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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.