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Film on Ruthless Dynasty Delights China's Leaders

di Joseph Kahn
  Un'immagine del film
Data di pubblicazione su web 20/10/2004  
Shanghai, Jan. 1 - Qin Shihuang's fearsome exercise of power 2,200 years ago has been compared to the actions of Napoleon and Stalin, and his bloody legacy remains a raw wound in today's China.

The Qin emperor was a military adventurer who unified the country for the first time by subsuming six warring states and began to build the Great Wall. Ruthless, he imposed absolute order by executing those suspected of disloyalty. Modern artists approach the subject with caution, in part because Mao Zedong saw the founding emperor as an inspiration and the Communist Party still views the ancient leader as a pointed allegory. So when Zhang Yimou, China's best-known and arguably most talented director, chose the Qin court as the setting for his big-budget martial arts epic "Hero," expectations were high. The director of "Raise the Red Lantern" and "To Live," Mr. Zhang has often explored the emotional whiplash inflicted on common people by China's tumultuous history. He has also infuriated the Beijing government and found himself blacklisted, while delighting many critics.

But "Hero," despite its complicated subject, has delighted Beijing's mandarins, who are submitting it as China's nominee for best foreign film at the Academy Awards. And it has infuriated some Chinese critics, who have panned Mr. Zhang's plot for promoting a philosophy of servitude.

"'Hero' does not have the courage to present the massacres Qin Shihuang ordered in the name of peace under heaven," said Tou Jiangming, writing in The Sat-China Weekly. "The history so often questioned by modern thinkers is ignored by Zhang Yimou." Or as a critic using the pen name Bu Tong put it in The Beijing Youth Daily: "Zhang Yimou's movie has a deep servility inside. He tried to understand what the world looks like from the ruler's standpoint." This is a little like Fellini suddenly promoting Victorian values. Most of Mr. Zhang's earthy films view the world through the powerless, people stuck in anonymous villages who rely only on inner dignity and intense passions to guide them through a world that takes them for granted.

"Hero" is something new. Mr. Zhang, 51, set out to prove that he could make a Hollywood-style blockbuster that appealed to both Chinese and foreign audiences, while retaining his artistic touch. He may have succeeded. But he did something else new as well, whether because he needed government support to produce a film of unprecedented cost and scale for China or because he wanted the police to do more to help him fight rampant piracy: he made a movie that those in China's propaganda apparatus are thrilled to promote. After its premiere in mid-December in the Great Hall of the People, the deputy director of the state film bureau, Zhang Pimu (who is no relation to the director), called it "artistic, entertaining and thoughtful."

The $31 million production has an all-star cast of Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi. It has aerial martial arts choreography like that in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the runaway success directed by Ang Lee. Miramax backed "Hero" and will release it in the United States early in 2003. Like Mr. Zhang's early films, "Hero" is lyrical. From the lakes of Jiuzhaigou to the forests of Inner Mongolia, Mr. Zhang mixes spectacular natural scenery with his own cinematic vision, producing a colorful slide show of fine art.

The moment of truth in the story, written by Mr. Zhang and two others, comes when Jet Li, playing a nameless assassin, makes a gravity-defying assault on the king of Qin. (The king has not finished subsuming all rival states and creating the Qin empire.) The assassin decides, with a split second to spare, that his highest calling is to abandon his personal quest and let the king unify China. The written Chinese characters "Tian Xia," all under heaven, are the movie's coda.

The king of Qin appears as a misunderstood leader who dispatches his black-armored cavalry to slaughter his neighbors but suffers quiet agony at the pain he must inflict for the common good. Mr. Zhang's king even sheds a tear for his converted assassin when, with a flick of his wrist, the king orders his execution.

The historical Emperor Qin left little evidence of his compassion. He replaced feudalism with a merciless monarchy. He killed Confucian scholars and burned their books. The emperor's ruthlessness left him few admirers until Mao. "Please don't slander Emperor Qin Shihuang, sir," Mao wrote in a 1973 poem. The Communist leader praised the emperor for suppressing Confucian orthodoxy, which Mao despised for its intricate morals.

Today, Qin's rule is not a forbidden subject. But it remains sensitive, particularly after Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou's peer, covered the same historical ground as "Hero" in his 1998 film, "The Emperor and the Assassin." Mr. Chen portrayed the emperor as a Shakespearean tyrant whose brutality covers inner shame. The opening scene is of Qin soldiers exterminating a family. To disguise his bastard birth, the emperor does away with his father.

Though the censors allowed it, Mr. Chen was roundly criticized for neglecting the emperor's full record - his unification of the nation and the building of the Great Wall. Mr. Zhang has offered varying explanations as to why he took a more sympathetic view. In interviews surrounding the national release of the film, Mr. Zhang initially disavowed any ideology. "The only test of a film's success, especially a martial arts film, is whether it can keep the audience's attention for 90 minutes, not its metaphysics," he said.

But he also explained that he aimed to break the mold of martial arts movies. Too often, he said, they center on the hero avenging a master's death. He wanted his hero to have transcending values. "I wanted to write about people with warm blood," Mr. Zhang said. "People who have faith and ideals." So what are these ideals? Mr. Zhang quoted a well-known phrase attributed to a Song Dynasty official named Fan Zhongyan: "One should be the first to worry for the future of the state and the last to claim his share of happiness."

Mr. Zhang has not commented on the movie's metaphor for modern politics. But Tony Leung, the Hong Kong actor who plays a peace-loving warrior in the film, made the connection. In an interview with B International, a Hong Kong-based magazine, Mr. Leung said he applauded the message of "peace and human kindness" in "Hero," then reflected on the Beijing government's suppression of a democracy movement 13 years ago. "During the June 4 incident, I didn't join any demonstrations, because what the Chinese government did was right - to maintain stability, which was good for everybody," he was quoted as saying.

Mr. Leung later said that his comments had been taken out of context and that he was speaking from the perspective of his character in the film. "My interest is in making movies, not politics," he said. Mr. Zhang has never been a dissident. But until recently he seemed to enjoy flirting with the limits of China's artistic tolerance. "Red Sorghum," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Ju Dou" were all set in the pre-Communist era. They were all banned domestically after they were made, though all have since been released. Censors objected, most likely, because they portrayed China as violent, backward and capricious and suggested that the condition was not merely a byproduct of its pre-Communist politics.

In "To Live," Mr. Zhang extended the theme to Maoist China. The 1994 epic, which won the Cannes Palme d'Or award, is the tale of a couple tumbling through successive historical calamities of China's civil war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It has never been legally shown here.

But over the past eight years, as China's economy became more prosperous, Mr. Zhang's films became less provocative. In "Not One Less," which he directed in 1998, a young village schoolteacher goes to great lengths to retrieve a student who ventures into the big city to find work. The teacher's success depends on a soft-hearted official who runs a television station and takes a Rockwellian shine to the peasant girl. Recently Mr. Zhang has also accepted some official duties. He directed movies to promote China's bid to be host of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and its entry to stage the 2010 World Exposition in Shanghai.

He said in a recent newspaper interview that he no longer cares what the critics say because he gets attacked no matter what he does. "Only one film I've done in my life has not been attacked," he said of his promotional movie for the Olympics competition. "And that's only because Beijing won."

cast cast & credits

Hero l'ultimo film di Zhang Yimou in uscita negli USA: da "The New York Times" del 2 gennaio 2003 [prima pubblicazione su drammaturgia.it 6 gennaio 2003]

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