As I staggered out of Zhang Yimou's latest epic, Hero, I found myself puzzling over a question bordering on blasphemy: Can a film be too beautiful? I felt a twinge of shame at the thought. After all this time banging my spoon over an unrelenting diet of grey, cinematic gruel -- this year's spate of political documentaries -- how could I whine about Zhang's dishy film? The murderous ballet of the fight scenes, the blistering beauty of the cast, the optic nerve–sizzling colors -- Zhang's art-house chopsocky flick verged on visual rapture, yes. But fickle ingrate that I am, I longed for my gruel, its gluey political convictions, the quiet devastation it wreaks on one's innards.
A strange reaction, because Zhang isn't known for pulling his punches to the gut. He's one of the greatest of China's Fifth Generation of filmmakers, the artists who wrung brilliant, feel-bad cinema like Farewell, My Concubine (by director Chen Kaige) and The Blue Kite (Tian Zhuangzhuang) from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang's films were marked by a masterful sense of scale and balance -- To Live, for example, played out one family's plight against a massive scrim of history. Zhang's work was also remarkable for its defiant rage against governmental repression, which resulted in repeated bans against his films.
Hero, in contrast, initially reads like a bit of impersonal state propaganda. Zhang has taken on the legend of the Qin dynasty emperor -- the real-life despotic ruler who first managed to unite China in 221 B.C., after years of war. When the film opens, the emperor is greeting a guest called Nameless (Jet Li), who has killed three would-be assassins conspiring against the king. For his act of heroic loyalty, Nameless is given the right to approach within ten paces of the ruler, and begins to recount, at the king's request, how he managed to slay his formidable opponents.
Hero has drawn comparisons to a technicolor Rashomon, but unlike that marvelously noncommittal film, Zhang's movie lays out one clear truth after flirting with a few other false narratives. Nameless spins a few tales and the king counters with others, each wrought in a different super-saturated color -- cold gray, a singing red, blue, lush green -- until they arrive at the facts of what happened to the assassins Broken Sword (Tony Leung), his lover Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and “Who stole my cool adjective?” Sky (Donnie Yen).
Buried underneath the dazzling images is an interesting movie about the sacrifice of individual human rights for the sake of state stability (or autocratic rule, however you might want to read that), about the battle between the hard-power tactics of the sword and the slipperiness of artistic resistance. Scratch beneath the extravagant wire-work, the exquisite tableaux, Broken Sword's flowing Pantene-worthy man mane, and you might find . . . The Emperor's Shadow, a 1996 film about the Qin emperor that is a far more satisfying treatment of the philosophical and ethical issues that are swamped by Hero's gorgeousness. In Zhou Xiaowhen's film, the emperor is locked in a fierce struggle with a childhood friend turned consummate composer; the king believes the musician has the power to write a national anthem that will unite the whole country. Their contentious relationship, of course, lays out the dilemma of the ruler who is attempting to impose a nationalist narrative on his unwilling subjects: You can rule people's bodies, but what about their hearts and minds?
Hero is too busy flouncing in the mirror to attend to these ideas, or to acquaint us fully with its characters. Without the human element to flesh out the film, the stunning graphics seem almost pornographic -- only surface, slick visual titillation. All that swordplay, a hailstorm of arrows that leaves a building bristling like a porcupine, the silken swirls of Cheung's dresses, her ravishing face -- cinematographer Christopher Doyle, famed for his work with Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love) and on films like The Quiet American, is one of the finest directors of photography out there, and he's done magnificent work in Hero. But without a story to anchor his images, without real people in those sumptuous robes, his images veer from shocking beauty into pure camp. Some of the moments that were meant to be most jaw-dropping -- a swirl of yellow leaves turning red from a slain woman's blood, say -- stink like an overripe durian. The audience cackled at that one.
For all of its failings, however, Hero doesn't kowtow completely to the state line. The film's release has sparked heated debates -- has Zhang sold out at last? Has this dissident director been co-opted, put his artistic imprimatur on a legend long used to justify and glorify state repression? I would argue no, despite the film's glowing postscript about the legacy of the Qin emperor. At the end, Zhang's king has been crushed under the weight of his own laws, facing a fearsome, unison chorus of thousands of warriors calling for blood. His dream of a unified China, the words “Our Land” have been written in shifting sand. These are hints that all is not well in the kingdom of Qin -- Zhang's subterranean cues, a subversive undertow that runs counter to the golden glory the director tacks on at the end.
Unfortunately, that complexity is missing from much of Hero, along with the human elements at which Zhang has excelled in the past. Hero is much like its hero, Nameless -- full of wiles, flash, and fire, but ultimately unknowable at the core.
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Was it all just a dream -- this wistful, elliptical love story, its eruptions of violence, its bruised beauty? The wounded characters in Last Life in the Universe may be wondering just as much as the film's audience. Ever since I watched Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's fourth feature a few days ago, I've been wandering through my life in a delirium of melancholy, pondering again whether a film could be too beautiful to bear. Again, the answer is yes, although for far different reasons than occasioned by Hero.
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle also put his visual stamp on Last Life -- an unlikely film about an unlikely love between an emotionally numb, self-effacing Japanese librarian and a chain-smoking, defiant young Thai woman named Noi (the sensitive, sensual newcomer Sinitta Boonyasak), who lives in the midst of spectacular squalor in her sprawling beach house. Dirty dishes clatter on the couch; a dried squid has a cameo as a bookmark. Why would the obsessively neat Kenji (Japanese star Asano Tadanobu, in a beautifully nuanced performance) find himself amidst this thickly crusted chaos, speaking in hesitant Japanese, Thai, and English to a volatile, vulnerable Thai girl?
We are first introduced to Kenji by way of his feet, which are dangling over a kicked-over pile of books, crowned by one fallen slipper. “This could be me three hours from now,” he muses in a voiceover, before the camera reveals him fitting a noose to his neck and positioning a Post-It reading “This is bliss” to the palm of his hand.
Kenji is enamored with the rope, the suffocating pillow, the perfectly sharpened knife, the gun stashed in a teddy bear -- beloved accomplices all, but failed ones, too. Every time Kenji gets ready to off himself -- with the same distracted, desultory air of habit with which he compulsively lines up beer cans or arranges miniature bars of soap -- he's rudely interrupted by doorbells, alarms, the irritating presence of others. “Suicide again?” says a visitor upon spying the poorly tied noose. “Hanging yourself this time?”
Kenji is shaken out of his stupor one day when he glimpses a young Thai woman reading a children's book at his library. She's his alter ego, we're meant to know -- she's reading a book the film's subtitles call The Last Lizard (although the actual Japanese title is something more like The Other Side of Loneliness) about a lizard who wakes up one day to find himself completely and terrifyingly alone. Kenji and the mystery girl -- soulmates in sadness.
But before he can talk to her, she's killed in a car crash right before his shocked eyes. Stunned, Kenji takes up with a distraught driver from the accident scene, the crackling Noi, and soon finds himself scouring her house and flinching at her verbal barbs and “did you fart” topics of conversation. It's the meet-cute setup of the screwball-comedy couple -- violently upended.
Ratanaruang clearly delights in tweaking cinematic conventions -- putting in gentle temporal distortions, switching actresses mid-scene, throwing in the title of his movie 35 minutes into it. As for thematic expectations, he draws on an unorthodox stew: the fevered yearning of Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love; the deadpan humor, unspoken tenderness and explosive violence of Kitano Takeshi's yakuza-love story Fireworks; the cacky jokes of Thai cinema; the winking self-referential work and naked plot contrivances of Quentin Tarantino; and Japanese cinema's barking id, director Miike Takashi (who has an unforgettable cameo in this film). And somehow Ratanaruang has created his own cinematic tone poem from these disparate influences, an impossible-to-categorize ode and elegy to two people fumbling their way back into life.
Last Life pushes us into an uncommon dream state -- a land between fantasy and waking life as laid out by Doyle's peerless camera-turned-magic-realist beacon. Most of the movie is set in Noi's house, which undergoes a remarkable transformation, reflecting the growing rapport between its two inhabitants. At one point, the house seems to clean itself, books whisking themselves onto shelves, papers rustling away, Noi dancing with a heart-breaking joy in the midst of it. Doyle gets far beneath the surface in this film, showing us the hidden dreams of these characters with his expressionist lens, speaking for them more clearly than they can manage with their halting conversation. He shows us the darkness in Kenji's past in one concise shot, the decay in his sterile apartment, contrasting it with the bubbling life that Kenji coaxes out of the epic disarray of Noi's home.
Ratanaruang has created an elegant calculus of grief and desire; Noi and Kenji have the interlocking, symbiotic pathologies that work so well in movie couples who are meant to save each other. But Ratanaruang is also a director for whom paradise is always fading, shot through with seeds of its own destruction -- and one who is simultaneously too tender and disciplined to force his characters into the redemption he's laid out for them. They cannot help who they are, pulled into the chaotic messiness of life despite themselves, tethered to the gravity of their pasts just when they seek a new future. Last Life is the kind of movie that has the compassion to measure their transformations in the tiniest of increments.
One of those tremors of change comes when Kenji picks over the detritus of his past, bypassing the usual favorites -- two guns, a knife -- to pick up a cigarette, which he lights up even though there's no ashtray in sight. It's a profound act for this once death-obsessed, neurotically neat man, a silent consummation of the Forsterian urge to “only connect” to another human, to an improbable love. Even if only for a moment, in the infinite space of a dream as beautiful and ephemeral as the smoke rising from his cigarette. This, at last, is his bittersweet bliss.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.