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Hero Wins the West

But was something lost when the hit Chinese epic was manipulated for us by its director and distributor?

By Dorothy Woodend 10 Sep 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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Hero is a very beautiful film. It's drenched with colour, chockablock with beautiful landscapes, stuffed full of noble self-sacrifice, beautiful deadly ladies and handsome stoic men. The only thing that jarred initially was Jet Li opening his mouth and the sound of Alvin the Chipmunk issuing forth. It's so lovely, it may take you a moment to shake off the super saturated art-house flavours and realize the strange aftertaste it leaves behind.

From the very outset you know you're in epic country. The opening titles set the stage in 3rd century China, or what was soon to become China. There is a whiff of Gilbert and Sullivan or Puccini's Turandot in the beginning of the film; especially in the scenes with all the government ministers, bowing, scraping and declaiming in unison. You expect some large Italian tenor to suddenly appear and burst into Nessun Dorma. This doesn't happen unfortunately, but there are plenty of other operatic moments.

This is film making on a very large scale, you don't even need to CG extra bodies into the crowds of soldiers and palace workers. It's China, you have literally billions of extras just waiting for the call. Operatic too, is the intent, with love, passion and death all intertwined with the notion of national identity. Verdi would be proud.

Like the Mikado, but with pretense

Like any highly staged production, the film is gorgeous, but of course, no one expects opera to be real. It's utterly, preposterously fake, and that is part of its charm. Hero, although it makes use of the real events of Chinese history is probably as real a portrait of 3rd century China as the Mikado is of ancient Japan.

If it were merely lovely and silly, that would be fine, but Hero wants to be more than merely kung fu fun. It has a message.

The story is told backwards, with Jet Li's Nameless, the nameless prefect showing up in the palace of the King of Qin. He is initially heralded as a hero, for killing three of the most infamous assassins in the land, but of course, things are not always what they seem.

He is presented to the king, who has done some serious redecorating in light of people trying to kill him all the time. No more floaty gauze curtains for this monarch butterfly, his hall is now a strictly kill-proof interior. Nameless tells the first of many stories about his method of dispatching the King's enemies, and with each telling he is allowed to move forward 10 paces, until he's soooo close, he can almost taste the kingly flavour. Only a row of candles stands between them, they foretell bad intentions supposedly, blowing suddenly with invisible gusts of destructive thought.

Although Nameless doesn't look like much of a super killer, his appearance, like his stories, is deceiving. Jet Li doesn't have to do much except look like a cipher, and for this he's perfect -- so stone faced, he'd make Buster Keaton proud.

The emotional goo is left up to Snow and Broken Sword, a pair of lovers and fighters who are evenly matched in strength and spirit. Maggie Cheung Man Yuk is the lovely Flying Snow, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai is Broken Sword. This pair also appeared in Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood for Love. Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is their faithful and sometimes faithless servant girl and Sky played by Donnie Yen, is the master martial artist.

Chinese critics slam warmonger message

Each one of these actors is insanely good looking, which makes for a very handsome picture. But all of this rich pageantry is in the service of a story about war, and when the Qin army shows up and launches a cloud of arrows at some poor calligraphers, you get a sense of what the King has planned for the rest of the country. Many Chinese critics have blasted the film for its toadying to the party line of "kill to stop the killing, burn to bring order."

In a recent article in the Asia Times entitled "China's Hero, or maybe anti-hero," writer Li YongYan says, "Director Zhang [Yimou] provides a revisionist reworking of history that is an insult to the collective intelligence of historians. Now we know that according to Zhang, one of the most bloodthirsty emperors in China's history was the biggest hero of them all. After establishing his absolute reign by sword and arrow, Qin went on to vanquish the enemies in people's mind by burning books he didn't like and burying alive more than 400 scholars who dared to differ.

"That doesn't seem to bother Zhang. He is telling us that regardless of how unification comes about, and regardless of how it is maintained, a unified frontier is better than coexistence of smaller, different countries on the same planet."

The question has also become whether the more insidious lessons of this tale are lost on western audiences because Hero is a Chinese film. In the article, Li Yong Yan makes a stingingly relevant point in that if you wish to tell a story about a brutal leader uniting a diverse group of people into one unified entity, there are plenty of western leaders who have attempted just this very thing. But Stalin, Hitler and the gang probably won't be having many epics penned for them in the future. Hero was released in China more than two years ago, so these are not new arguments, but the film was also one of Miramax's biggest triumphs of the summer in the U.S. And everyone loves a winner, especially Miramax's Harvey Weinstein.

How Miramax conquered the world

In the New York Times, "Hero Soars, and Its Director Thanks Crouching Tiger" director Zhang very openly stated his intent to create a very accessible film. "I tried to get across themes that would be understood by a western audience," he said. "There are elements that are purely Chinese, but I made an effort to keep a balance between the two."

Hero is a major production meant to appeal to as many people as possible. But it is also designed, like many western films, to be saleable overseas. Although big budget features such as Troy and The Village make more money outside of their county of origin than inside it, Hero needed to hit big in the U.S. to recoup its costs and make money. To this end, edits suggested by Miramax were made to the original film that played in China before it hit the screens in North America earlier this year. There were also more subtle changes, such as subtitles that changed the intent of the original dialogue.

Hero is a style of Chinese film that the West has embraced. Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow and Jet Li all had huge careers in Asia before they crossed the sea, but the success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved there was also an appetite for arty Asian films.

This is nothing new for Miramax, who have made it their business to turn out films based on other cultures, carefully tailored for western audiences. With financial support from Miramax and the 'Quentin Tarantino presents' label affixed to it, Hero had legs and it high kicked its way across the US, making more money than any mainland Chinese film. But Miramax is not a selfless entity by any means and despite its success with Asian cinema it's not distributing Zhang's next film, nor Stephen Chow's new film, despite the success of Shaolin Soccer.

There are actually far fewer foreign films on screens currently than there was 30 years ago. In 2001, less than one percent of all films screened in the U.S. were foreign films. There are any number of contributing factors, but the result is that fewer and fewer films get wide distribution. Despite Harvey Weinstein's recent apologia in Variety, the films that Miramax chooses to release are very carefully chosen to appeal to American audiences. Even then they're changed to take out the foreignness and make them more palatable. Shaolin Soccer is a case in point, with its horrible dubbing. The DVD has both versions of the film -- watch the Chinese original and then watch the American theatrical release. Miramax is also greedy, often buying the rights to films merely to keep them away from the competition.

One movie for one world

Again I must refer to former film critic Andrew O'Hagan (his Two Years in the Dark is currently available in the new issue of Granta). "Movies are all about illusion, and the greatest illusion of them all is the illusion of quality. This is Miramax's stock-in-trade. It takes stories that seem a bit classy -- Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Shakespeare in Love, Chocolat -- and turns them into cultureless pap, affected little movies which are grand in their own way, and which win Oscars, but which are actually meritless escapades fine-tuned to dupe the public. Miramax has given the world a host of clichés about European culture -- naughty French priests, macho Greeks, hoity-toity Englishmen, zany Italians -- and has reduced human complexity to a bunch of hopeless stereotypes bursting with sentiment. Yuck. I hate Miramax."

Add to this list noble Chinese martial artists and you get some sense of what Miramax is up to with Hero. In essence, pre-digested art house with a kung fu kick.

Fortunately you have barrelling down on you a whole whack of Asian films, independents, shorts, and animation, containing every possible permutation of human life down east. All you have to do is wait until September 23 when the Vancouver International Film Festival throws opens its doors and starts the popcorn machine.

Dorothy Woodend, who writes for various international publications, reviews films for The Tyee.

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