October 6, 2008
The Word: the Sword and the World
“HERO” Part 2
There are movies which, like other artistic masterworks, never fail to overwhelm us and make us temporarily forget this world in order to rediscover it again and again shining with new rainbow. Every time we spend minutes watching these movies, they spread their forms and contents open and wide, offering a new set of glittering diamonds previously hidden within their overlooked foldings. Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) belongs to such cinematic masterworks. Its power will leave us almost speechless and we could only take deep breath—and got suspended—while savoring the succession of scenes presented like a string of bewitching visual art gems. Hero offers a stack of spectacular panoramic layers and dreamlike landscapes taken with wide angel shots, irresistibly seducing the spectator not to dissolve into the nature but to absorb the nature fusing into oneself.
Hero is a work of calligraphy where “profundity depends on perception.” It is also a tranquil transparent lake containing blue heaven whose mirror-like surface could be tapped by different palms and swords and echoing different tunes and messages.
Having had just finished watching Hero for the first time, I thought that the movie—with its multiple structure and multilayer poem; a work which by some was declared as to deconstruct myth, history and legend—had cowardly suspended its mission to dig thoroughly and uproot the archetypal meaning of hero laid deep down in Eastern psyche. I thought the movie had shamefully been stuck-up as an amusing propaganda for despotism and annexation, for legalism school of thought which champions the domination of the state over the people systematically weakened.
After the third watching, Hero strikingly and elegantly clarifies its method in cutting down the legalism philosophy. This movie is an invisible sword subtly pierced through the heart of legalistic thought, to the neck of the ultimate ruler whose whole limbs and trunk is protected with imperialistic and expansionistic metal armor; with a glaring warning that any state will never stands proud in course of time without heroic sacrifices of her nameless common people.
Hero is a eulogy for those who voluntarily choose to give their life for something bigger than their own selves, even bigger than their own birth lands and adopted countries.
Until an hour before the third watching, I still thought Hero as a movie beautifully weaved, neat and compact, yet with poor loose end and disappointing conclusion. Anyhow, Hero seems capable to invoke a turbulence of cognitive fight for long in the head of its spectators to negotiate it’s “unbearable” flaws.
The cognitive turbulence could last longer than the cognitive fight between Nameless and Long-Silver-Speared Sky in the ancient House of Go accompanied by threading drizzle and bewitching music with dominant grayish color of brain hemisphere as background.
The haunting problem of Hero lies on what could be called as “historical corruption” and “metaphysical abuse”. What I mean with “historical corruption” is the incomplete and corrupted representation of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, if we are to refer faithfully to the traditional history as written in the book of Shiji or “Record of the Grand Historian” by Sima Qian (ca. 145-85 BC) and supported by various convincing historical records and monuments.
The Qin Shi Huang which is put into existence in Hero is the Qin Shi Huang when he was still a young king named Ying Zheng—before he gave order to burn to ashes all of written literature and to bury alive many critical scholars; before he unleashed his imperial army to invade Japan in order—among others—to lay his hand on the mythical immortal medicine.
Meanwhile, Hero’s metaphysical abuse relates to the heart-breaking fatal fate of many lofty aspirations and noble philosophical ideals for which great warriors never hesitate to give their lives to. We remember how Homeless Broken Sword with sad smile on his pale face opens his hart to be pierced through by Floating Snow’s Bezoar Marble Sword; he wants to convince his misunderstanding spouse by giving his very life that beside the peace of “all under heaven” (Tian Xia) it’s only Floating Snow who dwells in and owns his very heart forever. We remember how Nameless lets his whole body to be nailed by the torrent piercing arrows—so dense they eclipse the sun and turn the sky dark—to support the young king Ying Zheng who iniatially so determined, later entrapped by his own determination and is forced by his ignorant yet dutiful court to establish new law and order across the whole united Tian Xia.
Hero’s problem strikingly stands out like sore thumb, pricking and provoking certain spectators to right the wrong, to tighten the loose end. Cunningly, the form and structure of the movie is apparently designed to drag the spectators to struggle imagining the “episode 2” which would complete the “episode 1”.
And, here below is the synopsis of Hero Part 2, one of its many possible versions, and the most probable among the rest.
Many years later, after successfully conquered all the six kingdoms, Ying Zheng who for years has been called Qin Shi Huang, was standing at the uppermost peaknof Mount Li. On the slope of the mountain, thousands of people were working to complete The City of Perpetual Peace, a magnificent mausoleum which later in the twilight of the 20th century was discovered as the 8th wonder of the world.
Hero Part 2 is opened with a scene of night sky adorned by millions of tiny twinkling stars. The camera moves closer toward a rotating grayish blue dot which is the Earth, and keeps moving closer to probe a line of edifice purportedly recognizable if were seen from the surface of the Moon: the Great Wall of China.
Off from the floor and the texture of the Great Wall which looks like a weave of huge dragon scales, the camera then moves away from the Wall following through the wide open meadows, surpassing the suburbs and the fantastic capital region, the piles of all written literature burnt to vestiges creating many huge lines of smokes, and finally stops at the great mausoleum guarded by a thousand of terracotta warriors.
The Book of Shiji records that in the mausoleum, a mechanical system and mercury liquid were employed to imitate the flow and the movement of hundred of rivers and oceans. The lower part of the mausoleum was built to represent the order of Earth, while the upper part the order of Heaven.
From the details of the rivers and the oceans, the camera moves upward to capture the details of the mausoleum’s ceiling presenting a constellation of immense shining diamonds: an image resembling to the night sky full of stars appears in the opening scene.
The following scene is the one captured by the camera that moves to the peak of the Mount Li encircled by thin cloud and empty horizon. Right over there, the First Emperor, in all-black imperial costume, the official color of Qin Empire, is standing observing all the land under the heaven as far as eyes can see.
That day he was waiting for the visit of the man who was more frightening than the whole army of the entire six kingdoms combined. The awaited pugilist, who is capable to take the life of his opponent without touching him from a hundred steps away, employing the invisible sword encased in his hart, is also the only living man in the entire empire who can fathom the aspiration dwells in the innermost heart of the Emperor.
All of the assassin-warriors in Hero part 1 are extraordinary fighters. If they have enough time to complete their martial art searching, they all will find the ultimate understanding in the Way of the Sword which would enable them to understand the loftiest aspiration nurtured in the heart of a great man. Homeless Broken Sword had exhibited his understanding of the imperative to abandon the enmity among the belligerent kingdoms and to work together to unify people all under heaven, before he accepted the heartbreaking accusation and the fatal sword stab from Floating Snow. The extraordinary couple finally died with unified body headed to “the home without sword”. Long-Silver-Speared Sky who was revealed as still alive after letting himself seen to be killed by Nameless, was a magnificent warrior who loves Go and Music; given enough time, he will also certainly find the ultimate understanding of the Way of Sword. Go is indisputably a mind game, while both of music and martial art, including swordplay, struggle to gain the highest level of the unification of body and mind, which is “emptiness,” right? But a sequel is surely more acceptable to the audience if the main protagonist is not replaced.
Therefore, at the first part of the movie, when the Emperor stands in a waiting, he recalls how the awaited warrior was evading his apparent death. The Emperor’s tears was dropped when his royal court stubbornly demanded him to give order to execute Nameless, the deceitful intruder, to set an example of how the new law made by the Emperor himself would be installed and obeyed through out the empire which was still in the making. But then the Emperor remembered how capable Nameless’ amazing swordplay in the Red Episode of Hero Part 1 was to fend off all of the extremely rapid striding cloud of the Qin’s arrows, a swordplay that had also inspired Homeless Broken Sword to complete the ordered calligraphy which must be inscribed in a style never before existed in the Middle Land, the twentieth style.
The Emperor also recalls the story of the old grand master, the head of the Zhou Calligraphy School, who devotedly wroting his calligraphy on the sand pool, and with dignity exhibiting to his students the essence and the soul of Zhou culture, under the fatal storming of the Qin’s innumerable arrows which however unable to touch even the shadow his long sleeves.
The screen is then filled with Nameless’ action in slow-motion. He stands gracefully fending off at the last moment the dark cloud of the piercing torrent arrows aimed at his whole body. Just like Homeless Broken Sword who years ago suddenly canceled his plan at the last second to take the life of The Emperor, Nameless also gained a sudden enlightenment when the first arrow almost touched his skin, and immediately he abandoned his sacrificial conscience to be an instant martyr.
Anyhow, Nameless let a couple of arrows pierce through his shoulder, waist, legs and some meridian points on his torso which would not cost him his life. It was the Emperor himself who later managed to have the porcupine-like wounded body to be laid down in the royal hall which gave Crescent Moon Saber, the faithful student of Homeless Broken Sword, a chance to sneak into the palace at night to steal the body and smuggle it out of the Great Wall.
Crescent Moon Saber spent some time to tend Nameless, and a strange love affair started to take form between them; between Crescent Moon Saber who was incapable to forget her admirable teacher—the most interesting character in Hero Part 1, and Nameless who started to love a human being instead of a metal blade of crotched sword.
Crescent Moon Saber perceives the figure resemble to her reverent teacher not in Nameless who seems to master a terrific swordplay, yet his intelligence and sensibility is apparently quite limited to her. She finds her teacher’s noble charm, if only a part, in Long-Silver-Speared Sky’s artistic temperament and in the Emperor’s grand vision. Crescent Moon Saber always remember, as narrated in the White Episode of Hero Part 1, how she had to kneel down and beg Nameless to employ all his cognitive power and conscience to unlock the meaning of the calligraphy inscribed by Homeless Broken Sword on the surface of the yellow desert: the Tian Xia characters which represent Homeless Broken Sword’s conviction and was also a farewell present given to Nameless who stubbornly keeps his pledge to assassinate the Emperor. The calligraphy was also a greeting gift from Homeless Broken Sword to the Emperor as a supplement to the lined scar he left on the Emperor’s neck with his broken sword.
The White Episode of Hero Part 1 is opened with a close-up of Homeless Broken Sword’s facial expression intensely reflects his wrath, irritation, amusement, and mainly his sadness which almost reach a level of desperation. He seems sorrowful seeing how resentment has been eating Floating Snow’s and Nameless’ harts away; he is sad remembering the countless fallen victims of the Emperor’s grand vision. He is distressed and simultaneously amused and touched perceiving Nameless unbendable determination and passionate innocence in the library hall. Homeless Broken Sword had tried to warn him while giving an extremely valuable teaching through the calligraphy which has word Jian (Sword) on it, but Nameless’ intelligence is apparently not sharp enough to pierce open the secret of the ultimate teaching offered through the beautifully written characters.
Nameless even heroically exhibits his stylish swordplay he thinks terrifying, which could only precisely pierce split open and ruin a moving white mowpit among the scattered fallen black mowpits, the writing pen made of bamboo usually employed by learned-people like Homeless Broken Sword to produce and nurture knowledge. No matter how terrifying and how precise Nameless’ swordplay, its level is still way below the level of being capable to kill with grass-blade or hair-thread from a hundred steps away, a frightening level which is anyhow still considered as the lowest achievement in the order of swordplay according to the Jian calligraphy made by Homeless Broken Sword.
Almost bored in his waiting, the Emperor then turns his eyes from the border line of heaven and Earth to a lump of rock upon which lied down four weapons: the cut off silver spear, the broken sword, the marble sword and the black crotched sword. All the weapons are previously belonged to the four most feared warrior-killers. The rock was stuck in a couple of steps away from the Emperor. The Emperor gracefully weaves his left sleeve, and all the weapons are slowly floating and gliding toward the Emperor and landed softly on his palm. With one squeeze, all of the magic weapons are terribly deformed. After smirking, barely visible on his lips, the Emperor rubs the weapons one by one and turns them back to their former shapes. The Emperor is a warrior himself and he only needs a time much less than the one spent to sip a cup of tea to dismantle the secret of the Jian calligraphy made by Homeless Broken Sword, a secret that had escaped Nameless although he had spent a couple of nights in his effort. Perhaps without the Emperor’s revealing, Nameless would be still ignorant for the rest of his life to the very secret of the calligraphy.
The Emperor then imagines what would happen if Long-Silver-Speared Sky and Nameless was engaged in a deadly fight without using any arm weapons. The screen is then filled with an amazing fight action between Nameless against the proud and brave pupils of Long-Silver-Speared Sky. After taking down all of the swarming apprentices, Nameless accepts Long-Silver-Speared Sky’s fatal blow and they engage in a terrifying bare hand fight.
The fighting actions shot from many different angels, just like all of the fighting scenes in Hero Part 1, present the farthest possibility of close-contact fighting imaginable by the action fighting director Ching Siu Tung, and Yuen Woo Ping who also takes part in the making of Hero Part 2.
The Emperor’s preoccupation is interrupted by a chaos suddenly explodes on the slope of the mountain. Thousand of soldiers are attacked and scattered in confusion by a black shadow which moves like a dark storm. Before they recovered, the storm leaves the beaten soldiers and flies up to the top of the mountain like a huge black eagle. Reaching the edge of the mountain peak the dark shadow shoots itself up vertically and then gives itself to the generous accepting power of gravity. And, as if hanging down from heaven, Nameless reveals himself. He moves in the air strangely with minimal elasticity, almost like a weightless wooden stature. Only his long white hair and all-white dress are waving by the wind.
After rotating in his own axis, Nameless slowly lands his feet on grass blades like a lump of thick fog in front of the Emperor. If in Hero Part 1 the warriors’ movement occasionally seem to defy the law of gravity, then in Hero Part 2 their movements seem to simultaneously defy the law of gravity and the principle of the human ergonomic natural movement.
The first question asked by the Emperor was why Nameless did not drag Long-Silver-Speared Sky along to storm the royal palace together. Their join force seems to be stronger than the combination of Homeless Broken Sword and Flying Snow that previously succeed to reach the very neck of the Emperor. After Homeless Broken Sword and Flying Snow’s storming, not much left for the Emperor and the imperial guard to do to protect the life of the supreme ruler of Qin kingdom. The meager options were to encase the emperor’s body within thick black armor, to put to death sentence to anyone attempting to come close to the emperor within a hundred paces, and to empty all of the imperial halls and rooms even from the string of the green clothes which could be used to hide by intruding assassins.
Armor, death sentence and emptied rooms in a heavily guarded palace by thousands of trained soldiers which had been easily scattered all over by the join forces of Homeless Broken Sword and Flying Snow are certainly useless for the unified power of Nameless and Long-Silver-Speared Sky if both decide to overtake the royal palace once more and execute the Emperor on the spot. That’s why the Emperor promised to grant a set of extremely lavish rewards, including a direct conversation with the Emperor himself within ten paces to anyone who had convincingly defeated the three assassins whose existence has made the emperor unable to sleep peacefully.
Apparently there was a fierce competition between Long-Silver-Speared Sky and Nameless to be the sole assassin of the Emperor. Meanwhile, Long-Silver-Speared Sky let his silver spear been cut off because he was entering the critical stage of mastering a barehanded ancient martial art which many believed once accomplished would make him invincible.
Five years after the great event of Nameless’ intruding into the royal palace, the rivalry between Long-Silver-Speared Sky and Nameless had gotten fiercer. Long-Silver-Speared Sky who had finally mastered his ultimate martial art and still determined to murder the Emperor eventually fought Nameless who have gained enlightenment that the Emperor should be given enough time to establish peace and unify Tian Xia.
The screen then filled with their last fight, on a dark cliff surrounded by roaring waves. They fought not only without any weapon; they even minimize the use of their hands and maximize their feet. Snapping noises come out of the screen presenting an amazing and terrifying fighting scene along with the crackling of the colliding bones, the smell of the stirred blood, and the crashing of the resilient muscle which spring like metal coil and blade.
Nameless’ confession — revealed on the screen dominated by ocher color of mountain terrain — is the only thing Nameless has in mind to say. After that, it’s the Emperor who keeps telling stories, disclosing what lives in his mind and heart before he let Nameless collect the ultimate debt they both agreed in the main hall of the royal palace, which means to collect the life entrusted by Homeless Broken Sword and Nameless to the body of the Emperor who should be given enough time to accomplish his grand vision of establishing peace in Tian Xia.
With a sepia-colored background, the screen is then filled with the memory of the Emperor’s childhood who was taken prisoner together with “his father” the crown prince as a mean to prevent his grandfather’s army from attacking and annexing other kingdoms. When he was 13 years old, his father’s troops came to release him and took him to be ordained as a king, replacing his murdered father.
Once he was inaugurated as a king, the first decree he issued was to dig and to shape the Mount Li: a development of a royal tomb. He was so convinced that he would also die assassinated as soon as possible just like his belated father. So convinced he was of his predestined short live, and so frightened of the incessant war, he reached a breaking point where he would do anything to end the warring period which has been happening since time immemorial.
The screen is then filled with astonishing spectacle of Great Wall construction which later was followed by the burning of written literature and the interment of many scholars alive. The emperor’s over voice is heard all along mentioning his decree to build a great wall to fence a kingdom, not an orchard. He talks about the invasion of the barbarian from the north; the punishment for the dissidents; also the colossal effort to prevent a dynasty from termination, from death which could be like a wild animal intruding into a kingdom that is the body of the Emperor himself.
The Emperor also talks about a grand enterprise to start the time, to begin the history, by eradicating the whole bloody history of Tian Xia which had lasted for thousand years. He complains against the accusation that his effort to eradicate the whole history is nothing but a pretext to eradicate one embarrassing history which is the infamous history of his adulterous mother who gave birth to him not from the noblest and the purest seed in the kingdom. He is an illegal son to a cunning trader.
He then derides the artist and warriors which selfishly preoccupied to indulge their selves enjoying board game, music, calligraphy and also swordplay. Meanwhile, all the scholars and subjected aristocrats interminably quoted the ancestors’ accomplishment and the achievement of the previous rulers to criticize and belittle the governance of Qin Shi Huang.
The “dialog” between Nameless and the First Emperor on the top of the mountain is quite resemble to the “dialog” between the Grand Inquisitor and the Christ in the chamber jail of Seville city in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Like the Grand Inquisitor, Qin Shi Huang incessantly unleashes his narrative moves disclosing the “philosophical reason” behind all of his seemingly cruel actions. While nameless responds with “no move” move, with long silence.
Nameless is lost in his thought, meditating the extremely thin layer between “the suffering of a human being, even a kingdom, is noting compared to the suffering of all under heaven” and “the suffering of all under heaven, much less the suffering of a kingdom is noting compared to the suffering of a super human being.” The first sentence reminds him to Homeless Broken Swords who justifies the King’s vision; the second sentence came into his head after meditating the King’s actions. And then he let himself drifted by his memory of Crescent Moon Saber who after many years passed by still indifferent to his affection and always consider him a warrior obviously good and predictable therefore not enigmatic and attractive enough.
The camera captures how Ying Zheng underwent a transformation from a softie young prince spoiled by revenge and cornered by history to a passionate warlord who stubbornly determined to liberate humanity from the grip of bloody history and unjust ancestors. The transformation is highlighted by two opposing things: huge mausoleum and immortal medicine.
For the Emperor, one should not blindly count on the ancestors and the gods (also on the Emperor Court and bureaucrats) which only rarely got useful and more often useless. Nothing and no one can defend the victorious Qin Empire along with her vulnerable people until the end of time except an emperor who lives forever, an ultimate ruler willing to commit the greatest sacrifice to suffer the unbearable curse of being immortal, to take the bottomless solitude no human being can fathom much less to bear. Poor people, poor humanity, how they have suffered!
At last, while staring right to Nameless’ eyes, the Emperor talks about seeking an opponent who could understand his very heart and thought, which is as difficult as seeking a super powerful rival who would assist a student of the Way of Sword to surpass his limits. He mentions the wrenching solitude annexing the heart of a warrior who unfortunately never encounter an equal rival, a solitude that would lead him to badly seek and madly fight the disastrous storms, monstrous tempest and any nature catastrophe.
The Emperor also mentions about Long-Silver-Speared Sky self disappearance from the martial art world, and the terrible loneliness he left in the bottom of Nameless’ heart. The Emperor then accuses that Nameless’ visit this time is not motivated by a demand of the fulfillment of the Emperor’s promise to establish peace in all under heaven; it’s mainly driven by the urge to have an ultimate fight which would help him attain a demigod level. The emperor himself apparently also seeks the incomparable fight to realize his intermediary ideal to become an immortal emperor, not merely to be invincible beyond human imagination but to serve mankind and the eternal world empire which should be turned into sacred entity constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future.
His majesty even seeks a threesome deadliest fight.
The Emperor then visualizes a wonder fight, between Nameless who should undoubtedly win the fight while preventing the Emperor and Long-Silver-Speared Sky from destroying and killing each other; Long-Silver-Speared Sky who determines to defeat Nameless and simultaneously assassinate the Emperor; and the emperor who badly needs to crunch and even to extinguish to death both Nameless and Long-Silver-Speared Sky.
Just like Christ who left the Grand Inquisitor alone without judging and condemning him, Nameless also left the Emperor alone without collecting his debt and take out his soul. Qin Shi Huang is a bloody dark plant grows out of bloody dark soil. Uprooting the huge plant would not prevent any dark seed from growing. It’s the soil that needs to be turned upside down.
Silently Nameless confess to himself that he indeed does not want to lose an extremely valuable rival which almost impossible to find anywhere anymore. With his torn robe, he walks lightly into the surrounding cloud while humming an ancient song which had been sung by the Middle Land’s peasants 2000 years before Ying Zheng was abducted and taken to the capital to be enthroned and unified the whole kingdoms.
When the sun rises I go work
When the sun sets I take rest
I drink the water from the well I dug
I eat fruit from the garden I plow
What is the meaning of emperor’s power over me?
The fight at the top of Mount Li makes Nameless understands Qin Shi Huang better; he cannot completely blame him, although he cannot justify him either. Meanwhile, his respect and admiration to Homeless Broken Sword grows stronger than ever. He understands deeply how heavy and how complicated the burden he bore: a martial art master who was easily misunderstood—a swordsman who drifted from one country to another which were not his own and then nurtured a lofty aspiration for peace in all under heaven but did not have a right position and enough power to realize it.
Nameless also understands Long-Silver-Speared Sky preference to exile himself to “the world beyond border”, or Crescent Moon Saber’s problem who used to idolize and “resent” her own great teacher, resent the love that had taken Homeless Broken Sword away and render him powerless against Flying Snow’s piercing sword. Together with Moon, Nameless labors to revitalize all the destroyed cultures, to rewrite the content of all burned scrolls and wood and bamboo blades, to spread martial arts and all knowledge everywhere.
For Moon, people can not be saved; they can only be assisted to save their own selves, with their own power and knowledge. And if life after dead is an immense paradise, then being a martyr is nothing but a cheap option suitable for the greed and the coward.
When the Emperor dies few years later, purportedly due to his overdose consumption of immortal potion, Nameless sneaks in to the heavily guarded royal palace. Beside the emperor’s embalmed corpse, Nameless puts down a human sized thick iron slab upon which he wrote down three characters using his index finger. The first and the second characters is a combination of two words Jian (Sword) and Tian Xia (All Under Heaven) to honor Homeless Broken Sword. Both characters are carved using the 21st style. And the third word is Ren (Human) written with the 22nd style. Learning from the 20th style of Homeless Broken Sword, Nameless invents the last two styles.
Standing beside the Emperor’s body Nameless is nearly similar to Horatio who uttered farewell to Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, in his tragic day. And Nameless recalled his last ultimate fight against the Emperor on the top of Mount Li, a spectacular duel, fierce and beautiful, where the fallen snow slowly changes its color from white to violet.
The Emperor was indeed a frightening martial art master, with deadly ferocity who was capable to rapidly drag any one into immense disaster, and unmercifully oppressed Nameless to inflict internal lethal wound to the Son of Heaven, after breaking through the highest and the farthest limit of the long lost sacred art: Older than Heaven Martial Art. Through the Emperor’s fatal determination, Nameless gains a new comprehension of life and humanity, and many other things which need a thick novel to narrate properly.
The essence of Hero Part 2 is quite simple indeed, just like Hero Part 1. It’s due to Zhang Yimou and his team’s cinematographic vision that turns the simple story to be not only as the best action movie and one of the most intelligent cinematographic pieces ever created. By subtly linking sword fight and martial art to many grand and serious things beyond swords, Hero Part 1 distinguishes itself from the rest.
Even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does not go that far. Ang Lee just links swords with the complication of love and, at most, with a warrior state of mind and the illusory reality, not with the birth and the collapse of an empire: the way to govern the world and humanity. The only cinematographer who has done so, although not as magnificent as Zhang Yimou, is Tsui Hark. In Once Upon a Time in China series, martial art strongly reverberates along the colorful response of a great nation seeing her decaying glorious imperial past amid the encroachment of the foreign powers intruding with new costumes and powerful weapon technologies.
The challenge to manage simultaneously several big ideas, which must be presented through wuxia cinematography imprisoned within unbreakable wall of rules, demands an invention, at least a development, of a new way of narrating, a new vocabulary of visual language with its own grammar and semiotics. For the narrative form and the visual vocabulary, Zhang is unquestionably in debt to other director, other art genre and medium.
Anyhow, Zhang develops all the debts and turns them into a beautiful cinematographic work carrying his own signature, giving more space to the spectators to have adventure in color and light, while seeing how theme, plot and motives intelligently expose their selves. Many scenes in the movie bloom out without any verbal dialog. Words are receded and replaced by sound of sigh, gazes with various intensity, flames on candle lines, calligraphic characters carved on walls or main pillars, echo of previously suppressed sobs and screams in desert, transformation of color shade on leaves and sky, liquid drops on beautiful faces and sword sharp edge; and also by Chris Doyle’s amusing perspectives and camera work.
The result is far more than a couple of landscapes purified in one major color, and sets of scenes supporting each other where every scene is made so beautiful enables it to stand alone independently as an art piece with its own worth. The music composed by Tan Dun significantly forms poetic and almost surreal atmosphere; accompanied by correct editing, the movie persuades us to let our critical thinking temporarily suspended, and all of our cognitive activities are drifted away into various forms of the collision of human emotions and actions.
Although constructed upon artistic imageries destined to change the past and the future of cinema world, the supreme achievement of Hero Part 1 obviously lies not in its visual beauty. Hero Part 1 is more than a martial art movie, it becomes a martial art itself; with plain and simple principle it constantly gives powerful blows whose effect would linearly depend on the spectators “internal power”; the more powerful and the more intelligent the spectators then the deeper the scarred wound left in their mind.
In this movie, literature, or story telling—and Arts in general—is elevated as another variant of martial art. Narratives which are stylized and exchanged, “literature” presented by Nameless in red and white color, and blue “literature” presented by the Emperor; all are moves to attack and to counterattack, to offend and to defend.
Yet, martial art in Hero Part 1 is not consisted on merely the moves to defeat, to conquer. There is also a move to liberate the opponent concurrently liberate the self. This noble move is shown in white “literature” narrated by Nameless, which eventually liberate Nameless from his chronic hatred toward the Emperor, liberate Homeless Broken Sword from his complicated love and spiritual imprisonment, and liberate the Emperor from his vicious prejudice and his corrosive solitude.
In short, Hero Part 1 is an almost perfect epic poem capable to drag its spectators to meditate not only its structure and form; the spectators are taken to contemplate on the soul of Sword (Jian) and the essence of the World (Tian Xia), and on an extraordinary love worth more than anything else in Tian-Xia.
Compared to the Part 2 which is made to “elegantly revealing”, Part 1 tends to “gracefully and visually captivating”. Hero Part 1 subtly glorifies the heroes which are those who were trapped by fate hence when they struggle to provide better life for their nation and country they sacrifice their selves. A real hero is one who sadly and bitterly cornered to take a drastic and dramatic move, and welcomes death as an advance payment for the survival of those beloved he left behind in the world.
Instead of touching the heart, Hero Part 2 is slapping people intoxication to dramas, with a distinct message that a real hero is nothing but one who fights to make a nation, an entire world under heaven liberated from its addictive dependence upon heroes. While teasing juvenile-oriental “romanticism” without forgetting to treat characters as equally important to plot and theme, Hero Part 2 tries to deconstruct the dire need to heroism and to disclose the lethal danger crouching behind its idolatry.
If Hero Part 1 appeals more to the contemplation on revenge and sacrifice, Hero Part 2 appeals more to the meditation on acceptance and detachment. And if Hero Part 3 demands to find its way to the world then it is almost likely about Nameless being the leader of peasant’s rebellion who later rose to the throne and immortalized in history as the first emperor of Han Dynasty. The hartwrenching fight between spiritual achievements of martial art and political intrigue to seize the throne surrounded by the political-social structure created and left by the Old Regime, makes Hero Part 3 a meditation on human illusion: illusion in self-sacrifice and illusion in detachment.
The main set where narratives encounter and fight against each other in Hero Part 1 is the palace’s central hall, a stage which also serves as a meeting room between the empire’s ultimate ruler and the people he rules. The main set where narratives collide and battle against each other in Hero Part 2 is the mountain uppermost top, a stage which also serves as a meeting point between earth and heaven. Hero Part 1 elemental attraction lies in the masterful work to make the central hall an arena for intense dialog on sword and world; Hero Part 2 essential fascination lies in the artful work to make the mountain top a field for the transition of human highest aspiration: from spiritual ideal to live harmoniously with heaven, to ideological passion to live and change the course of heaven and everything under it.
Hero Part 1 tries beautifully to spread out the message of peace for all under heaven strongly expressed through its main characters who finds their selves imprisoned within many unwanted traps inherited from the past which make the noble aspirations impossibly difficult to realize harmoniously. Hero Part 2 also carries the aspiration of peace and change in Tian Xia, yet with understanding that the huge endeavor to change heaven and to control time is only possible if the entire prerequisites are already fulfilled. No matter how lofty the aspiration is, if all of the prerequisites are not fulfilled yet then the revolutionary endeavor would only bring destruction and sadness which will float like thin violet fog on the lake of human memory forever. Sometime heaven itself is ready to change but most of human being is not prepared yet to cooperate to welcome and support the radical change.
That is why Hero Part 2 is closed with a scene recorded in Shiji: the unstoppable flood of peasants rebel who invade and lay siege the capital city. The screen is filled with earsplitting stomping of almost a million feet vibrating stirred blood, intense facial expression and exploded angst; the deluge of half a million ragged militia taking over the whole royal palace complex.
The magnificently huge and beautiful set of buildings eventually burnt to the ground, more spectacular than the burning of the huge heaps of bamboo blades and all records of Middle Land history. Shard of coal dust of the grand palace purportedly consisted of thousand rooms are taken afloat by the wind up to the very secret of limitless heaven and then fall back to the earth’s generous lap like immense golden pieces of stardust or ruins of holy bird phoenix: like countless glowing pieces of nameless stars fallen from the sky.***
Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka
The Indonesian Version was published in Bentara—KOMPAS Newspaper Jakarta: Friday, March 7, 2003