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2005-01-30, 10:25 PM


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My final paper for the class "Film, Music, Culture" which I've taken in the fall 2004 semester. Introduction: In my opinion, Hero is not only a classic martial arts film, but a complicated cultural phenomenon. There are so many tiny factors involved inside, making this movie more interesting and casuistic. Hero generates quite diverse echoes from the Western and the Eastern, to some extent, when we read the reviews from different critiques who come from distinct cultural backgrounds, we can’t help doubting that if they talk about the same movie. Directed by Zhang Yimou, the 5th generation director from China, Hero possesses a monumental production budget, thirty million US dollars, which is the double amount of another martial arts masterpiece Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. By its overwhelming propaganda, Hero also becomes an international hit, clutching a historical box office record in Chinese movie industry. In this essay, I am going to discuss some interesting aspects of this film, trying to figure out if different cultural environments affect audiences’ assessments on the same artwork. The Story: The pivotal idea of Hero is a traditional theme in Chinese movie genre: Assassination of the Qin. Qin is one of the most powerful dynasties in Chinese history, and the King of Qin, the first emperor of China, is also one of the most controversial figures among other prominent Chinese legends. There are several movies being made under the same topic in the past three decades, like Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin (1999); therefore, whether its idea or its story, Hero isn’t an original movie. Zhang Yimou remakes the old tale “Assassination of the Qin” by using a fabulous casting lineup and the tremendous computer technologies. Hero is set 2,200 years ago, during the reign of the King of Qin (Chen Daoming), the Emperor who united China and built the Great Wall. It's about the three master assassins: Broken Sword (Leung Chiu-Wai), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen), who threaten the Emperor's life and Prefect of Leng Meng County, Nameless (Jet Li) killing them all. Nameless tells the Emperor of his adventures as they face each other in the King's vast anteroom. He describes in detail how he out-dueled and killed all three. He firstly defeated Sky, and then annihilated the tempestuous killer-lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow by a mix of swordsmanship, psychological cunning and lessons learned from Broken Sword's other great art, Chinese calligraphy. However, the Emperor is skeptical. At war with other six Chinese kingdoms for decades, he trusts no one. As their conversation continues, the story deepens and changes, and more and more layers of illusion and reality are peeled away, while a mass of warriors gathers menacingly outside. At the end of the film, all assassins, except Sky, die tragically, but the Emperor remains strong and continually rules the world. The Colors: The colors play a significant role in Hero. Director uses black, red, blue, white, and green to illustrate this story more vividly. Black: Mystery, Solemnity, Power, and Kingdom. In Hero, black represents the King of Qin. Whether the costume that the Emperor wears or the palace where the Emperor lives, black is the major color we can easily recognize. Black also means control and domination; in the real history of China, almost every dynasty’s troop chooses black to be their primary color. Red: Passion, Desire, Anger, Revenge, and Jealousy. Red is one of the most impressive colors in Hero. When Nameless depicts how he beats Broken Sword and Flying Snow, director uses burning red to enhance the monumental emotional flowages between the characters. Besides, when the Qin army uses arrows to destroy the town of Zhao, all people in the calligraphy school wear red costumes; the atmosphere out there is just like religious martyrdom, so red also means blood and heroism. Blue: Intelligence, Calm, Sobriety and Sacrifice. Nameless’ story version has some flaws that are penetrated by the King of Qin. So the Emperor tells his own version. In his version, Flying Snow sacrifices her life for letting Nameless can access the King of Qin within ten paces, so Nameless can use his masterstroke “Death Within Ten Paces” to take the Emperor’s life. At the end of this version, Nameless and Broken Sword have a fight to honor Flying Snow, not a duel, just a battle in their minds. The fight takes place on a lake, which is like a mirror reflecting all kinds of colors, including the lake itself. Therefore, we can see the elegant blue above and below the lake. In this beautiful scene, blue gives audiences the feeling of clearness and sereneness. White: Truth, Peace and Sanctity. After the Emperor’s conjecture, Nameless finally presents the truth. In the real plot, Broken Sword hopes that Nameless can abandon his plan, and asks him: Was your sword forged in hatred? Broken Sword thinks revenge is not the answer, and Nameless should give up the assassination and terminate the endless hate. White is an intensive contrast against black; therefore, in the white scenes, we can understand how difficult for Broken Sword forgiving the Emperor, under his ideal, so-called “All Under Heaven”. Green: Land, Simplicity and Vitality. In Nameless’ final statement, it is inset by another narration from Broken Sword who recalls how calligraphy inspired their swordplay and why he didn’t kill the Emperor when they fought in the palace. Green is the color of nature, and it means all turmoil return to the basic source and pure mind. Costume designed by prestigious Emi Wada, who earned the Oscar with the classic Akira Kurosawa’s film Ran, she even uses specific mineral water from Japan and England to dye the cottons for the qualities and layers of clothes. Hero indeed pays significant attentions on the colorful world. The Music: Original music by Dun Tan, the same composer for Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the music in this film also plays an essential role. If we roughly grouped them into diegetic and nondiegetic, we can discuss them more clearly. Diegetic: In the early stage, when Nameless and Sky have a fight in the raining scene, Nameless asks the blind pianist to play one more tune for their duel. Maybe it is the most definite diegetic scene in the whole movie. What the blind pianist plays is the traditional Chinese tune, which is full of mysterious feeling and ethereal atmosphere; like the traditional Hollywood Western movies always have the theme melody combining traditional American folk and blues when the protagonists fight in the vast desert, this kind of Chinese tune is sort of cliché, it appears on almost every martial arts film’s duel scene, but it really works. To create the exotic atmosphere, this tune also brings this movie to a higher level, a spiritual level. Because a part of the fighting is happening between their minds, the music makes it like an illusive and psychedelic trip, like ecstasy experience and LSD journey. Director also uses black and white scene to illustrate how they battle in their minds. With the tune becoming faster and heavier, audiences’ nerves are tremendously manipulated by the music simultaneously, and finally it explodes to the climax: we hear overwhelming nondiegetic music replaces diegetic music when the piano tune stops, and Nameless wins the battle. Nondiegetic: Most parts of Hero’s music are nondiegetic. Usually accompanying with the fighting scenes and army-appearing sequences, Dun Tan uses beautiful but bleak violin and breathe-taking drum to create a magnificent fancy world. In the opening sequence, the music accompanies with the sounds of wheels and horses telling the story precisely, because it can notify audiences where and when the story happens. In the red scenes, when Nameless and Flying Snow shield the storms of arrows outside the calligraphy school, the combination of solo violin and male chorus makes it a little like religious tribal music, and it is just suitable for that kind of melancholy circumstance. Another impressive red scene is the battle between two women, Flying Snow and Moon. The music is full of heartbeat-like percussions and gentle female chorus, so the cruel fighting blends a unique feminine flavor, and it makes this sequence outstanding. This kind of percussion style is also used in the green scene, when Broken Sword fights with the Emperor in the palace. Dun Tan never invents a new way to develop his audible world, so we can presume that this kind of music design, the rushing heartbeat-like drums, is really useful in the fighting scenes. Finally, in the ending sequence, when Nameless dies under thousands of arrows, the similar melody from the opening sequence appears again, and this time with the thrilling chorus from Qin’s army, also with Nameless’ corpse under the red curtain, making a tragic and creepy ending. The Ideology: Maybe the most sophisticated part to be analyzed in Hero, the Fascism ideology trickily contained in the screenplay ignites the huge debates in the academic fields on both sides of Taiwan Strait. Hero's framework comes from history, but this film isn't completely realistic. We all know the King of Qin is quite controversial in Chinese history. He unifies China, uniting words, measure standards and length of tracks, but he also notoriously burns the precious books and kills tons of intellectuals; he builds the Great Wall to against the barbarians after he becomes the Emperor, but under the miserable war that he creates for unifying the country, there are million innocent people dying. In Hero, Zhang Yimou shapes the King of Qin into a never seen before self-conscious good man, who cares about his people and wants the world to become a better place. Maybe it’s true, cause no one really knows him, but when he speaks the word “Peace” at the end of the film, I can’t help but laughing. It’s just absolutely making no sense. If he does cares about peace, would he bring a war on his land? I can never imagine that an infamous tyrant, who furiously annihilates other countries and executes several holocausts, making his land like hell, will one day say the word “Peace” in a movie’s dialogues. Besides, the central thought of Hero, also the reason why Broken Sword persuades Nameless to give up the assassination is “All Under Heaven”. Briefly speaking, it means for the prior benefits and the highest honors for the “Nation”, people should sacrifice anything, including their lives and their own countries. In the name of “Nation”, nationalist can do everything they want, including invading other countries and burying the diverse folk cultures, just for a stronger “Nation”. The Fascism and Militarism ideologies are barely exposed to audiences’ eyes, and it’s hard to believe a film containing so wrong political correctness can still survive in the 21st Century, especially in this sensitive time in the Middle East and Taiwan Strait. The Style: We can easily find too many shadows from other masterpieces in Hero. For instance, the fighting scene between Sky and Nameless is just like any fighting sequence of Matrix; the spectacular Qin army gives audiences a similar illusion of Japanese army in Ran; the multiple-narrative style should be definitely inspired by another Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon; the usage of colors also makes people spontaneously connect to Kieslowski’s three colors and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover; the music is totally the duplication of Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Dun Tan is still great, but he doesn’t create anything new. Not to mention other unbelievable fallacies: hair pencil wasn’t invented until Qin finally unified China, why Zhao already had calligraphy; paper didn’t appear in Chinese history until Han Dynasty, the dynasty after Qin, why Broken Sword can write the word on the paper which is hung behind the King of Qin in the palace. The Imagined Oriental: In Said’s book Orientalism , he thinks the idea of Oriental has totally been constructed in the eyes view of the Western culture. In another book Culture and Imperialism also by Said, he argues that imperialism is not the mere political domination and economic exploitation of foreign territories; imperialism is also a kind of cultural colony. Furthermore, in Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities , he thinks a nation is defined by an imagined community, which is mostly constructed around religious ideologies and linked by the publication of books on those religious concepts, and the members of which are aware of each other's existence. If we testify these theories in the Hero phenomenon, maybe we can understand why this film can get so different assessments from the Western and the Eastern. Like rock’n’roll music, film was originally invented by the Western culture, and with other cultural products, film has been brought into Asian inevitably. So it’s a kind of cultural colony, though there still are numerous independent spirits inside some brilliant Asian movies, it’s undeniable that the Western culture still has the huge influences on Asian movies, especially when we talk about the capitalism monster, Hollywood. In addition, is the real Orient the same as the Orient which is imagined by the Western folks? When the Western audiences enjoy this film, to what extent they just appreciate the ambitious exotic atmosphere and the artificial computer-making martial arts that are never happening in their culture before, cause it completely violates the gravity, it won’t be admitted in the Western world, which is ruled by science and verity. Conclusion: Undoubtedly, with the spectacular martial arts scenes and magnificent natural spectacles in Mainland China, Hero reaches a superb visual achievement. It’s absolutely a delightful joy to enjoy the process of seeing this movie. But in my point of view, I think why filmmaking is a kind of arts is because it can always delve the inside world that is baffled by the superficial objects. A great movie must possess both arts achievements and humanistic concerns. I can recognize the dazzling visual effects and the factitious color design; however, its shallow storyline, hollow motivations of the actors and unreasonable central thought are too vague to differentiate. In short, I just can not see the souls, from those heroes’ minds.

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