The Chinese movie epic, Hero, is more than spectacular; it is elemental. Watching it, I felt regret that Wolfgang Petersen had landed the job of directing Troy, though I respect Peterrsen’s craftsmanship and like most of his film. But if anybody is ever going to put The Iliad or The Odyssey on screen in true Homeric style, it will have to be Zhang Yimou, director of Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad, and now Hero. This is a filmmaker who does with the camera what Homer did with words: he portrays men and women not as “personalities” but as human forces coexisting with inhuman forces-wind, water, air, animals, earth. When, in The Iliad, Achilles drives the Trojans into the sea and then battles the sea itself, we gasp, but what current Western moviemaker could put such a moment on film? Eighty years ago, a D. W. Griffith or a Sergei Eisenstein might have succeeded, but after decades of increasingly domesticated and refined realism, the pores on a handsome actor’s face are treated by our cameras with greater awe than is shown to sun or tides or sky. Oh, we have a surfeit of films that prop up love stories with pretty backdrops and, for disaster and action movies, computer generated images slash flame and firepower across the screen while the theater loudspeakers roar us into submission. Since we know all too well where the acting leaves off and the machines take over, this breeds an aesthetic cynicism within us even as we cower in our seats. Zhang Yimou employs plenty of CGI, too, but his special effects so decisively lift us onto a mythic plane that they become signs and wonders rather than stunts. We enter a dream, not a contraption.
The plot is a detective story solved by the intended victim working in collaboration with his would-be murderer. To the first emperor of China comes a nameless magistrate-warrior. He has reputedly slain the very three assassins who have kept the emperor in perpetual fear of his life-Broken Sword, Sky, and Flying Snow (the last a beautiful female warrior). Nameless explains to the emperor what stratagems he used, and the film flashes back to the passions and bloodshed these devices unleashed.We witness a miniature Othello drama with an Iago-like Nameless setting the lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow against each other (though the ferocious Flying Snow is certainly no vulnerable Desdemona). But then the emperor, drawing on his own knowledge of the assassins, refutes Nameless’s account with his own speculation of what might have taken place. This implicates Nameless in the conspiracy against the throne. Then Nameless tells the emperor the truth about his connection to the assassins, and this third story defines the magistrate’s quest.
If all the above, with its contradictory testimonies, suggests Rashomon, forget it. Rashomon tells us that factuality is impossible because subjectivity rules humanity. To the contrary, Hero’s three narratives successively climb toward knowable truth. Nevertheless, an ambiguity does shadow the climax. Of the five central characters-the emperor, nameless magistrate, three assassins-who is the true hero? He who acts ruthlessly to promote unity and prevent future chaos, or he who sheaths his sword as a lesson of peace to generations to come?
The story may contain inherent psychological implications but Zhang does not present it psychologically (at least not to my Western perceptions). The aims of the characters may be human but their acts, as staged and photographed, are closer to earth tremors or tidal waves. When the emperor’s soldiers launch thousands of arrows at a calligraphy studio where the assassins are staying, the missiles look like swarms of locusts. This may recall Olivier’s Henry V at first, but when Nameless and Flying Snow sweep the arrows aside with only their swords, they seem less like warriors than demigods such as Rama or Gilgamesh.
But other scenes push beyond myth and magic into near abstraction. When Broken Sword and the emperor duel in a palace room amidst hanging curtains that blow in the wind, Zhang’s Australian cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, makes the green of the draperies look like a mist that will swallow up the combatants. Amazingly, this visual effect neither turns the scene arty nor drains it of its excitement, but it does suggest that none of this violence has anything to do with the real violence that destroys people and desolates the earth. It is more like watching a hurricane battle a twister.
The duelists often fly through the air, thereby recalling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But Ang Lee’s movie had characters that remained charmingly human amid the romance and intrigue. Their flying seemed not sheer magic but an overflow of their elan. I loved those stunts but suffered a slight jolt whenever they began, as if the characters of a novel were trying to launch themselves into legend and myth. There’s no such jolt anywhere in Hero because the action is mythic from first to last, never novelistic, never worldly.
Yet there is much moral decision making in the course of the film, and how are actors to portray the moral decisions of demigods? Zhang has Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai perform in a monumental manner: we see shifts of emotion in the close-ups but not the delicate transitions of naturalism. It’s as if the actors were ripping off masks and instantly replacing them with new ones. Demigods don’t do psychology. All the actors, whether they’re flying or loving or killing, admirably keep their characters on emotional stilts.
I am writing this review one week after Hero opened. It will be interesting to see if Quentin Tarantino’s endorsement of it, plus its breathtaking action sequences and physical beauty will bring Hero financial success (its opening weekend grosses were pretty good). I suspect, sadly, that it will ultimately fail, at least in the United States. In general, Americans like their violence gaudy and the characters domesticated (how many good fathers and husbands Schwarzenegger and Stallone have played!). But Hero’s violence is transcendent, and its characters will never remind you of anyone you have ever met.
For Vanity Fair, William Thackery’s “novel without a hero,” the Indian filmmaker Mira Nair has employed the same strategy used by Patricia Rozema in her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Both directors (a) bring a feminist empathy for rather dodgy heroines and (b) connect the pomp and circumstance of Regency England with England’s imperialist holdings. I would say Nair has succeeded with (a) and failed at (b).
It seems to me that Thackery loved his heroine-villain, Becky Sharp, for her pluck and sass, and that he disapproved of her for her amorality. Since Nair is just as scathing as Thackery in portraying the self-satisfied greed and snobbery of the upper class Becky is trying to penetrate, the sympathy the director wins for her heroine isn’t saccharine. We see clearly how fragile, how self-defeating is any victory Becky might win. In this film, physical squalor stands for moral squalor, and Nair and her cameraman, Declan Quinn, and designer, Maria Djurkovic, find it everywhere: in the ridiculously monumental hair stylings constructed of feathers, flowers, and wire; in the supposedly splendid parks that here look muddy, almost swamplike; in the filthy dress and boorish manners of country squires (Bob Hoskins magnificently obnoxious as Sir Pitt Crawley); in the parties and musical soirees that Nair choreographs as pavannes of Darwinian selection. Given vanities like these, one longs for the bonfire. Reese Witherspoon may soften Becky too much but she has the looks, the hunger, the insolent charm, and the gleaming intelligence that Thackery called for. Besides, whenever Vanity Fair is dramatized, the “nice” characters, Amelia and her forlorn suitor, Dobbin, come across as a belle dame sans merci and a masochistic bore. Becky at least has guts and brains and may remind today’s viewers of those chicks in Sex and the City.
Nair threads all sorts of references to India through her film: Indian servants, a pseudo-Indian masque, military service in the Raj for all the younger male characters (poor Dobbin even goes native!), and Becky winds up (triumphantly, of course) in India. In the Mansfield Park movie, Patricia Rozema drew specific parallels between the slavery-dependent West Indian business from which the Bertram family draws its wealth and the autocratic way Sir Thomas Bertram treats his family. But in Nair’s Vanity Fair, none of the Indian references prove to be anything but eye candy. If Nair was depending on knee-jerk liberal audiences to supply clear thematic connections (see that Indian parrot? it symbolizes England forcing the natives to speak English) she was being artistically lazy but not lacking in shrewdness; liberals always come through when one needs a little West-bashing. If she just couldn’t help recalling her native land, she was being self-indulgent.
But let’s be a little grateful for an intelligent skim of a three-decker masterpiece.