Sunday, April 27, 2014

Zhang Yimou's Hero- Mandarin- 2002

Published in Stream- July 2013


They say a story chooses its form, the way it wants to be narrated. That is probably why some astounding novels, like the great One Hundred Years of Solitude, are simply not adaptable. And some others, like The Godfather, are arguably better movies than novels. The same holds true for other forms of art too. What thought can be best illustrated as a painting can never quite reach the same caliber as a musical piece, and vice-versa. Wuxia is a genre of Chinese fiction that deals with the adventures of Martial artists. Though it began as a form of literature, and thus spawned into film and graphic art, no other art form has been able to do justice to its wide canvas, its allegorical nature and its phenomenal depth of character as much as film.

Zhang Yimou's Hero is a Wuxia film that is seductive, beguiling and revealing. Quite simply, it is an extraordinary piece of storytelling. On the surface, it is an action film, which at that point of time was the costliest Chinese film made. It is also stunningly beautiful. But deep within, it is a deeply philosophical movie. It deals with questions of life and death, fear and duty, revenge and realization. Set in ancient China, the story at its core is about two men exchanging stories, one trying to convince the other that all that he is saying is true and the other trying to refute it. A nameless assassin walks into the heavily guarded palace of a king and claims to have killed three of his most feared assassins. He is allowed to come closer to the king than any other human, and as he narrates stories to tell the king how he killed the assassins, he is allowed closer. The king calls it a lie and tells him what he thinks has happened, and so on so forth. What we see is not what has happened but instead, what either of the two are claiming has happened. The magic about the film is that we, as an audience, do not know what truth is too. We are discovering with the characters and trying to uncover the hidden motivations behind the actions of our protagonists. Has Nameless truly killed the other assassins or is it just a ploy to get close enough to the king to kill him?

The story by itself is very engrossing, brilliantly shot, well acted and handled with a rare sensitivity. But it does not end there. Like all great films, it acts as a mirror to look within ourselves, to empathize with the characters, to relate with them, to ask ourselves how we would act under those circumstances. Truth, by itself, might be universal but is its knowledge enough to bring one solace? Does avenging one's loss balance the act, does it make one peaceful? Is it worth being the emperor of the world if you are so scared for your life that you do not wish to move out of your chambers? In a culture that equates good calligraphy with good swordsmanship, where the ideal state of a warrior is, paradoxically, not having a need to fight, where the good intentions of a king have unexpected repercussions, having to say what is right and what is wrong becomes the equivalent of walking on thin ice. But then, maybe that is the whole point, to prove that it does not matter what truth is, as long as we are working with the knowledge we have. Or is it that all of us are going to die one day, the King of Qin, the old man playing the harp, and the nameless assassin, and peace with oneself is the ultimate achievement?

Hero asks all these questions. For all those who just want to be entertained, this film is as good as they come. Spectacular sets, gorgeous looking men and women, stunning action sequences, wonderful use of music; This movie is visual poetry. It is elegant, striking and honest. But for the others who are willing to take the journey, it turns into a pilgrimage that takes up deep within ourselves.

Watch it.

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