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Ying xiong (2002)
`Hero' fails to deliver on almost every level that really matters
It is impossible to avoid comparing Zhang Yimou's `Hero' to Ang Lee's `Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' They were both big-budget Chinese kung-fu films with breathtaking cinematography of Chinese landscape and a cast of super-stars. But aside from the obvious, there is in fact nothing else to compare. `Hero' fails to deliver on almost every level that really matters, proving that big-name stars, beautiful scenery, and action effects are no replacement for a director's artistry and vision.
All the marketing hype preceding the premier of `Hero' has done nothing more than make its failure a spectacular one. Much anticipated, `Hero' drew movie-goers in throngs when it first opened at theaters in mainland China and Hong Kong, making it an instant box-office success. However, though the script pleased government censors, Chinese audiences went to newfound heights of caustic criticism and sarcastic wit to express their disdain. On-line critics, both professional and amateur, proclaimed the film `ideologically disturbing,' `from the viewpoint of deep servitude,' written `either by an amateur historian, or someone with ulterior motives.' One article was simply titled, `Hero, you make me sick!'
The deepest failing of the film is in its plot, which is not only morally reprehensible, and based on unforgivable historic fallacy but - worst of all for a film - is boring! All blockbuster epic films are known to take some liberties with the facts of history, but `Hero' goes beyond artistic license into unforgivable ignorance when it attempts to glorify an emperor that was as brutal as Stalin or Hitler. `Hero' does not make up for this lack of moral compass by being entertaining or fun. Instead, it is makes a woefully poor attempt at being `deep' and merely manages to be pretentious and preachy.
Though historians agree that the First Emperor of China was ruthlessly violent, Mao Zedong was known to have admired this ruler - no surprise, given Mao's own tyrannical rule. Likewise, the Communist government in Beijing sees the allegory that can easily be drawn between the First Emperor and its own iron-fist methods, so they were particularly pleased with this latest work by Zhang Yimou. Tony Leung, one of the stars of `Hero' remarked during an interview to promote the film that the Beijing government had done the right thing in 1989 by crushing the student demonstrations, because it was needed to maintain `stability' in China. For these remarks, Tony Leung received shocked criticisms in his home city of Hong Kong, but he merely stated out loud the underlying message of the movie.
Director Zhang Yimou has stated that his goal was to surpass the values of loyalty and revenge that are traditional in kung-fu novels and movies, to reveal a higher wisdom. Unfortunately, his version of `wisdom' turns out to be: THE OPPRESSOR IS RIGHT. In China, where thousands of years of historical reality have rammed this message through, art was the last sanctuary where the individual could actually find freedom from such tyranny. The great popularity of the kung-fu novel can be explained by its ability to provide an escape into an alternate world: one where kung-fu warriors roamed the country seeking adventure and fighting for justice, free from fear and winning against all odds with their super-human skills. Only in the novel did the individual ever win over institutionalized power in China, and only in the novel did the oppressed find their champions. Going against this tradition of the kung-fu hero, Zhang Yimou has not gone upwards towards a higher truth, as he had hoped, but downwards, to the level of government propaganda. It's no wonder the government was so pleased.
Some film lovers may secretly wonder, `All moralistic judgments aside, is it at least entertaining?' Fortunately, the answer is a resounding `No!' Because the same tale is told over and over with only slight variations, it becomes tedious to watch. Moreover, the three conflicting versions of the same story serves only to confuse the character development, since it leaves precious little time for the viewer to feel any sympathy for any of them once the `real' version emerges.
The film is not without its beautiful images. However, all the scenes fall flat because they do not connect to or enhance the storyline. The use of different colors to distinguish the separate versions of the tale comes across as simplistic and contrived, and the cinematography appears self-consciously rather than truly beautiful. Great for a trailer, but a disappointment once you are there to watch the entire film.
For those in China who showed disdain for `Crouching Tiger's' unrealistic kung-fu, much was expected from `Hero.' Jet Li, who plays the title role, is a real kung-fu artist who held national titles before beginning his career as an actor. His previous movies have revealed limited acting abilities, but many hoped that Zhang Yimou could use Li's lithe body movements to full effect while casting him properly in a role that would not task his acting abilities. But it was not to be. `Hero' attempts to go beyond the kung-fu genre, so there are not many fighting scenes, and Jet Li is expected to perform a difficult piece of acting: an inner transformation leading to profound wisdom and self-sacrifice. As the casting director ought to have expected, Li fails miserably. Meanwhile, the only fighting scene that reveals any true kung-fu skill is the first one of the film, between Li and and Donnie Yen. All the scenes that follow are a disappointment, so `Hero' fails to satisfy, even on that level.
Though most audiences outside China are unlikely to be aware of the historical mangling of the story of the cruel First Emperor, it seems even more unlikely that they would accept Zhang's version of `Chinese wisdom,' which is anything but. Perhaps the only time an audience coming out of a screening of `Hero' was seen smiling - instead of yawning or frowning - was at the special screening for Chinese government officials.