After 20 years of chilly, remote loveliness, filmmaker Zhang Yimou finally made my heart sob. Twice. I’m glad I got the chance to see both of the following movies on the big screen. Initially, I planned to integrate my commentary on Hero and House of Flying Daggers into a single essay, but they’re light years apart in subject, even if they’re united by overwhelming lushness and the ferocity of actress Zhang Ziyi. So, I’ve decided to let these stand on their own, not as parts of a whole. I think their director intended things that way. In any case, Zhang Yimou had the best 2004 of any filmmaker, Chinese or otherwise.
Hero’s high-wire action sequences are choreographed like ballet duets and solos, and are staged on gorgeous backdrops—a still pond limned by trees; sand dunes that seem painted by Gauguin; a blood-red university cut through by jet-black arrows—that resonate as powerfully as impressionist paintings. Indeed, the movie feels stagebound, for all its ornate, purely cinematic beauty. The scenes, which get re-examined and recast in different color schemes throughout the movie, feel like tableaus and vignettes delicately composed for their theatricality.
At first, you gasp at the richness of Zhang Yimou’s vision. But, then, you always do this at Zhang’s movies—they’re nothing if not stately and lovely. Each of his movies has a buried political subtext, usually a critique of the rigid conformity and conservatism of his native China, and Hero’s no different. For starters, who exactly does Zhang want us to consider the movie’s hero? Is it Jet Li, who has traveled a great distance just for a one-shot chance to advise a weary, autocratic emperor? Or is it the emperor himself, whose totalitarianism is masking a good-hearted attempt to unite the warring factions of China? Or is it one of his beautiful would-be assassins—Maggie Cheung, Donnie Wu, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi—who want to kill the emperor because he’s intent on destroying the idea of individuality and rare beauty in China? By the end of this ambitious, ambiguous movie, every character seems at least partially justified in their actions. As a character in The Rules of the Game says, “everyone has their reasons.”
Most of the movie’s protagonists, however, are dead by the end, mostly by suicide of one sort or another, and we’re left wondering whether any of their self-sacrifices have actually bettered the country they all love deeply. Normally, Zhang frames his interrogations like lush paintings—they’re beautiful, sure, but distancing. No matter the subject, we’re always aware that we’re set apart from the action and the protagonists, that we’re not inside it but looking at it from afar. We never really see how politics and culture affect the protagonists emotionally.
Hero, however, gets intimate and visceral. The swords cut deeper than skin. Behind the sweeping fights is crushing tragedy. Maggie Cheung’s sobs and tears can drown you. Zhang extracts great performances from each actor. Each one expresses anguish and regret in different ways—Jet Li is so taciturn that we fear what will happen if he unleashes his emotions; Tony Leung loves his land (“Our land,” he calls it) so much that it pains him when a single tear disrupts its surfaces; Zhang Ziyi’s adolescent rage is so fiery that the leaves around her change from yellow to red. Maggie Cheung, always terrific and always luminescent, is so controlled that her tear-filled breakdown makes you swallow hard.
Better yet, Zhang Yimou seems to finally let his camera mirror the wild emotions of his protagonists. Freed from the social realism of his previous films by this epic romance, he is rejuvenated—he changes color schemes at will, often within the same scene; he allows for swooping sound effects; there are more close-ups in Hero than in any of his past three movies combined. The landscape erupts with fury when his characters do.
And I think Hero, for all its statuesque beauty, is ultimately a furious film. If the emperor’s union of China (“our land” in Chinese) causes such tragedy, then the union isn’t worth the effort. The movie’s final two images show 1) the emperor’s empty throne and 2) a wall shot through with arrows, except for a gap where the emperor’s savior once stood. The emperor, who has failed himself by killing this man, has proved himself to be empty. But, if so, the hero’s death is worthless as well—after all, the emperor didn’t learn a thing.
Zhang Yimou won’t let us know who did the wrong thing, but nobody’s quite done right by China. It’s rueful, an overwhelming film (finally) after two decades of Zhang’s emotionless prettiness.
House of Flying Daggers (2004). Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau.
Every sound resonates in House of Flying Daggers—grass shuffling beneath feet; a single bean’s slap against a drum; the ping of a sword thwacking against tree bark; a hand slipping into a cool stream. Everything we hear is amplified but also clarified, so that our ears can isolate the tearing of a single strip of bamboo, even amidst a crowd of soldiers fighting and grunting.
The sound design isn’t an idle trick, but rather Zhang Yimou showing us how to “see” as a blind person does. His protagonist (the brittle but resilient Zhang Ziyi) is a blind assassin, trained to distinguish between sounds as readily as sighted people can with vivid colors. And HOFD is colorful, so color-drenched that even its quietest scenes verge on psychedelia. Zhang heightens our visual sense so that we understand better how Zhang Ziyi’s aural sense is deepened.
The movie doesn’t veer into camp because Yimou exhibits control over the film’s pacing. He’s always been a master of tempo and color, and here he blends the two. Scenes that are exuberant and bewildering in their array of colors—a fight amidst wildflowers, a dance in a brothel—are immediately followed by ones that are monochromatic—a fight in white snow that completely covers the landscape; a terrifying retreat in a green bamboo forest. Moments of desperate longing are held for agonizingly long periods of time, only to be burst by the quick puncture of a dagger.
But even moments of grand passion are muted and achingly unfulfilled. We never see the climactic battle between the corrupt government and the rebel House. We assume that the two male stars die at the end, but we don’t see it, and it ultimately doesn’t matter. Coitus interruptus, literal and cinematic, is a recurring theme. Despite the political intrigue, HOFD is, in the end, all about desire. Longing thwarts, confuses, and deepens every major character’s life, and its effects cut across political and moral divides, and even common sense.
For a study in reason being shredded by desire, you probably can’t do better than by watching Zhang Ziyi in this movie. She brings intense concentration to her every moment, even though she never looks directly in a man’s face. Rather, playing a blind assassin, she focuses on where his voice has traveled. Although she moves like a ballet dancer while fighting, her regular steps are furtive, clutching, and uncertain. Emotions so courses through her that we’re unable to imagine that she can hide a feeling. When she turns on a dime midway through the movie and lets us know how much she’s been hiding from us, I actually gasped.
Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, the two men who vie for our love, are equally amazing. They shift allegiances so subtly that we hardly notice that, by the end, they’ve practically reversed political and emotional positions. Kaneshiro, a cop who plans to seduce and trick Ziyi, smolders and swoons as he discovers that he’s the duped one.
Yimou has shown plenty of style in his previous, more naturalistic works of social realism. His early work is formally breathtaking, but has always left me cold. (I remember muttering during The Story of Qiu Ju, “I’m impressed, but why don’t I like this more?”) Equipped with epic materials, the bold use of color and sound as pure metaphor, and grandly choreographed fight sequences, he’s ironically tapped into his emotions. He finally dares to soak his camera in melancholy love and risky flights of passion. House of Flying Daggers is lovely and in love with its characters, but—for all its broad strokes and colorful gestures—it’s subtler and deeper than anything Yimou has done before.