Starring Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung
Directed by Yimou Zhang
Opens Friday, August 27
No matter how far North American tastes have come since Quentin Tarantino brought Chinese martial-arts films into our popular consciousness making it a genre no longer unique to film geeks and critics and Ang Lee dazzled us with his visually stunning but thematically weak Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, we havent come far enough at least thats what movie companies would have us believe.
The fact that it has taken two years for Ying xiong (or Hero as it will be known in our theatres) to reach our shores, even after an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film, is testament to the fact that movie distribution companies see Chinese action as a hard sell even when the genre consistently goes beyond action into the realms of drama, romance and political commentary.
But perhaps that is precisely the problem with the martial-arts genre it is too smart for North American audiences to value. After all, how can we possibly appreciate what a beautiful movie like Ying xiong has to offer?
The action is some of the finest ever produced, shifting from fantastical swordfights on the surface of a lake, to simple duels in courtyards and desert plains. The three assassins Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and our Nameless Hero (Jet Li) move through the action like dancers performing a ballet. They bat raindrops out of the sky, deflect arrows with their clothing, cut through shields and swords, and deliver seemingly mortal injuries with enough precision to avoid fatality. Ying xiongs action couples the brute force of a Sherman tank with the measured cadences of a Keats poem. It is martial perfection.
And that perfection is mirrored in the world through which the combatants move. From deserts and gaming courtyards to mountain valleys and imperial palaces, every setting is as lonely as it is beautiful. It is a reflection of the four main characters isolation in a land rich with community. Moreover, their competing desires, their life outside society, and their constantly shifting tales are enforced by the vibrant colours of their clothes: the purest white, the most pristine blue, the strongest green or the brightest vermilion. These colours are as unique as the characters abilities, but they signify so much more than mere individuality.
Ying xiongs director, Yimou Zhang, employs the colours to separate each telling of the tale. Nameless, the hero who defeated the three assassins, sits before the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) and relates his amazing victories, which have brought safety and peace of mind to the beleaguered tyrant. But, once Nameless completes his tales, it is the kings turn. Qin finds holes in Namelesss stories, and he corrects the tales, forcing Nameless to come clean with another version the final truth of Ying xiong. Each telling of the story incorporates the aforementioned colours, which manifest the emotion of the tale being told. It is this extra touch this masterful flourish that makes Zhangs film a piece of art. Ying xiong is a cinematic creation to be cherished by anyone who loves beauty.
Yet, with all these elements present to recommend it, there is still more brilliance in Ying xiong its ethics. For all the individuals who move through pre-unified China, for all the lonely assassins lining up to take out the future Emperor Qin, for all the singular heroics and forced isolation, Ying xiong is a meditation on the good of the group over the individual. In fact, that is precisely what makes an individual man or woman a hero their sacrifice for the group. It is John Ralston Sauls undermining of "self-interest;" it is Christs sacrifice on the cross; it is the communist ideal played out onscreen. And Ying xiongs ultimate conclusion is a reminder that all great empires must eventually lay down their arms and employ peace to maintain peace even if that means a sacrifice of individuals.
It is the final element in a work of unparalleled cinematic art.
But who would want to watch a film that accomplishes so much?
Maybe we here in North America really are too stupid to appreciate the finer points of Chinese martial-arts films because none of us could possibly appreciate the great art, could we? No, wed rather have idiotic stories like Alien vs. Predator, glossy action like The Bourne Supremacy, trite horror like The Village or mindless drivel like Without a Paddle.
Or maybe, just maybe, we are smart enough to appreciate the finer things in cinema. Maybe its just that the movie companies underestimate our ability and taste. Maybe if we were given a chance to appreciate greatness we could engage with it and demand more.
Isnt it pretty to think so?