(Written in 2013, and first published on 1 Jan 2014)
Zhang Yimou remains to be the most famous of mainland Chinese filmmakers working today, yet his greatest works were made during the early phase of his career in the early 1990s with critically-acclaimed sociopolitical films such as Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994). In 2002, two years after the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Zhang released Hero, his first ever martial arts film starring some of the biggest names in Chinese cinema, including Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi.
Hero is perhaps the most intriguing film in Zhang’s oeuvre – it is distinctively a Chinese film, yet it seems to be imbued with an international sensibility. But unlike Lee Ang who directed Crouching Tiger, Hero also appears to be a strong exercise in auteurism as Zhang flaunts his visual style, in particular his “compositional skills and the use of colour” (Zhang, 2008, p. 121), which are not so dissimilar to his early works.
“Is the sword the only answer?”
This paper first focuses on how Zhang Yimou’s Hero represents itself as both national cinema by the function of its martial arts genre, and a globalized cultural product marked by its ‘blockbuster’ nature. Second, with strong backing from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hero can be seen as a transference of China’s soft, and possibly, hard power to the world. Lastly, the paper discusses on defining Hero as ‘Asian’ amid an increasingly transnational influence on film production and distribution.
A product of the national and the global
Apart from more obvious indicators such as its language and setting, Hero is more than anything else a Chinese film by the function of its martial arts genre. The genre has been closely associated with Chinese cinema, in particular the rise of Hong Kong action cinema in the 1970s, with films such as Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971) often regarded as the genre’s cultural touchstones.
Hero, an example of the wu xia (meaning ‘martial hero’) tradition, calls to attention its “nicely choreographed martial-arts movements” (Zhang, 2005, p. 52), a defining visual hallmark of the genre. However, unlike more conventional martial arts films that focus primarily on the skill and technique of the martial artist in defeating the antagonists, director Zhang places emphasis on the word ‘art’ in martial arts. According to Lau (2007), Hero “uses martial arts in a way that transcends action” (para. 31).
This is most evident in an excellently-edited sequence that cuts intensely between the fight engaged by Nameless (Jet Li) and Sky (Donnie Yen) in a chess-house, and a blind musician playing his ‘zheng’, an instrument unique to Chinese music. This setup attempts to draw parallels between martial arts and the traditionally regarded high arts within the Chinese tradition – music, chess, calligraphy (this art form is also a visual motif in the film) and painting (Lau, 2007).
By bringing action into the realm of art, Hero becomes not just an entry into the martial arts genre, but a film that consciously sees itself as a unifying representation of the elements that make Chinese culture (and its national cinema) unique. As much as Hero is entrenched in the notion of national cinema, it also comes across strongly as a globalized product, marketed as a blockbuster with “sumptuous spectacles, enhanced by special effects leaders in the US and Australia” (Wang, 2009, p. 300).
“You didn’t see my swordsmanship.”
“Without it, I couldn’t have written this calligraphy.”
It was a deliberate attempt by Zhang to capture the attention of an international audience, or as Lau (2007) put it, “a search for a model for a Chinese blockbuster” (para. 19) that could appeal to the East and West. In this regard, Hero becomes not merely a globalized product, but a globalized cultural product. According to Wang (2009), the film “counter[s] Hollywood’s omnipresent influence and… fend[s] off cultural imperialism” (p. 301).
In other words, the existence of Hero, apart from trying to fulfill its commercial (and auteuristic) goals, also seeks to make right the perceived cultural imbalance in a global film industry that is dominated by far more ubiquitous Hollywood movies. In this context, Zhang’s film achieves something quite special. By utilizing “the [martial arts] genre’s cross-over appeal” (Wang, 2009, p. 302), and taking a leaf out of Hollywood’s successful production and marketing model, Zhang has fashioned a film that can rightly be regarded as a product of the national and the global.
A transference of soft (and hard) power
While Hero is a successful globalized cultural product, it is difficult not to see it also as a globalization of propaganda (Harrison, 2006). In Harrison’s article, the author stated that Zhang’s film promoted “a state-sponsored political ideology” (p. 572). Backed by the CCP, Hero when stripped of its stylistic and aesthetical elements is quite clearly ideologically-driven. Its narrative structure, very much reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) where multiple perspectives distort the ideality of truth, is essayistic in nature.
For much of the film, Nameless and Emperor Qin (Chen Daoming) engage in a dialectical discourse on the veracity of events that inevitably brought them together. Nameless offers his version of the events, only to be countered by the Emperor’s version, which is then countered by Nameless’ revision of his original version. This back-and-forth between the two storytellers offers an intriguing look at the various ideologies embedded in the film.
Harrison (2006) sees the film as “an apologia for the contemporary dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party” (p. 571). But whether it is an apology or a vindication for how the CCP operates as a political entity remains vague. It becomes even more unclear who the real storyteller here is – Zhang or the CCP – thus “putting the control of narrative into question” (Zhang, 2008, p. 126).
Is Zhang indirectly making an apology to the CCP for his run-ins with the government as a sociopolitical filmmaker in the past by vindicating their current politics? The atypical ending of Hero, where the Emperor (i.e. the CCP) ultimately consolidates his power, seems to suggest that. Or could it be that the CCP is trying to justify its politics by using film, a ‘soft’ medium, to amicably (or even apologetically) communicate to the world its unshifting “urban nationalist ideology” (Harrison, 2006, p. 571)?
It is safe to say that the multi-discourses that emerge from the film invite a continuous guessing game. Perhaps a unifier that links these discourses together is to see Hero as a vessel for transference. In this context, it is the transference of China’s ‘soft’ cultural power, and possibly ‘hard’ political power that comes into play. As mentioned earlier, Hero can be regarded as a product of the national and the global, thus transferring its ‘soft’ power to the West by attraction of its visual spectacle and aesthetics that are unique to its genre and auteur.
Zhang then becomes what Braester (2005) calls “a cultural broker [who] erases the distinction between ideological and commercial cinema” (p. 551). Under this notion, Hero becomes neither purely market-driven nor solely political; rather, it is merely cultural. But the caveat is that this comes with the extra baggage of politics, for the obvious reason that discourse on Chinese cinema is rarely complete without any mention, directly or otherwise, of the CCP. This brings us to the transference of ‘hard’ political power.
Since China’s rise as an economic giant in the 2000s decade, its status as a world superpower has been continuously challenged by the US. Friedberg (2005) reduced the two nations’ uncertain future relationship to two possible scenarios: “Will it be marked by convergence toward deepening cooperation, stability, and peace or by deterioration, leading to increasingly open competition, and perhaps even war?” (p. 8).
Hero clearly advocates a pacifist ideology, despite having scenes of chaos and violence, in particular a sequence inspired by Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) where penetrating arrows from all directions fail to strike a calm and collected old master. Nameless wants peace and stability. So does Zhang who stated that Hero’s “emphasis on peace… was a response to the 9/11 event” (Wang, 2007, p. 333).
The transference of ‘hard’ power via Hero may seem like a problematic assertion as it apparently contradicts the notion of pacifism espoused by the film. However, it may be more fruitful (and optimistic) to look past the contradiction and see the transference of ‘hard’ power as a peaceful one, as long as the CCP’s political power, and more broadly, China’s status as a superpower is maintained or even embraced by the US, and by extension, the West.
Interestingly, Wang (2007) called the peace rhetoric “an excuse for legitimizing the status quo” (p. 333). But I beg to differ – I prefer to see the argument for peace as the most pragmatic solution in a world characterized by conflicting views on political function and operation. Peace should and ought to be the ultimate goal, an ideal that Nameless had hoped to strive for when he made the decision not to assassinate the Emperor.
A transnational hero
With Hero performing successfully in both Chinese and worldwide markets, what are its implications for Asian cinema? How do we conceive Asian cinema in the context of the globalized Chinese blockbuster? Before that, how do we even first define Asian cinema? At the most fundamental level, Asian cinema can be broadly viewed as collectively representing non-Western national cinemas (e.g. Japanese, Thai, Korean cinema).
“This is the sacred law of Qin. If your majesty is to unite the land, this man has to be made an example of!”
But this is made on the assumption that each national cinema refers to a single, independent entity unaffected by cultural flows. However, in a globalized world this is a contentious assumption to make. Perhaps the notion of transnationality can be more useful in understanding what Asian cinema is. According to Zhang (2010), a standard way of conceptualizing transnationality is to see it as “beyond the national but below the global” (p. 136).
Because film production, distribution and exhibition have over the last decade moved toward what Wu and Chan (2007) called a “global-local alliance” (p. 196), where local and non-local corporations are involved in the making and marketing of a feature, in particular the large-scale national blockbuster made for global consumption like Hero or Crouching Tiger, transnationality becomes central to what Asian cinema means.
Understanding Asian cinema as transnational (i.e. having no national boundaries) is crucial in developing the argument that Hero as a globalized national blockbuster is not necessarily ‘Chinese’ but simply ‘Asian’, though that does not imply that Zhang’s film loses its ‘Chinese-ness’ in the process of going global. In sum, perhaps seeing Hero as ‘Asian’ is best interpreted as a meaningful middle ground between ‘Chinese-ness’ and ‘global-ness’, capturing in essence both the cultural specificity of a national cinema and the wider, general reach and consumption it takes by function of its transnational mode.
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