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September 06, 2004


Somewhere in the middle of watching 'Hero', I wondered if I might not be living in the Old Country.

What is coming out of China has impressed me over the past few years as being a kind of fundamental expression of humanity. I see Chinese people as the emptiest of humans, completely without affect, translucent even, such that whatever their character is, it shines through completely. Whatever their skill, their ailment, their vice, their sorrow it is that which they are and nothing more. It is only through their interaction with each other that I percieve this. Somehow they become complicated when dealing with me or other non-Chinese. But to themselves, the Chinese reveal.

I am wanting to say that the Chinese in this way have no eternal soul. If you are a farmer that is all you are. The only interest anyone or anything can have in you lies in your ability to farm. If you are a warrior, it is the fight in you that is beheld and nothing else. It is this notion that carries the weight of tragedy in the film Hero - an assassin who seeks the wisdom of the world to assist in his perfection as an assassin ultimately makes him something else, and as soon as this happens, he must die.

Many people will tell you how fabulously beautiful this film is. But I found it transcendant, in the way special American films must be to those who dreamed of America when they lived in their old countries. These days as I purchase DVDs in search of tales worth owning, I am drawn to the performances of Shakespeare's history plays. But in the American cinema I have yet to find a thread as noble. Yet with Iron Monkey, Crouching Tiger and now Hero I find three excellent examples in Chinese, and so they take the fore. Perhaps it is unreasonable at this moment in history to expect much else. Lessons in English might be those which warn against the dissolution of decline, perhaps we should look to Thackeray. But for now it is that spirit churning in the blank slate of the Chinese body that fascinates.

Hero says so much without words. I have not seen such breathtakingly brilliant color in filmmaking since 'The Cell' and 'What Dreams May Come'. Yet as ugly as the poisoned minds of those films were, even the bad guys in 'Hero' remained, well, heroic.

Just last night, several days after my viewing of Hero, I watched Kill Bill 2. That film says so much about our capacity for deciept and our vulgarity. There is nothing quite like the metaphor of a one-eyed woman who comes with a million dollars and a poisonous snake to ransom a stolen Asian sword from a drunk killer who lives in a trailer at the edge of a desert. The only pure emotions are avarice and revenge. And next to that was 'Love Actually' whose distorted emotions all going by the name of 'love' were a hash of confusion and cowardice. Granted, I fell asleep before the jaded old rockstar's record reached the top of the charts but a saw no true love worth consummating in that motley bunch. Nothing that compares to that exemplified in Hero.

I don't like to dog America for what it lacks. Instead I prefer to inoculate my family and Recover that of lasting values. One would think that artists would be a bit more bold. Even if I can't be forgiven for not knowing where to look in American film, the fact that it's hard to find speaks loudly enough to this problem. We should be thankful for those few who made it their priority to import soul from China.

Posted by mbowen at September 6, 2004 03:12 PM

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Hero was an amazing and beautiful film. Something I also noticed about it was how pro-China (especially PRC) it was. The strong authority figure with the dream of a single unified country that streched beyond the six provinces (i.e. Tibet and Taiwan). The assassins opposed to the king who come to see his vision as grander than themselves and who become heroes by sacrificing themselves for "Our Land". Maybe the heavy dose of daily politics in our land has affected my thinking, but there can be no doubt the film definitely had a strong nationalist theme.

Posted by: submandave at September 8, 2004 03:36 PM

Yeah I read somewhere this week that the filmmaker was a sellout to Chinese authoritarians. I found that to be a stunning allegation and a completely 'art in service to humanity' argument.

On the other hand, I am a nationalist, and quite frankly and imperialist too. I found myself quite moved to find that the king was appropriately clever and a warrior as well. So I was taken in by the nobility of the king and the assassins as well.

I can see how the arrow attack on the rebel calligraphers can be viewed as an example of the king's cruelty, but these were warring kings, not simply one tyrant trying to suppress.

Posted by: Cobb at September 8, 2004 04:02 PM

I don't think cruelty has anything to do with it. What I noticed was the message that one's heroism lay in sacrifice to further the greater empire. I don't completely disagree, and think it would be well if this point could be emphasized on a few more here in the US, but find that the PRC emphasis on duty to China at the expense of individual liberty slants too far in the other direction.

Posted by: submandave at September 9, 2004 09:29 AM

Oh I think the notion of submission to absolute authority was there. There wasn't a bit of democratic freedom in sight.

But then, William Shakespeare worked hard to get together the scratch he needed to purchase patents of nobility.

Reminds me of an old article in Salon comparing the authoritarian world of Star Wars with the more democratic world of Star Strek.

Posted by: Bill Benzon at September 9, 2004 01:41 PM

I continue to see, here and there, allusions to Hero's praise of the state. Would we have been happier if Jet Li played a suicide bomber?

I thought Nameless was simply wrong, and that his decision not to kill the King had everything to do with the lesson held deep within the secret of the Calligraphy and in the essence of a Warrior's ultimate desire to lay down his sword. That both characters represented a meeting of their destiny which they had no way of knowing before they met, which is the way of single combat. To suggest that it was inevitable that he not kill the King to serve some ideological purpose completely misreads the film.

Posted by: Cobb at September 9, 2004 04:13 PM

I continue to see, here and there, allusions to Hero's praise of the state. Would we have been happier if Jet Li played a suicide bomber?

Nah. Let the Emperor appoint him to a high post, give him a good woman, and let them happily raise babies in the name of a united China.

As for the deep meaning of the calligraphy, I figure that's no more important in the overall scheme of things than the color scheme ending in pistacchio green. It's a device, no more, no less.

Posted by: Bill Benzon at September 9, 2004 05:57 PM