dir. Zhang Yimou

(There are spoilers a bit, so be warned.)

As a preface, consider The Phantom Menace. Say what you will about it (I actually rather like it but no question, post-Gollum in particular, that Jar Jar Binks was the blown opportunity beyond description), there’s one scene that for me is undeniable through and through. Lucas has often talked about wanting to finally go back to abstract filmmaking after the last movie comes out, his homage to Brakhage perhaps. The moment in Phantom Menace where he achieves that stated goal coming in the moment where Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul are dueling on Tatooine. There’s a part where all you see for about three, four seconds, aided by some swift cuts and a good enough John Williams bit, is flowing black robes, stark sands, slashing light-sabers. It leapt out at me the moment I first saw it and is still easily my favorite moment of the prequel trilogy so far — no story or dialogue or whatever, just pure visual spectacle of action, barely any sense that human figures are even involved.

Hero is like that moment multiplied by a hundred, a thousand. It’s just plain stunning.

Which I’m almost tempted to let stand on its own without further explanation, but onward for a bit. It took long enough for the film to get over here as such and plenty of people have already seen the import DVD or a file. Personally I gotta say that I’m so glad I didn’t — while I knew about the film for a long while, having first read something about it in its year of release or shortly before, patience has its virtues, because seeing this sucker on a big screen is a reason to deal with the idiocies of modern theatergoing. The prices (‘matinee’ really means nothing now), the endlessly crap trailers, ‘The Twenty’ — oh, I loathe it, I loathe it all. That much of the experience made me swear before the movie actually began that I wouldn’t bother going back to the theaters again this year. But now I know if I don’t see it on a big screen again at least once more before the run ends that I’ll be denying myself big time. The last time a film made me want to do that (the exception being the Lord of the Rings films, but that’s another matter altogether) was Spirited Away. It’s a film I want to drown in.

There’s an advantage, I think, in my particularly scattershot knowledge of much modern East Asian cinema — not that I wouldn’t mind seeing that remedied, but there’s enough in the world I want to track already that I’ve resigned myself to catch up there. So what is truly new or not about Hero is unclear to me but neither do I think it particularly relevant. It is a film that designed and intended to drown, encompass, devour an audience member, it wants to own your attention frame for frame. If I were uncharitable I could call it shameless or showy, and maybe those descriptions still apply anyway. But to me there’s nothing to apologize for, at all. Calling it art-directed is both tautological and pointless. Of COURSE it’s art-directed to the nth degree. You don’t have to like it for that, some can and have judged it to be just too much. For myself, I’ll take it all.

What tropes I do recognize don’t have to be the center of attention, and I love the results. The establishment of increasingly ‘impossible’ moves as a standard is part of the reason why Zimou and his crew (Dun Tan’s music, Christopher Doyle’s camera eye, Huo Tingxiao and Yi Zhenzhou’s production design and art direction, Emi Wada’s costumes, the list goes on) focus not so much on the battles as how they want to depict them. I just wanted to lose myself in each sequence, each scene, and usually I did so. A fleck of rain on swords, a cut to a musician, writhing bodies under silk. Billowing green curtains, collapsing book bindings, windswept deserts, THE LEAVES. A closeup on a sword-tip just intersecting the water, a swarm of soldiers like creeping black death up a staircase, THE ARROWS. The moodiest and darkest of hallways at night, the polished brilliance of an imperial hall near-emptiness, the outline of a dead man against a wall.

A friend once described A Chinese Ghost Story as like a Kate Bush video pitched to a truly spectacular level. For me, Hero was like a Dead Can Dance of dreams, of a swirl of pure and total remove from what and where we are and were, a stepping into a past that never was interpreted through a lens of now. Much talk has been made about the political relevance of the unified China theme, but I prefer instead to consider the figure of the emperor straight up — Shih Huang Ti remains a fascinating and horrifying figure to me, and seeing the portrayal here in a light that is ultimately positive, however loaded, intrigues me greatly. It’s to Chen Daoming’s credit that his performance is actually the strongest as such in the film — his voice is pure command, his body language a marvel. Stamping one’s presence on a film that wants to engage you in spectacle first and foremost isn’t the easiest of tasks.

And perhaps it’s telling that the two duels that the film primes you for are the ones involving him. On the one hand there’s the failed attempt at assassination from an earlier time, referred to regularly, used to explain key points of the film’s look and design, and then finally portrayed in an orgy of swirling green fabrics. But the other duel runs the length of the film, the one between the emperor and Nameless, hinted at perhaps in the way that Nameless and Sky spend part of their duel doing nothing but thinking out the potential battles like chessplayers call to mind millions of potential strategies and outcomes, seeking to stamp dominance not solely through action but thought. And perhaps my favorite moment of the film — hard to say if it really is, there’s so much I need to see again, digest again, reconsider again — is when the emperor responds to Nameless’s claim that he will succeed by taking the emperor’s sword from him. The emperor stands and throws the sword to Nameless, lodging with a thwack in a table. It’s a chess move of sheerest arrogance and belief, a sacrifice of a queen in a gamble that victory and defeat are near equal.

Chess, in its own way, suggests another model for the film. Hero is not Apocalypse Now, but apocalypse in miniature, then reversed. On a board where, theoretically, two kingdoms battle to death and destruction to a bitter end, the pitch and pith of human conflict becomes sixty-four squares and bloodless battles. Hero often focuses in on the smallest of moments and briefest of events and blows them up to world-shattering levels. A drop of water shoots off across a lake and lands on a cheek and suddenly everything changes. A hand drops and death rains down on one person like a nuclear blast. A teacup balances on a swordpoint, a surrounding wall crumbles.

A dream and a drama and a chance to just get lost in something. It’s already one of my favorite ever films. I do like it when my socks can get thoroughly and completely knocked off.