Can a movie be too beautiful? Or perhaps a better question is: when is mere beauty not enough?
In the most awesome swordsplay picture ever, Tony Leung stars as an ill-fated, emotionally wounded swordsman, while Maggie Cheung gorgeously ruminates on lost chances. The costumes were sensational, and the fight scenes rushed by like a feverish dream, all captured by the unparalleled lensing of Chris Doyle. That movie is called Ashes of Time, and it's the most ravishingly beautiful martial arts film by a considerable margin. It's full of arresting imagery like this:
Here's strange but majestic canted-angle of a swordsman set in bold yellow against an expansive rich blue sky. The composition is unbalanced (with the eye point at the far left of the frame), framing the heroic figure with circular lines that create a sense of an alluring phantasmagoria. It's a strange but effortlessly cool shot, and Ashes of Time is full of them. In his unconventional color scheme, use of space, scale, composition, and especially lighting, Wong created an expressionistic masterpiece, a movie where every shot promises something you've never seen before, from the hatching shadows that shroud Leslie Cheung's pouty visage to the dance of shadows evoked by Wong's step-printing techniques . But it's not just innovative shots for its own sake. As David Bordwell explains in his seminal study Planet Hong Kong, Wong's action sequences allude to King Hu, Zatoichi, and Tsui Hark, while retaining their unmistakable Wongness. And it's all in the service of a movie that gets deeper, richer and more moving upon repeated viewings.
By that measure, Zhang Yimou's Hero can barely step into the same ring. An immaculate Fabergé Egg of a film, Hero is something to set on a red silk pillow and ensconce in a sterilized glass case. To be sure, Hero is a "magnificent" spectacle. Every hair is in its right place, every shot "masterful," every cut perfectly timed. Certain eye-popping scenes -- especially Cheung and Zhang Ziyi fighting in a swath of red -- have the feel of a dazzlingly staged performance dance piece. If you're blown away by rigorous movies where "every shot feels exactly right", you'll be hit by multiple orgasms watching Hero.
But to my eyes, those same beautiful shots are pleasing but painfully obvious and derivative. Everything's color-coordinated and art-directed to the point of asphyxiation, every shot is perfectly composed and mostly uninteresting. The vaunted color schemes are nothing more than the set and costume designer coming up with 30 shades of green or blue. Grand battle scenes are mounted in the tedious manner of Kurosawa's Ran, where toy soldiers are lined up in geometric formations for that extra formalist ooomph. Shots of Jet Li and the Emperor are rigidly centered and cross-cut in that predictable Zhang way. And the bad CGI process shots and poor understanding of action cutting leads to dreadful scenes like the one where thousands of arrows launched on the caligraphy school. We see Li jumping around deflecting obvious CGI toothpicks and Cheung inexplicably performing rhythm gymnastics on the rooftop.
I'd swallow these complaints if these decorative visuals served a greater purpose. But they don't. One problem is Hero lacks poignancy. The supposed heart of the movie, a love story between Maggie and Tony, felt like a second-hand borrowing of Wong and the Chow Yun-Fat/Michelle Yeoh dynamic in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, ultimately existing solely so Zhang can stage a cheesy "operatic" last scene. (No comparison with Tony's incredible exit scene from Ashes of Time, kissing the egg shell girl before furiously destroying a hundred swordsman, all set to that heart-stopping "Eastern Morricone" score.) Then, there's Jet Li, who reprises the grim, humorless superhero he plays in his subpar American films. Watching Li's joyless turn, it's easy to forget that Li's charisma and good humor (and Tsui & Ching's thrilling action staging) can lift his movies, like the second most awesome swordsplay movie ever, Swordsman II, into the stratosphere. A pity Jet does little but squint his eyes and fight now. The one standout is Daoming Chen's Emperor, who can give Wen Jiang a run for his money in embodying a kind of imperious, paranoid arrogance.
Another problem is that the Rashomon-like structure, rewinding and portraying a different telling of the same event, stalls the movie's forward momentum. An already stately, sober affair is made more enervating by this gimmick.
My griping, it must be said, overlooks one important element: Hero's ultimately a paean to Confucian authoritarianism. (Click on that link -- it's good.) Zhang's classical style, the humorless characters, and even the Rashomon structure work together seamlessly in support of this idea. Basically, it's an old school, classical style to support a philosophy that lionizes tradition. Well, the last part about structure may not be obvious, but keep in mind Hero only pretends to be, like Rashomon, about subjectivity and unknowability of Truth. By the end, the glob of tien xia ("All Under Heaven," or the poorly translated "This Land") subsumes all. The movie makes the very Chinese point that the individual (and diversity) should kow tow to the greater good, to a unified and greater China. In other words, the radical subjectivity implied by the movie's structure is ultimately obliterated by Nameless and Broken Sword's "recognition" that individuals/minority cultures must sacrifice themselves to a greater, objective good. Diversity may be precious and beautiful, but conformity is necessary. We can't have thirteen ways of writing the character "sword" now, can we? Hero mythologizes rebels for a while but only to conclude that they must martyr themselves at the altar of unity, authority, and conformity.
I've already expended too much time elsewhere discussing this film's propaganda elements. Just a few short points: contrary to widespread misunderstanding, to say that Hero works as government propaganda doesn't necessarily suggest that it's communist propoganda. Hero's not communist at all, but zealously nationalist and profoundly Chinese. So in a way, it doesn't betray its cultural origins and indeed sets forth as succinct a statement of a dominant Chinese viewpoint -- Confucist authoritarianism -- I know. While, it's a viewpoint I personally find noxious (hence the negative treatment here), one can't deny it's a popular one.
Hero serves as a kind of national origins myth for the expansionist nationalism that the Chinese government has been pushing relentlessly for years now (and which holds the heart of most Chinese I know). Nationalism is China's central ideology. To understand this idea, think of the U.S. Just as the Bush/Rove GOP isn't so much conservative as it feeds nationalistic and jingoistic language to poor, rural whites to maintain power, the Chinese government hasn't been interested in Marxist-Leninism for some time now. More than anything, the Chinese government is after securing power and stability, and it feeds nationalistic propoganda to rural Chinese (abandoned by the government which focused on foreign capital investment and urban improvement) and the military in order to do so. China's bellicose rhetoric on Tibet and Taiwan -- territories of no special national security signficance in the nuclear age -- can be explained only when domestic stability concerns are factored in. "You think life is tough now, but you need to suck it up so China can be great again", the Chinese government tells its downtrodden masses. The sad thing is that the man who once made The Story Qiu Ju now tells his viewers the same thing.
[If you're tired of my negativity and yearn to sink your teeth into a meaty positive piece, check out Chinese cinema guru Shelly Kraicer's take. It's pretty damn good.]