylized visual compositions, shot by renowned Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle, this is a martial arts film that contrasts orderly military formations in wide shot with lyrical close-ups. A volley of arrows fills the skies like a swarm of bees or plague of locusts rather than the tools of warfare. Lingering shots of gleaming metal, the sonorous hiss clang and echo of a sword being unsheathed or falling to the ground evoke harmonics and reverb rather than unsightly atrocities–torn limbs and membranes or screams of pain.
Unlike “Crouching Tiger‘s” didactic exposition, “Hero’s” script unfurls coils of intrigue, betrayal and revenge as agile and tortuous as the swordplay itself. Wry, spare dialogue enables Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Jet Li and Chen Dao Ming as the Emperor to rely on glancing looks to telegraph a gauntlet of emotions. Whether your heart aches from a surfeit of beauty, you’ll have to decide for yourselves.
Liza Bear interviewed Zhang Yimou in New York recently.
indieWIRE: When we last talked four years ago you’d just made “Not One Less“, about a 13-year-old teacher substitute in an impoverished rural school who saves a runaway student. What made you go in a very different direction?
Zhang Yimou: I’ve been reading martial arts novels since I was a child…
IW: [noticing book cover on table] In fact you’re reading one now.
ZY: [laughter] When I graduated from school, young people all wanted to shoot art films. Nothing commercial. But during the last 7 – 8 years, the market for Chinese films is shrinking. Because the Hollywood films just came into China, and influenced…
IW: Isn’t there a quota on imports of Hollywood films?
ZY: The problem is that Hollywood is competition for Chinese art films. So I thought I should make a film with box office promise, that refers to Chinese culture, but also contains an art element. That’s why everything is in one film. I have to thank “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” because Ang Lee did something new for martial arts. To shoot “Hero” we needed a lot of money. Ang Lee created some space [for other filmmakers] to experiment. Both Ang Lee and I used an art film style in a martial arts movie.
IW: What is the philosophy behind “Hero”?
ZY: There’s a writer in China [who] wrote martial arts novels. He said the best fighter in Chinese history will fight for the country and for the people. It’s a very old saying in ancient China, from several thousand years ago, by the martial arts people, the best ones. But after the Cultural Revolution, things became more politicized.
IW: Jet Li has the chance to assassinate the King, and he doesn’t. So maybe there’s a different concept of a hero in the film?
ZY: “Hero” follows the ancient tradition. The number one fighter in the country would care for the people first. Jet Li understands that if he doesn’t kill the Emperor, it’s better for the people, because the war will end. The number one martial arts fighter decided not to kill the king, for the sake of peace. In this movie, my idea was to convey the message of peace.
IW: So your interest in the story, which you co-wrote, was in a strange way to make a pacifist film. Because the mood of the film seems not very warlike — long close-ups, the focus on visual structure, to suggest that beyond killing, there’s another level of being, like in Taoism.
ZY: Well, trust is part of the martial arts tradition, like for example, between Tony Leung and Jet Li, and also at the end of the movie between Jet Li and the Emperor, they build up the trust between them.
IW: To go back to the question of limits on Hollywood imports…
ZY: When China joined the WTO, the rule was that the first year, 20 foreign movies could be imported to China. The second year, it was 30. Right now it seems like 40 foreign films can get into China. Most of them are Hollywood commercial movies. For example, in mid-June, “Troy” will be released in China, almost the same day as in Hong Kong. The young people in China love watching Hollywwod movies. So do the young people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. I and other Chinese directors want the government to take action about this. Because the foreign films have a cultural impact. Which creates a problem for the Chinese films. The government cannot ban all foreign films from coming in because there’s already a contract in existence. But what they can do is to limit the release date. So as to retain the golden release period for the Chinese films. It’s necessary for the Chinese government to have a policy to prevent what happened to Hong Kong and Taiwan and Japan. They need to have a look at other countries and see what [Hollywood] films have done to them before they decide what can be done to protect Chinese film. But these controlled release date arrangements will be helpful.
IW: How exactly will that work?
ZY: The government will give the first 15 to 20 days [after release] as a golden period for Chinese movies. But there’s still a problem. Because Chinese movies don’t have such a high box office, sometimes the theater managers will get Hollywood movies to replace them after only 3 days, in spite of the regulations. The ruling isn’t a total guarantee.
IW: How easy or difficult was it for you, directing the swordplay and so on?
ZY: I discussed the action sequences with Tony Ching, the action director, while I was writing the story and also on set. We would decide what the martial arts should look like. But when it came to the moment of directing, I would let Tony Ching execute. Normally, what you see as two minutes on the screen took us 10 to 15 days to shoot. When Tony thought of some important changes for the direction, he would come back to me and discuss them first. While Tony was directing the action, my job was to sit and watch the monitor, and I looked like an assistant director. It might take four hours to shoot one shot.
IW: How did you come up with the color changes in the film: red, white, blue and green?
ZY: “Hero” is not a traditional martial arts movie. It’s very structurally presented. I like Rashomon, and thought I could use different colors to represent different parts in the movie.
IW: Why those particular colors, red, white and blue?
ZY: There’s no particular meaning to each color. I just needed the colors to represent…
IW: Points of view.
ZY: Yes, yes. Each color represents a different period and different [way of telling the] story…
IW: What was it like working with Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung on the set?
ZY: “Hero” is a director’s movie, and so the actors don’t have much space to maneuver in, which is a pity because they are really great actors. Because the movie is so tightly structured, their acting choices are limited. Both Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung could each carry a 2-hour movie. They need to play something from the heart.
IW: Exactly when and how did Quentin Tarantino get involved with this project?
ZY: Miramax [told] me that they wanted to put a credit for Tarantino at the head of the movie, kind of with Quentin Tarantino’s recommendation. I feel very happy about that because he and I are old and good friends, and Tarantino loves Chinese movies. Then in Cannes I saw Tarantino at the premiere and at the after party for “House of the Flying Daggers.” I [learned] that Miramax had asked Tarantino to make some adjustments to the film. But Tarantino loved “Hero” so much, he didn’t really want to change it, he wanted to protect the film as it was. But I think Tarantino gave his recommendation [in order] to help with the distribution.