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Hero (plus Shaolin Master Killer, Mystery of Chess Boxing, and Once Upon a Time in China)
Artist: Zhang Yimou
Produced By: Beijing New Picture Film Company/Elite Group Enterprises/ Miramax Films
Length: 96 minutes

A Shaolin Good Time

"It's pulp material treated as art, and I think that's a bit of a fraud. I like my pulp material treated more like pulp."
Pauline Kael, commenting on The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 
My workplace is nothing if not a melting pot of cinematic tastes: one close friend and colleague foisted on me her list of favorite teen comedy/romance films, another moved here from Delhi and hooked me incurably on Bollywood’s vast output, and a third practices Shaolin Kung Fu in his spare time so guess to what genre he takes a shine, and insists I add to my repertoire?
Relegated to a critical limbo somewhere between cult, foreign, and action titles, Kung Fu films lack anything resembling a respectable reputation stateside largely because they remain under-explored both as a pop culture phenomenon and are unchampioned as a source of aesthetic excellence by most of the intelligentsia. For lack of being taken seriously and in the face of an interminable stream of virtually indistinguishable product, the genre remains filed firmly under guilty pleasure, and mainstream domestic hits like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are written off as aberrations, exceptions to what must be a reigning rule of mediocrity among that school of filmmaking.
New York University’s film studies program issues to its students a list of a few hundred films their faculty consider essential to a proper historical background, including ten each from genres like musical, western, war, horror, historical, and film noir. Nowhere to be found is Kung Fu, and this absence of an established canon leaves connoisseurs like my associate Josh Hoodin few options when seeking out quality additions to their media library. As he explains,
“There are almost no reviews of Kung Fu movies out there [in English] and those that do exist are on-line reviews written by people who have watched fewer Kung Fu movies than I have (like three) and are blown away by movies like Fists and Guts_ which is substandard--the [local] critic is just responding to how different Kung Fu movies are from your regular action pic and really can’t present an informed opinion about the particular movie because most Kung Fu movies are made in Hong Kong or China and often don’t make it to the big screen over here, no one reviews or markets them here. The only way to find out if a movie is good is through word of mouth. 
It is a safe bet most fans of serious cinema have avoided the genre; partly because they simply don’t know where to start and no one has ever assured them that gems are to be found among the glut of fair-to-middling productions. We have individuals of great cinematic fortitude like Hoodin to thank for taking the plunge and over many years amassing a formidable collection of Kung Fu movies, the best of which he recently shared with me to familiarize me with the genres aesthetic benchmarks. (He also lent me four that he considered the worst ever made for contrast’s sake; consider yourself lucky this piece won’t go anywhere near those.)
But first, some words on Shaolin Kung Fu itself. The term Kung Fu refers to any traditional martial art from China. Our immediate mass-media associations, with varying degrees of accuracy, might include David Carradine’s Caine, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Steven Seagal (actually trained in the Japanese arts of aikido, karate, judo, and kendo), Jean-Claude Van Damme (karate), Chuck Norris (karate), Sammo Hung on TVs Martial Law, hip-hop’s Wu-Tang Clan, and (lately) the new wave of invisible-wire Hollywood combat choreography as seen in The Matrix series, and both volumes of Kill Bill, which blended Kung Fu with Japanese samurai swordplay. The average Chinese citizen, meanwhile, better understands Shaolin Kung Fu as their own Buddhist variant developed a millennium and a half ago originally to aid ones religious pursuits. Another well-known school of martial arts, Ninjitsu, is also Buddhist, but Japanese in origin.
The term Shaolin is Mandarin for young forest, referring to the surroundings at the Buddhist monastery where the Indian Buddhist Tamo first developed the moving exercises designed to build strength so practitioners would have enough stamina to meditate at length in the sixth century that would later be codified into a system of self-defense against the occasional bandits and wild animals that might besiege them. Around a thousand individual styles of Shaolin Kung Fu have developed since then, some of whose names are sufficiently evocative: Long Fist, Tiger, Crane, Mind-Form Boxing, Leopard, Dragon, Snake, Monkey, Tai Chi Mantis, Splashing Palms, Eight Diagram, Eagle Claw, Drunken Boxing, and Buddha Fist. Why so many animal designations? The original sets of movements, adapted from Indian yoga, were based on the movements of the 18 main animals in Indo-Chinese iconography, according to one source. Some family styles are a mishmash of several styles, and other practitioners will use more than one style at a time.
It may be all the butt-kicking that draws enthusiasts to these films, but were they to enroll in Shaolin Kung Fu training, they might be disappointed to discover that all these moves are but an aspect of a sect’s spiritual discipline, not a means toward a combative end. A proper Buddhist does not deliberately seek to harm an opponent, but instead redirects the unwanted violence back to its initiator. As Hoodin explains, one would only apply these skills in a fight to defend oneself:
“[Shaolin monks] don’t go around beating people up--generally monks are pacifists. They cannot even eat meat because any killing is strictly forbidden. The debate of when violence is necessary is an old one in Buddhism. There have been fighting monks for at least 1500 years. For the most part it is okay (but still distasteful) only if you are protecting the weak.”
Ideally, neutralizing a threat via Shaolin Kung Fu should be efficient, decisive, and not excessive in force; the audience of a Kung Fu film may experience vicarious feelings of superiority when the hero humbles their nemesis, but a true Shaolin practitioner would derive no pleasure from victory. Shi Yang Ming, the 34th generation Shaolin Master at the USA Shaolin Temple in New York and a preeminent authority on the subject, himself insisted in an interview appended to the video of 1978s __Shaolin Master Killer__ that Kung Fu is not about fighting. It is about respect and understanding.
So why would an entire genre be based on violence, if in the Shaolin martial arts a good portion of its characters practices were created within a worldview that eschews fighting? Its safe to assume that movie producers simply appropriated this martial art (long admired both for its theatricality and its redoubtability and not exactly the legally-regulated domain of intellectual property) for their purposes. The nexus where Shaolin and the movie industry cross has been an uneasy combination at times. Whereas Shi Yang Ming says he appreciates the films for providing a degree of exposure for his sect, there are others who disparage them as exploitation, or feel Shaolin techniques are not meant to be disseminated on the screen. For better or for worse, violence has been a staple of narrative storytelling throughout history, and in a medium that deals in visual spectacle, a trajectory toward physical conflict was often guaranteed especially when, as Hoodin explains, Kung Fu films quickly developed their own set of formulae:
“There are only a few possible plots for a Kung Fu movie: 1. Some young man’s family was killed by bandits and/or a corrupt official and then he finds a fair-but-tough Kung Fu master, becomes a master himself, and then kicks butt; 2. A young monk/priest from a Shaolin temple is chosen as a representative/champion and must complete some quest; 3. A hapless young man accidentally runs afoul of some criminals and he has to learn Kung Fu and kick their butts; 4. A man who is really good at Kung Fu finds corruption in his community, and kicks its butt.
Rather than accusing Kung Fu films of a foundation constructed around a juvenile thrill over fighting, its more accurate to pinpoint the appeal as one of empowerment. Movies insist that their heroes be capable, and apply themselves actively toward the solution of a problem. And in all the scenarios Hoodin describes above, the problem is often one of restoring or upholding ones honor, a concept with which almost anyone can identify. Such is the pretext often used when our Shaolin hero is beset by threats and challengers so that Kung Fus commercial assets can find cinematic expression in their visible demonstration as a movie. Showing Shaolin monks merely meditating wouldn’t exactly break box-office records.
Shaolin came to dominate martial arts films in Hong Kong - and not in Communist China, after the Cultural Revolution deemed Kung Fu merely a superstitious practice, and anything remotely religious was illegal - because of its historical reputation as the most effective of all forms; Hoodin even noted that a recent program on the Discovery Channel that ranked the ten most deadly martial arts Shaolin claimed the top spot. But it is what Hoodin calls its jewel that truly distinguishes the art from all others, known as Chi Gung:
Chi Gung is the practice of controlling ones internal energy. This can be used in martial application, called hard Chi Gung. Some of the more famous forms of hard Chi Gung are: Iron Body (making ones body invincible to attack), Iron Palm (sending energy out of from the palm with destructive results), and the death touch (sending ones own energy into the core of another, causing grave injury or death). Before Chi Gung (it was initially a closely-guarded secret within a few family styles) martial arts consisted of punching and kicking and the use of weapons. After Tamo passed on his teachings to the monks of Shaolin, and revealed the workings of Chi Gung, Chinese martial arts became more spiritually centered and more deadly.
While the seemingly bloodthirsty nature of Kung Fu films might give the wrong impression about Shaolin Buddhism, what they rarely misrepresent is Shaolin Kung Fu’s impressiveness; even the worst Kung Fu movies can balance out an inane plot with stunning combat choreography. It doesn’t help the genre’s cause that so many of its creations are excruciatingly bad. Hoodin is the first to admit that too many are predictable, nonsensical, and clearly working on the most threadbare of budgets but the genre’s very name clearly indicates what the films are really all about. An unflattering, though useful, analogy is pornographic filmmaking, where the plot serves simply as an excuse to get to the next action scene as quickly as possible; few pay attention to the putative storyline in porn, and in Kung Fu the narrative does its job as long as it expediently situates the characters in line for another fight.
Among the morass of derivative and laughable entries in Kung Fu’s lineage there are still plenty that qualify as solidly entertaining both by virtue of their quality scuffles and their engaging subject matter. While Bruce Lee’s films in the ‘seventies raised the bar with their star’s inimitable prowess and charisma, the melodramas in which he was encased proved wince-worthy at best. It wasn’t until later years that Kung Fu filmmakers seemingly believed that more overall quality might constitute a viable selling point. The late ‘seventies brought both Mystery of Chess Boxing, noteworthy as elder statesman Jack Long’s best showcase, and Shaolin Master Killer, which launched the career of the undeniably talented Gordon Liu. The early ‘nineties saw a quantum leap in Hong Kong filmmaking standards with the arrival of Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China, and soon U.S. audiences will be privy to not only one of the best Kung Fu films ever when 2002’s Hero hits domestic screens in August, but possibly one of the most breathtaking cinematic masterworks in any genre. While none of the first three can be described as perfect by any stretch, if they can be credited with paving the way for a twenty-first century golden age of Kung Fu films that cinephiles the world over can no longer ignore, then their existence is incontestably justified.
Another benefit of watching Kung Fu films for the Western viewer is how they often serve as inadvertent (if broad) primers on Chinese history. The events in Shaolin Master Killer (1978) are firmly embedded in Canton during the early Ching Dynasty (1644-1911) when lots of emperors were vying to rule China so there was lots of fighting, as Shi Yang Ming explains and therefore, according to Hoodin, a fertile field for screenplays. While a General Cheng is amassing troops in Taiwan to liberate the people from the Manchus, an underground network among local teachers and merchants prepare for the army’s arrival.
Among these covert rebels is the venerated philosophy teacher of teenager San Te (Gordon Liu, last seen before American audiences as Uma Thurman’s sadistic teacher in Kill Bill, Vol. 2), and his participation in the resistance inspires San Te and his friends to serve as messengers for the cause. One of them is caught by the minions of the local Manchu General Tien, however, and his standard punishment for sedition is wide-reaching: ones entire family, neighbors, friends, and colleagues are killed, including San Te’s own household, forcing him to flee to the countryside. “I should have learned Kung Fu instead of ethics,” he laments, “If only I could fight.”
Sympathetic peasants smuggle a badly wounded San Te inside a bag of produce to the local Shaolin Temple, whose residents jealously guard their Kung Fu techniques. He is nursed out of a coma after ten days, an impressive display of spirit and perseverance that reminds the abbot of the temple’s founder and eases San Te’s induction into Shaolin training. Soon enough he proves himself their brightest pupil ever, bouncing across floating logs after a night’s careful practice, carrying endless buckets of water uphill with his arms extended straight out, and developing wrist strength by striking a long pole against a gong one hand at a time. “I never would have suspected that the boy would develop so quickly,” mutters an astonished instructor, “He’s ambitious. He’s not like the others.”
Killer is tailor-made for anyone with even the smallest interest in studying Shaolin Kung Fu for the majority of the film is spent illustrating some of their more rigorous training methods. Hitting ones head against dangling sandbags, keeping ones head stationary between two burning incense sticks to improve eye reflexes, and fighting with all sorts of weapons is all sufficient to communicate just how demanding this martial art is. For San Te, however, his aptitude is so great that he is promoted through eight phases of training in five years; it isn’t until a sword-wielding senior monk challenges him to a head-to-head match that his actual limitations come to light, but he simply invents the Three Section Staff, avenges his previous defeat, and distinguishes himself as the temple’s superior student.
Seven years have passed since San Te entered the monastery and at last he reveals his true motivation: insisting that all people should be taught to defend themselves, he calls for spreading knowledge of Shaolin techniques among all oppressed Chinese. For such heretical suggestions he is cast out to wander the outside world as a beggar but it is suggested that many of his elders secretly agreed with San Te’s populist declamations and used the banishment as a guise for disseminating their teachings to the public.
San Te wastes no time amassing acolytes by demonstrating his skills on the Manchus abusing the commoners. (“You’re a monk you must show mercy,” pleads a humbled solider. “Even Buddha punished evil,” San Te replies, “And I’m just a junior monk!”) Working his way up the chain of authority all the way to General Tien himself, San Te applies just about every move we saw him learn during his first years at the temple, not least using his toughened skull as a battering ram. Although Shaolin Master Killer may not have the most pacifistic of titles, it is clear that only those who seek to abuse their authority risk a master killing at San Te’s hands, and once he establishes his own Shaolin academy for the public, we can assume that few Manchus will overstep their bounds.
If you can get past a scratchy print and dubbed dialogue, Killer offers no small number of delights, not least Liu’s highly photogenic cheekbones. The audio conceit whereby every blow sounds like a firecracker is a staple of the genre, and the effect is certainly more dynamic than real life. The various exercises San Te endures in the course of his training sure make going to the gym and lifting weights look feeble and shallow. Killer’s two most questionable elements are a scene where flour is used to separate General Tien from his underlings (I guess you have got to use whatever is handy.) and the notion that San Te could learn so much so quickly after beginning relatively late as a teenager, but Hoodin chooses to see him as a once-in-a-lifetime Shaolin Tiger Woods:
“Some Kung Fu masters say that is important to start as a child so that one can maintain flexibility. Others say that children should have limited or no training until they are 12 or 15 because of the stress it puts on the body (Western sports coaches say the same thing about weight training.). As far as the length of time it takes to train it is generally said that for a monk to be trained as a fighter in Kung Fu they must practice every day for 15 years. This being said it is possible, but not likely, that it could take seven.”
Mystery of Chess Boxing (also known as Ninja Checkmate --too many Kung Fu films are imported by different companies in multiple editions, each with a different title, needlessly complicating ones research) was made a year after Killer, but doesn’t necessarily represent a step forward in the genre. It is more a watershed entry for illustrating so cogently all that is both good and bad about the genre with both eye-popping acrobatic melees and some dubious narrative shortcomings. (And as the majority of martial arts demonstrated in this film is not Shaolin, Mystery serves as a noteworthy non-Shaolin generic exemplar.) Then there are the opening credits announcing star Jack Lung, when he’s more commonly known to English audiences as Jack Long; Hoodin explains that inconsistent Chinese transliteration is yet another pitfall when trying to develop ones Kung Fu film catalogue. Here Long reprises his acclaimed role as the Ghost Face Killer, a seemingly invincible warrior who has left a trail of carnage in many a Kung Fu film.
Long pops in and out of Mystery besetting a series of overmatched souls from out of nowhere, individuals who both recognize and fear him, who all fall prey to his signature move whereby he flips onto their shoulders and squeezes their head to death. While all the choreography is expertly executed, Kung Fu rarely needs stunt doubles for its stars, even for all the tumbling, perhaps the genre’s true mark of distinction. The patently fake white wigs for older characters are a comedic distraction and all too often scenes end with the shoddiest of transitions, even cutting the music off midstream.
While Long remains an ominous figure in the earlier reels on some sort of undefined quest with a clear list of targets, another character gradually comes to the fore as Mystery’s intended hero the young Lee Yi Min (also known in the West as Simon Lee, or James Lee--see how convoluted it gets?) claims his father among the Ghost Face Killer’s victims and vows to exact revenge. He is resilient but unrefined as a fighter, and enrolls in a Kung Fu academy to hone his skills so that he might one day contend with his arch-nemesis. Lacking scholastic seniority, he is consigned both to kitchen duty and as a servant to the more advanced pupils, an arrangement that elicits too many opportunities to reveal Kung Fu film’s propensity for the most asinine attempts at comedy. While Chinese audiences may call it slapstick, all the buffoonery (signposted even more explicitly for us by discordant flute, string, or xylophone musical cues) belongs to a long-past era of Hollywood mirth-making. To this day, humor remains Kung Fu’s Achilles heel, Jackie Chans meticulously-choreographed pratfalls excepted.
Similarly to Killer, the new student picks up Kung Fu skills with remarkable speed and even the mess detail only hones his abilities further, juggling all the bowls and lugging heavy cookery. His teacher misinterprets Lee’s association with the Ghost Face Killer, though, and expels him (only to himself fall prey to the Killer shortly thereafter), and the boy must find another Kung Fu expert under which to study. By chance he falls in with the local chess master (played by Long’s brother Mark, another lion among Kung Fu performers), who uses that ancient board game as a metaphor for martial arts: 
“The first virtue is to be calm. Calm must be the basis of Kung Fu. It is a mental discipline. And playing chess will teach you to achieve calmness of mind. I’ve never discovered a better way.”
(Hoodin finds little fault with this approach, as a fighter must suppress their adrenal response in combat; adrenaline can be a very bad thing in a fight, he explains, one loses depth perception and fine motor skills. This is why meditation is an essential component of training, it turns out.) And when Lee finally gets his first check mate a month later, the master declares him ready for the heavy stuff: At dawn, you start training.
The chess master also has a grown-up daughter (with sideburns and pigtails, a common style for the ladies in these films), but there is nothing approaching romance at any point in Mystery; just as Kung Fu films are never about the sets, or the costumes, or the dialogue, female characters are not introduced to become actively involved with the main male characters. At best they exist to provide a more sympathetic view of the hero (i.e., if she likes him, he can’t be all that bad), or in other cases, their death can catalyze the plot into more dramatic trajectories. This cinematic sexism isn’t necessarily unique to the Kung Fu genre, as any feminist film studies class will emphasize, but it would still be many years before the ladies would hold their own on the big screen as fighters.
About three-quarters into the tale the Chess King finally reveals to his protégé exactly why the Ghost Face Killer is on the rampage (this is a common strategy in Kung Fu films, where a much-delayed flashback reveals the interconnectedness of the main characters), and we learn that he had some legitimate revenging of his own to do; Mystery ends up an endless cycle of score evening between wronged parties, which certainly guarantees no shortage of fight scenes. “Now I will teach you properly,” promises the Chess King, for to counteract the Killers Five Element fighting style he must acquire a superior degree of tranquility: “Your style must combine toughness and gentleness­it is outwardly placid, but inwardly decisive.”
There is indeed a Five Elements style in Kung Fu, but Mystery takes dramatic liberties in its presentation. Throughout the Killers mission he confuses his opponents by alternating between the five elements, but according to Hoodin they would always be used together. The Killers ability to plunge his fist into someone’s chest is also an exaggeration of the already-fearsome Tiger Style. (These embellishments fit perfectly into Mystery’s fictional world, as the titular Chess Boxing that Lee learns is entirely made up as well.) All the acrobatics everyone has integrated into combat is additionally unlikely; whereas gymnastics and flexibility are often a standard component of Kung Fu training (to develop balance, control, and fearlessness), doing backflips to avoid a blow is pure theatrics.
By the end we get plenty of slow-mo crushing blows with accompanying echoes to underscore their power, supreme displays of balance, and never any heavy breathing when they speak during battle. Like Killer, Lee is allocated scenes to demonstrate how he is applying each and every individual movement he has learned, and all this time the Chess King’s daughter just stands at the sideline and feels sympathy pains. But when the King and the Killer trade blows, white hair flying, it becomes apparent that in no other genre can two older men plausibly go at it employing physical might; since Kung Fu is one of the few physical pursuits where one can improve with age, Chinese actors will never have to worry about age discrimination. Whoever is in charge of Mystery’s editing probably should’ve retired long before, though, as the screen goes black the instant the Killer is defeated but the music track continues. As usual, there is little pretense that the action serves the story, rather than the converse; were the fighting less than stellar, hundreds of films such as this would have no raison detre whatsoever.
Kung Fu films came of age in the ‘nineties as a resurgent Hong Kong industry (thanks in part to the immense popularity of Jackie Chan in the ‘eighties) increased their budgets, improved their film stocks, and kept one eye on Western markets for their films theatrical runs. This resulted in tighter scripts and crisper visuals, and the martial arts choreographers made giant strides in the use of an element that has since become standard practice: wire work, which allowed characters to leap incredible distances like superheroes. The Kung Fu scene was also blessed with the ascending star of Jet Li, an immensely gifted national martial arts champion whose Asian-produced films far outshine the mediocrities into which Hollywood tries to shoehorn him. Chief among his big-screen successes is 1991s Once Upon a Time in China, Hong Kong’s storied contribution to the multi-national legacy of Once Upon a Time in-titled films that typically guarantees an epic production.
And again the tale is situated within a distinct historical era, and not an uncontroversial one, during the waning years of the Manchus when China was essentially overrun by foreign governmental and business interests. Throughout the nineteenth century, according to one source,
“The British had turned the Imperial family into an impotent puppet regime largely through the import and sales of opium, and drugs devastated the poor population. This led to the incursion of other European powers, including Russia, France and Holland, and later the Japanese and Americans. China was effectively divided into national zones (similar to post World War II Berlin, but on a huge scale).”
China also takes on an actual historical figure for its lead, the legendary folk hero Wong Fei Hung, a Kung Fu master who served as martial arts instructor both to the Cantonese army and for civilian militias, and whose rising political fortunes included assisting the provincial governor and several generals. This blending of contemporaneous historical elements contributes to a retrofitted portrait of burgeoning nationalist sentiment that holds particular significance for modern Chinese audiences, while Western viewers will discover a noticeably raised level of martial arts razzle-dazzle.
Though China is noteworthy for taking pains to recreate a divisive epoch, it does lay on pretty thick the portrayal of the West as bent on exploitation of Chinese resources. An introductory narration calls attention to this encroaching plague that says, “Our land, our people, and the locals speak of the unequal treaties that give the Russians, British, French, and Portuguese too great a license with their treatment of the natives. Then there are all the Chinese who too eagerly adapt to European ways, part of a Westernization movement that denigrates a more traditional way of life.” China takes sides unambiguously, with visual commentaries like a Daguerreotype flashbulb that incinerates a caged bird, Western table settings that appear faintly insidious in their unnatural whiteness, and French soldiers who shoot first and ask questions later. The films not-so-subtle message is that anything not purely Chinese is bad for the nation, and soon enough the good guys and bad guys will identify themselves along similar lines.
While Fei Hung complains that the foreigners draw up boundaries to suit their interests, set up forbidden areas where even Chinese citizens cannot travel, and sees how the governments catchphrase its better to keep the peace actually means deferring to foreigners demands, his Aunt 13 (Relatives are traditionally ranked by age, and identified by their place in this lineage, so she is Fei Hung’s thirteenth-oldest aunt) argues that China will change with the world, and they must bow to the West’s technological superiority: “They invented the steam engine, and many other things if we don’t learn, we’ll get left behind.” Meanwhile, Britishers freely call Fei Hung “Chinese Devil” and openly confess their exploitative intentions: “If China had no forbidden areas, we’d be unsafe...we’re doing business with you. If we don’t use our heads, how are we going to make big money?”
American viewers may find it strange to be associated so explicitly with a movie’s villains for a change, but as Hoodin explains, China has plenty of legitimate historical gripes to work through:
“There are many Kung Fu films that express a resentment at the loss of their traditional culture and the way in which China was treated at the turn of the last century by the Western powers. Many Kung Fu movies have a nationalist bent to them. Often it manifests in the rebellion against the Ching, who were originally outside invaders, or the Japanese, who occupied Taiwan, and the Russians, who had been fighting over borders for centuries. A more recent trend (in the last twenty years) has been to reflect the injustices dispensed by the Americans and British. All of them reflect a bitterness toward the loss of Chinese culture.”
The first forty-five minutes are largely another steady stream of failed comedy featuring overweight, unlucky, ill-coordinated, and bucktoothed characters. (Just as Bollywood should stick to song-and-dance numbers, Kung Fu movies should really abstain from humor.) But the tone shifts dramatically at this point, where circumstances conspire against Fei Hung at every turn, and when his militias headquarters goes up in flames, it should surprise no one that his Aunt 13 grabs her camera (West) instead of his friend’s sacred fan (East), taking pictures of the conflagration rather than helping out. Seduced by the West’s promises of riches, City Hall’s willful negligence allows one of their country’s grandest traditions (Kung Fu) to risk extinction, and the suspension of due process edges society toward a return to Killers days where the populace cannot defend itself.
China’s central metaphors for cultural values are the Westerner’s ever-present guns. Jittery American soldiers fire at civilians at the slightest provocation, a foreign-sponsored assassination attempt on Fei Hung results in disaster, and his martial arts students bemoan that fists can’t fight guns. China has to change. Guns are a symbol of modernity, but they only cause trouble from one scene to the next, especially when a Chinese person tries to wield it. And any native Chinese who owns a gun is clearly identified as having sold out to the West, with bankrupt values and eyes only for money. Guns are used only in the service of the profit motive and can only corrupt their user, a reversal from most any Hollywood action movie in which the ends always justify the violently armed means.
Introduced halfway through the film as a counterpoint to Fei Hung’s resolutely traditional personage is Iron Vest Yim, a Chi Gung pugilist of seemingly superhuman strength, who dives into any fight with relish and without needing justification, leaves a trail of wanton destruction in his wake, and gladly accepts bribes to frame Fei Hung and start his own Kung Fu school. (It is when we first find him wailing on some anonymous foe that China dishes out the cheapest of special effects, where with each blow to the face he spits out water, suggesting great impact. This is also where every move gets its own whooshing sound, a common element from film to film regardless of decade.) It is when Yim’s involvement with the corrupt authorities is brought to light that Fei Hung finally lets loose--ninety-six minutes into the film--and the Kung Fu pyrotechnics that follow effectively put all of Chinas generic forefathers to shame.
Mid-air changes in direction, flabbergasting acrobatics, movements performed at blinding speed, the dodging of spears and arrows that don’t seem like tricks of depth perception, and fisticuffs delivered before falling objects have yet hit the ground, Jet Li’s non-stop prowess in the film’s final reels far exceeds anyone’s expectations, especially the sweetest of entrances where a mid-air Fei Hung lets fly a table ahead of him, then lands firmly upon it. (Yim’s distressed cronies don’t exactly do martial arts proud: Don’t worry! We have guns!) It’s all perfectly fantastical with invisible-wire-enhanced exaggerated jumps but absolutely fun to watch, a gravity-defying preposterousness we’ve come to accept in Kung Fu films in recent years. Only one scene threatens to disrupt Chinas persistent disavowal of firearms: finding himself in a seemingly-inextricable jam between enemies, Fei Hung himself grabs a nearby pistol out of desperation but it doesn’t work. The Fei Hung myth remains untainted by any actual discharge of bullets, but the intention was briefly there, complicating the notion that a faithful Chinese should only rely on martial arts. Maybe we are meant to understand that someone as purely Chinese as Fei Hung couldn’t even use guns if he tried?
In 1997 Hong Kong was re-assimilated into the Chinese Peoples Republic, and from a cinematic standpoint no pairing of industries may ever be more serendipitous, especially when Zhang Yimou helms a Kung Fu film. Zhang previously stunned filmgoers with such visually lush treasures as Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad, and Not One Less, and that he chose to set his sights on a production such as this can only ennoble a genre long considered not quite mature. To even discuss a Kung Fu film in terms of its director is a discursive shift, as any crypto-auteuresque approach all but implies an artistic agenda behind it. What Zhang has accomplished with Hero is so lyrical and utterly poetic that, for once, if the Kung Fu were removed, the remaining scenes would still be breathtaking, so vast is the films investment in its visuals.
Boasting a megawatt cast (some of whom actually have reputations for their acting skills) including Jet Li, In the Mood For Love’s Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, Crouching Tiger’s Zhang Ziyi, and Iron Monkey’s Donnie Yen, Hero chronicles a lengthy conversation in the Forbidden City between Li’s nameless warrior and the King of Qin thousands of years before the Ching Dynasty. Nameless was granted a royal audience on the basis of his reputation for having slain the Kings most feared enemies, Leung’s Broken Sword, Cheung’s Flying Snow, and Yen’s Long Sky, and the King wishes to hear how such a feat was accomplished. For ten years the trio had tried to assassinate him, at one point coming within inches of succeeding, and Nameless famously unique style of swordsmanship (in the opening scene he stops an entire army in its tracks with his staggeringly adept moves) clearly proved the better of all their skills.
Or did it? What follows are a series of flashbacks detailing Nameless’ encounters with the trio (plus Broken Sword’s young lover, Zhangs Moon), starting with an utterly mesmerizing duel with the drowsy-eyed Long Sky and his lightning-fast spear at a chess forum, and when Yimou has Nameless charge through raindrops so quickly that the drops are still hovering in the air, it is clear we’re being treated to a combat presentation unlike anything this side of the Matrix series. And Nameless’ exchange with Sword and Snow at a calligraphy school features a military assault where a swarm of arrows scream through the sky like mutant locusts, and the camera follows them along the whole arc a la Winged Migration. (To Hero’s credit, its impossible to tell if they are real or CGI but since this is the most expensive Chinese production in history, there may have been an impressive budget for arrows alone.)
Cheung is indisputably gorgeous, the music track is ravishing, and the script never trips up but the truth behind Nameless’ tales is questionable. Hero actually becomes Kung Fu’s Rashomon, as not one but multiple interpretations of what happened are offered up, and in each instance the characters and settings are clothed in a different color. From red to blue to white to green, each telling remains supremely gorgeous this film makes even the barren desert look magnificent. And all the while the camera floats and tilts, floats and tilts, with not one shot that doesn’t qualify as resplendent.
Hero’s ocular delights cannot be overstated. Every page of my notes is littered with WOW from top to bottom, from Moon and Snow’s clash amidst a hurricane of fallen leaves to the rows of candles before the King whose flames all lick towards him in unison, to everyone’s superhuman flights and thrusts, it is an unrivaled spectacle that effectively spoils us for anything future iterations of the genre may offer. The dramatic performances are of such caliber that you even feel the love when (in one scene) one character runs another through, and one swordfight takes place entirely on the surface of a lake, a vision of filmmaking that is nothing short of rapturous.
There’s as much duplicity as there are enthralling slo-mo shots with hair blowing in the wind, and the films title isn’t explained until the very last scene (maybe it is ironic, maybe not), an existential resolution no one expects after so much fighting, but one that probably befits a culture that has long concerned itself with philosophical explorations. But though the plot constantly revises itself, Yimou never forgets that film is a visual medium, and Hero stands at the apex of the art, as every individual shot could probably be framed and mounted. Tides of black-robed soldiers, rippling green curtains falling from above, an astonishing depth of field, the troops sculpted armor, cloud shots non pareil, its easy to enumerate Hero’s endless optical innovations without even touching upon the martial arts.
We’ve finally got a Kung Fu film that transcends its own genre to become the best of all possible worlds. As usual, we’ve got lots of death, but everyone dies so very beautifully, and if there is a more enthralling motion picture to come out in this or most any year, this writer hasn’t seen it. (Tell me I’m wrong after you see the shot from underneath of Li and Leung quietly trading blows while bouncing atop the water and the camera is at the bottom of the lake.) While Shi Yang Ming refuses to criticize even the worst Kung Fu production because he respects all the work they put into the film, but it is safe to say he would agree that over the years the genre has evolved far beyond what Hoodin calls, “All the low budget, unheard-of, no-brainer creations that helped paved the way for Hero onto the shortlist of the world’s best. I have attained a level of expertise in crappy movies that no one cares about,” Hoodin jokes, “But if the rest of us don’t start caring about this long-neglected pocket of cinematic riches the greater loss will be ours.”
J. Alan Speer   8/30/2004
30 August 2004


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