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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2003
Heros at large
The all-Asian blockbuster has seemed much like the fabled city of Shangri-la, always just over one more mountain. But between the massive spectacle of "Ran," the grandiose sets of "The Last Emperor," the critical acclaim for "Farewell, My Concubine," and the (belated) cultural cool of Hong Kong action (via Tarantino and the Wachowski Bros.), the idea of hitting it big with an Asian popcorn flick that could rival anything out of Hollywood has seemed tantalizingly close.
Few have held that dream closer than producer Bill Kong ("The Blue Kite"), who was the mover responsible for bringing together all the elements necessary for Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to happen. When that film took off to great reviews and a fat take at the box office in 2000, it was clear that a new era had begun for Asian cinema: "Crouching Tiger" proved that a film made with exclusively Asian talent and tropes could play internationally.
Ang Lee, a Taiwanese director who'd been working as a kind of auteur-for-hire on the U.S. indie circuit for several years ("The Wedding Banquet," "The Ice Storm," "Sense and Sensibility"), suddenly found himself poised to become the next Kurosawa, but -- sad to say -- he blew it off to "go Hollywood" and make the most regressive career move possible, a comic-book flick. Not only that, but one of the most stupid superhero goombas out there, Marvel Comics' wet-dream for steroid abusers, The Incredible Hulk. (More on that later.)
So Bill Kong decided to turn elsewhere, and had a talk with director Zhang Yimou, who was still happily making films in China some 20-odd years into his career. After the flop of 1996's dreary "Shanghai Rouge," Zhang had retreated into smaller, albeit deeply moving, personal dramas -- films like "The Road Home" and "Happy Times" -- but he had this script for an epic saga of mythical swordsmen set during China's Warring States era circa 220 B.C. (Ironically enough, set at almost the exact same moment in time as Chen Kai-ge's mega-flop, "The Emperor and The Assassin.") Kong smiled and asked "What do you need?", then proceeded to pick up his phone and make it happen.
The result is "Hero," a film that many "Crouching Tiger" fans are saying is even better. That's arguable, but what's beyond question is that Zhang has made a strikingly original film, an art-action hybrid almost without precedent; only "The Ashes Of Time," also shot by "Hero" cinematographer Christopher Doyle, springs to mind.
Jet Li, the martial arts wizard best known for "Once Upon a Time in China," plays Nameless, a mysterious swordsman who is received at the court of the king of Qin (Chen Dao Ming), a ruthless warmonger bent on subjugating his neighbors. Nameless has reputedly slain several deadly assassins who were seeking revenge on the king -- Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung -- see interview page 10) and Sky (Donnie Yen) -- and in honor, he is granted a personal audience, 30-steps removed, with the security-conscious despot. Each assassin's sword he presents allows him to advance that much closer to the tyrant . . . but as the king hears the stories of how Nameless defeated his enemies, he has his doubts.
Zhang (and cinematographer Doyle) went with an extreme design decision, to shoot each of Nameless's tales -- shown in flashback -- with the emphasis on a single, bold color. There's a uniformly blazing red to the scene where a shodo (calligraphy) school is besieged under a flurry of arrows; Nameless and Broken Sword have a watery duel in a blue-tinged valley lake; and Flying Snow and Moon (Zhang Zi-yi), Broken Sword's lover, have an otherworldly, swirling face-off amid a flurry of yellow leaves. Every detail in these scenes, from costumes to lighting to makeup even, contributes to this overwhelming, ocean-of-color effect. Half the point is to delineate the differing "versions" of Nameless' tale -- which unfold in "Rashomon"-like layers -- but Zhang also aims for a surreal, dreamlike quality.
The action sequences -- as choreographed by martial-arts director Tony Ching, of "Shaolin Soccer" and the classic "Swordsman" -- are so fluid and supple, contrasting natural stillness like drops of fallen rain on a stone courtyard with bursts of hyperspeed frenzy, that you almost forget you're watching combat, until a final slash draws blood. Fans of "The Matrix" 's surreal, impossible combat will find much to love here -- dig the swords cutting through slow-motion water droplets -- but fans of more brutal carnage may leave disappointed.
Which may be Zhang's point: His film doesn't ignore the pain and loss of death, and sets up an ending that makes the viewer question whether violence can ever be a solution. It's a bold move for an action movie to take, but one in keeping with the humanism Zhang has expressed since "Red Sorghum." His point is undercut by history, though, which is the film's one weakness: The king of Qin didn't learn any moral lessons and did go on to ruthlessly conquer all of China.
Ang Lee also claims to be attempting to mix art and action with "The Hulk," a project which he says attracted him due to its "psychological depth." (No smirking, please.) But trying to achieve this within the parameters of a superhero flick is like trying to draw a Rembrandt with crayons.
Many directors -- and critics, too -- continue to labor under this illusion that having superheroes who cry, or can't get laid, or have gas, or some other sort of normal human experience represents some kind of pinnacle of literary profundity. Lee is so convinced of this he angles the Oedipus myth, "Frankenstein," and Freud into his flick, spending a dreary, angsty 45 minutes merely establishing how tormented his characters are. But when his hero morphs into a giant green monster, engorging in size so much that all his clothes burst off in shreds except for some miraculously elastic purple shorts, it's pretty hard to take seriously.
If anything, the Hulk -- which only emerges when mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) gets angry -- is meant to be a representation of the unfettered id . . . or perhaps a walking, talking erection metaphor. This is the classic Jekyll & Hyde story, but told in such garish, ludicrous terms that it fails to have any impact.
Lee takes an interesting approach in trying to mimic the panel-based artform of comics by employing a bunch of cinematic tricks, including split-screens, fast wipes and, yes, even frames within the screen. But everything falls apart when the Hulk itself appears: the CG-generated creature (by Industrial Light and Magic) looks really silly and out-of-place; it looks weightless, its motion too fast for the physical bulk it's supposed to inhabit. As with the overweight Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now," Lee seems to be covering up the deficiencies of his "actor" by shrouding many of the scenes in dust and smoke, or cutting so fast we don't get a chance to really see what's going on. Still, when The Hulk is attacked by -- get this -- a genetically-modified, rabid hippo-size mutant "poodle," there's no disguising how lame it looks, like a second-rate muppet from Hell.
"Emotional damage can trigger physical responses," says one character in the film, attempting to explain Dr. Banner's Hulkification. Well, guess what, mental damage can, too, namely the physical response of lifting butt from seat and heading for the exit. Yes, Zhang's "Hero" is just as fantastic and larger-than-life as anything Lee's "Hulk" drops on us, with its gravity-defying swordsmen, but -- crucially -- Zhang makes us buy the illusion, while Lee never does.
Besides, there's something very cool about the way in which Maggie Cheung fends off 1,000 arrows with the cyclone moves of her flowing red robe, and there is nothing very cool about watching a giant green baby built like Schwarzenegger skipping along the peaks of Monument Valley. And sometimes it's cool, not size, that matters.