In the world of business, as industries become mature, it is not uncommon to see consolidation occur with companies merging or buying out their competition in order to maintain competitive advantage through scale and access to new customers. For example, the Canadian news has recently been rife with headlines about the potential merger of the nation's two larger financial institutions, the Bank of Montreal and the Bank of Nova Scotia, as a means of remaining competitive on the global financial marketplace.
However, the inevitability of consolidation is not limited to the business world. Just over 2000 years ago, seven kingdoms struggled for access to the human capital and natural resources of what is now modern-day China. Between 230 and 221 BC, the Kingdom of Qin, led by Qin Shihuangdi, waged war and conquered the other six kingdoms, unifying the country into what would become the first dynasty of China-- or as Qin Shihuangdi called it, unifying 'all under heaven'. In addition to centralizing the government in the Qin capital of Xianyang, China's first emperor initiated a number initiatives to create a single unified culture across China, including standardization of the written language, currency, and weights and measures-- a principle that still applies in today's merger-and-acquisition-laden business world. It was also during Qin's reign that the Great Wall of China was constructed. However, Qin Shihuangdi was also ruthless in how he held onto the reigns of power, which included burning political writings and executing those who disagreed with his policies. Thus, what had started with good intentions (unifying 'all under heaven') became corrupted by the seductive charms of absolute power.
This fascinating period of Chinese history has been fodder for plenty of stories and films, as there are parallels between the rise of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Communist leadership in modern China (indeed, Mao Zedong was inspired by the story Qin Shihuangdi). For example, Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin (Jing ke ci qin wang)" spun a story around the numerous attempts on Qin Shihuangdi's life during his reign, while subtly making some pointed remarks about the initial bold vision and eventual abuses that befell Mao's rule. Now, in 2003, there is Zhang Yimou's Oscar-nominated "Hero (Ying xiong)", which tells another tale of the emperor and an assassin. And though the opulent visuals, wire-fu choreography, and all-star cast make "Hero" worth a look, the impact of these proceedings are somewhat muted by an emotionally ambiguous ending.
"Hero" begins with the arrival of a nameless warrior (Jet Li of "Kiss of the Dragon") at the palace of King Qin (Chen Daoming). The nameless warrior (or Nameless, as he is referred to in the film) has allegedly vanquished three of the King's would-be assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen, seen recently in "Shanghai Knights"), Broken Sword (Tony Leung of "Infernal Affairs"), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung of "In the Mood for Love"). Because of such heroic service, Nameless is allowed to sit within ten paces of the King and asked to provide the details of his victories. However, as Nameless begins to recount his story about how he used a love triangle between the three assassins to divide and conquer them, Qin begins to see holes in the account, and senses that Nameless is not what he appears to be.
The story ends up being divided into four separate acts, as opposing accounts (à la "Rashomon") between Nameless and Qin gradually circle in on the truth. Similar to what Steven Soderbergh did in "Traffic", each of these differing accounts are given their own color scheme, from blood red, to pale blue, verdant green, virginal white, and ultimately, black. In the process, the divided loyalties and heartbreak between Broken Sword and Flying Snow are revealed, as are the motives behind the arrival of the nameless warrior.
With a budget of $20 million US, "Hero" is by far the most expensive Chinese film to date, and it certainly shows with the lavish production design, the hundreds of extras, the well-choreographed swordplay (courtesy of Ching Siu-tung, who was the action director on "Shaolin Soccer"), and the extensive use of CGI. Some of the stunning set pieces awaiting the audience include a rain-soaked swordfight between Nameless and Sky, a CGI-enhanced arrow assault on a city in the Kingdom of Zhao, a battle amidst falling leaves between Cheung and Zhang Ziyi (who made her debuted in Zhang's 1999 film, "The Road Home"), as well as an assault on Qin's palace by Broken Sword and Flying Snow.
While the comparisons with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long)" are inevitable, the style of "Hero" is quite a bit different. "Hero" is most reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai's "Ashes of Time (Dung che sai duk)", as it mixes emotional introspection with artful imagery, from the constant billowing of hair and clothing to the sight of magnificent sun-swept vistas. Interestingly enough, Wong's long-time collaborator Christopher Doyle (who also acted as visual consultant on "Infernal Affairs") was the cinematographer on "Hero", and his penchants for lyrical compositions and use of color are readily apparent.
In addition, while "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was made more accessible to Western audiences through scripting that emulated the writing of Jane Austen ("Emma"), the dialogue in "Hero" is typically what you would expect in a traditional Chinese martial arts epic, with plenty of terse dialogue, stoic emoting, and over-the-top plot developments. And whereas Ang Lee's defining wu shu epic was populated with complex characters, most of the intrigue in "Hero" ends up being generated by the back-and-forth banter between Nameless and Qin, leaving the thinly sketched romantic entanglements of Broken Sword and Flying Snow more as more of a bookend, rather than being the film's emotional core. But in contrast to previous films that have used the Qin story as an allegory for the rise of the Communist Party in China, director Zhang has a different take, with a message as bleak as it is thought-provoking: the path to peace is through conflict. Quite a relevant point in the context of current events, with the United Nations currently contemplating their next move with respect to Iraq and North Korea.
Finally, fans of Hong Kong cinema could not ask for a better dream cast. Leung and Cheung are reunited from "In the Mood for Love", though, as mentioned above, their story does not carry as much emotional weight as one would expect. Li, who has been building himself a Hollywood career over the last few years, is well suited for the physical and thesping demands of Nameless. Yen, a long time colleague of Li, only appears briefly at the beginning of the film, though he manages to make quite an impression in his limited screen time. Unfortunately, Zhang Ziyi, who wowed audiences as the tempestuous Jen in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", ends up being wasted as Broken Sword's understudy, as she is given very little to do other than a few fight scenes in her character's peripheral role.
After being caught unaware with "Hero" being nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Miramax has moved up their timeline for a North American release of the film to the spring of 2003, thereby pushing their long delayed release of Stephen Chow's "Shaolin Soccer" to the late summer. However, for those unwilling to wait for the Miramax release (which may involve cuts and/or English dubbing), a Hong Kong-import VCD and all-region DVD have just been released. It may not have the narrative and emotional finesse of the superior "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", but "Hero" is certainly an impressive film about an intriguing period of China's history, making it a must-see for fans of martial arts and wu shu films in particular.
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