Monday, September 06, 2004

THIS LAND IS MAO'S LAND

Undeniably lush and beautiful, the 2002 Chinese film/Miramax release Xing Xong/Hero is also the most stylish piece of insidious propaganda since Triumph of the Will. Like, Leni Reifenstahl's masterpiece, which was intended primarily to whip up the German people, I think Hero is much more aimed at propagandizing Chinese people than us Westerners. Chilling, that.

The overt message of Hero is that, sometimes, a leader has to kill millions of people to mold a nation into one cohesive body. The "heroic" action in the film, comes down to the king killing a good man, for a greater good. It's hugely telling that the Weinstein's at Miramax green-lit this project for theatrical release in the States. Did they do it as a warning to America about the marshalling of high-level, murderous propaganda by Red China? Or was it something else? Hmmmmmm.....

I have been amazed to see the positive treatment that the film is getting from some prominent Christian reviewers. My guess is, they are being so distracted by the lush visuals in this piece, that they 'can not see past the yellow/red forest for the themes.' But people need to look again. The message here is profoundly anti-Christian. It is a clear vindication of the excesses of Mao style totalitarianism, and an insidious resetting of this governing style into an archtypal Chinese myth about the Qin dynasty. The idea worth killing for in Hero is not justice, or truth, or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but "Our land."

This elevation of a material thing over a spiritual ideal, is absolutely Marxist, although not historically Chinese. Hopefully, seventy years of communism will prove to be a short unconvincing span in the minds and hearts of the Chinese people.

Hero is fascinating on every level but character and story, which highlights its first problem as a cinematic experience for American audiences. Its main appeal lies in its aspect as almost pure "cinema of attractions." Or, as my friend Sean put it, 'Lookee what we can do with fans and fabric!"

As with many of the Asian martial arts films, so much of the point here is to stage fight sequences in yet another more affecting way. To this extent, Hero looks a lot like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which also left most of us Westerners scratching our heads. Somebody here in Hollywood christened the project, "Slouching audience, Hidden Screenplay. Which monniker stuck.) Also, like CT,HD, this film ends with a ritualistic suicide that is played as morally self-sacrificing. I see problems ahead for East-West relations based on this completely divergent sensibility.

As beautiful as the cinematography and choreography are in Hero, the special effects are still not as smooth as in Hollywood films. The moments of characters flying in Peter Pan, for example, were executed with much more skill that the jerky artificial flying moments in this film. I also didn't think the fight sequences were as good as they should have been. One of the male leads, Jet Li, is supposed to be the greatest martial artist alive, but his talents are unexploited here.

The film was interesting to me as a filmmaker because it platforms stunning visuals, but not visual imagery, in the lyrical sense that highlights the greatest Western cinema. It reminded me of something my sister, Cynthia, said to me many years ago, which may or not be related, but which I kept thinking on while screening Hero. Cynthia spent several years researching the intellectual heritage of China. She came down to a shrug, finally, which she summarized as, "They have no systematic philosophy." In other words, dialogue between East and West will be very difficult to nearly impossible. (Incidentally, this has become my main struggle in my studies at Fuller Evangelical Seminary. The - mystifying to me - perception is that philosophy is somehow unBiblical...but that's a post for another day.)

I did think it was interesting how most of the emotion in Hero comes not from the political/patriotic struggle, as much as the very human, universal desire of one man to be united to one woman. I sat there marveling, the echos of the same-sex "marriage" debate going through my head. "No, we're not against sanctioning gay unions because we are Christians. It's a human thing."

There are many other differences between China and the West that are manifest in this project. Many values that are so divergent as to be mystifying: the significance of colors, the meaning of caligraphy, the sense of martial arts as "a dance with high stakes, the presence of "hoards" of faceless humans, the glorification of human pride, the parameters/role of the master-student relationship, etc.

I recommend this film as a unique platform to study these differences, as a warning about the new shape of Chinese propaganda, and also to just see the lovely colors and visuals here. For most non-filmmakers, the colors and choreography will get old after about an hour, however, and because of the flawed characterizations (from a Hollywood standpoint), there isn't any real suspense to hang in there for beyond the look of the thing.

So, it's not a pass. But I really don't like this film.

26 comments:

Joel said...

Yeah, I would agree that this film oozes nationalistic pride and I've read that 'Our Land' is more literally translated to be 'Everything under the sky' This film is extremely hard to understand from a Western viewpoint.

The king creates his own dichotomy... it is his personal vision to see China united, but he bows to the voice of the 'people', or at least a group of black-robed monotoned monks who have no individuality. That's the whole divergence this film reverberates with most strongly. The emphasis on the individual laying down his life for the whole. I will go ahead and say that the message of mercy at the end can be squeezed for all of its Christian moral worth, but it just doesn't jive with Western ideals very much to see a man go to such great lengths to kill a tyrant and then not go through with it.

I hear from many of my college-aged peers about how we ought not to impose our idea of happiness and right and wrong onto somebody else's culture. From a critical thinking standpoint, maybe not. Perhaps the Chinese are perfectly content with their government, and they don't need somebody else across the Pacific getting all flustered up because from where we sit, we see a mass-scale violation of human rights.

I hear from the anti-Bush league here on campus that America is being mighty presumptuous in its quest to bring 'liberty and freedom' to the world, to the Middle East. Abraham Lincoln said: "The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty."

I tend to agree with Mr. Lincoln. I believe that there is a right way to function as a society. America will go on being despised by the majority of the world whether or not we get our hands dirty... it's our lot.

I believe that Hero panders to the ideology of a regime... and succeeds quite well in doing so... but I do also believe that I detected a parting shot from Zhang Yimou. You'll remember that he has created art in the medium of film before that was banned in China because of the anti-communist message that it containted (To Live [Huozhe])

Yimou effectively mourns the loss of these great heros... and we're left to believe that they died for a great cause. Okay, so they were strange people as heroes, in fact, they were ridiculously god-like. To me, the elegy of this film is that it day-dreams of a China that really never was, and of a China that is not today. The unified China that exists today is a steel and metal, megaplex of industry and Coke ads and industrial chic on the coastline, masquerading for a country.

regina doman said...

Ha! I like that last line, Joel.

Funny, I really liked the American *Hero* with Dustin Hoffman, sarcastic as it was. I also liked Slouching Audience... :)

Mike said...

I saw "Hero" on DVD borrowed from a Chinese friend here in Boston over a year ago. I understand that version is a half-hour longer. More important, the subtitles gave the "our land" translation as "All Under Heaven". The visuals are beautiful and I wished at the time I was seeing it on the silver screen. But when I heard that the mundane had crept into the translation, I lost my desire. Why do we Americans have to explain everything?

I don't know how a Chinese would understand the phrase. I do know that the three assassins greatly struggled with it in the film. Glorious propaganda? I have no doubt that Beijing sees it that way. I suspect the director was a bit more subtle. Is the way to change history to adopt the methods of the unifying ruler in "Hero"?

Then again, maybe he was just making another wuxia film. Peace.

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