Hero and House of Flying Daggers: How Zhang Yimou stopped being a protest director and began his second career in propaganda.
At its best, The House of Flying Daggers is like no other movie. In this respect, it is like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, An Actor's Revenge, Prospero's Books, and Flowers of Shanghai, films that are in the category of no category. These films are unique because they belong to genres that consist of single movies. Daggers, for example, feels sweat-dappled, fleshy, and mud-flung but also impossibly light, glamorously artificial-even more obviously aestheticized than the already buoyantly ersatz Hero, Zhang Yimou's last martial-arts movie. In Daggers, the film's supporting cast of green-robed rebels and hack-and-slashing Chinese troops materializes and vanishes as though out of a bloodless, virtualized video game world-a reflection, we say to ourselves, of the film's own preference for game-like reversals rather than earthy slug-outs. But the fight scenes are heaving, sweatily realist, far more Kill Bill Vol. 2 than Kill Bill Vol. 1, and Daggers feels far more visceral, bounding with real life-as opposed to tongue-in-cheek or stagy life-than any real Hong Kong wuxia movie. Yet Daggers' physicality is "about" nothing. Its wonderful, shallow details possess neither plot nor radiance behind them to prop them up with meaning. The nearsighted flight of arrows; the theatrical snowstorm that heaps the ending onscreen, like the confetti that sprinkles onstage at the beginning of An Actor's Revenge and slowly fades to snow; the unattainable softly almost New England sunlight glancing through the bristling woods; the fashion model faces of the film's two young stars, so perfect as to seem oddly fake (who in 1991 would have predicted that Andy Lau would have played the ugly guy in a Zhang Yimou-directed mainland Chinese movie?)-all this lazy empiricism leads nowhere. An opera on helium, House of Flying Daggers is a wondrously weightless melodrama
Daggers is not really a wuxia movie but a detective story that uses martial arts conventions: Infernal Affairs with green robes and swords. Captains Jin (Chungking Express' Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau, possibly the most famous HK celebrity yet to cross over) want to stop a rogue group of dagger-throwers-called, in case you haven't guessed, the House of Flying Daggers-from messing with the Tang Dynasty. What's their plan? Captain Leo sends Jin to infiltrate and hit on Mei (Zhang Ziyi, who still lacks Gong Li's iconic singularity but makes up for it by seeming shiningly, exploitatively young), a blind brothel dancer who may or may not be the daughter of the former Dagger House head honcho. This uncertainty converts the film into a mystery, as Jin must figure out the location and identity of the House of Flying Daggers, the mysterious identity of Mei, his own ultimate loyalty and that of Captain Leo, as well as-hell, why not-the fate of the Chinese empire! While the Chinese troops, prone to tossing around sharpened bamboo poles, and the practically invisible, circular-hatted, dagger-throwing rogues close in-what do Mei and Jin do? They fall in love, silly! The film starts as a flirty wuxia epic, springy, floral, excited with possibility, as alive as, say, Indiana Jones or Star Wars and more startlingly beautiful than either, and ends up as Titanic-a silly, pompous love story where the audience nods obligatorily and says to itself, "Yeah, I get it, I'm supposed to feel sad now."
Daggers limps with flaws. As in Hero, the characters are still not really free agents or people but couture furniture items gliding along Zhang Yimou's pre-assigned tracks. The movie also lacks a sense of humor-a deficiency we could previously just attribute to Zhang's spartan realism. (When one criticizes a work for lacking a sense of humor, one is really criticizing the non-humorous elements of the work for failing to distract you; no one complains about the sober, non-jokiness of Bresson or Hou Hsiao Hsien.) These faults arise because House of Flying Daggers is-like Hero-an aesthetically self-conscious, surprisingly intellectual movie. These films are "intellectual" not because they are especially intelligent or because they have a "message"; Daggers, like Hero, feels distant and aestheticized because it takes its patterning, its dittoed motifs and color-coded robes, far more seriously than the contents of those patterns-the people who would fill those robes.
This condescension towards the more impure, contingent elements of plot-like place names and personal quirks-may change our view of Zhang Yimou more than his implied conversion to Beijing authoritarianism in Hero. While great works convince us that an artist has an oeuvre, atypical works are often more interesting-they can rewrite our understanding of that oeuvre. 2046, for example, may make the words "Wong Kar-Wai" refer to "the ambitious but incoherent, lush fantasist of Ashes of Time," rather than our current, more studio apartment definition ("lovesick chronicler of urban anomie"). Hero and House of Flying Daggers similarly suggest that Zhang's closest relative may not be Chen Kaige, the neorealists, or Bergman, but Alain Resnais! Like Last Year at Marienbad, Daggers withholds audience identification and all the lovably subtextual details of quotidian life. We never know what the characters have for breakfast. In exchange, like many Resnais movies, Daggers offers a purer, occasionally less satisfying, aesthetic world of question and argument. It is pure the way Persona, 2001, Breathless, pure the way novels written by poets are pure: factless, unironic, lyrical, unfunny. Thus, the film has a Turing machine's idea of character, an idea too novelistic, rambunctious, and thorny for poetry. In Daggers, Zhang Ziyi's Mei is blind or is not blind. Mei is the daughter of the House of Flying Daggers's leader or she is not. Mei is Mei or someone who calls herself Mei. Mei loves Jin or she does not. Jin and Leo are Chinese soldiers or they are not. Jin and Leo are the protagonists or they are not. Zhang Yimou toggles these facts back and forth, like those children's books where by manipulating a series of horizontal flaps, we can give an elephant's head to a giraffe or hooves to a dolphin. We sense that these are not factual details of a fictitious world-they are variables.
Zhang's martial arts movies have had their own aesthetics as their real subject matter-not empty formalism, but an almost metafictional suspicion of genre. Americanized, lacking the conventions of Hong Kong martial arts flicks, both Hero and Daggers are anti-martial arts films: Hero deconstructed martial arts; House of Flying Daggers deconstructs film. In Hero, the two greatest fighters in the world die, intentionally, after deciding not to fight, both having decided that domination was the highest form of peace; Hero is a martial arts movie skeptical about the ultimate efficacy of fighting. Similarly, Daggers appears to be a film "about" theatricality and the fakeness of acting. In the film's first half, Zhang and Takeshi act almost ostentatiously badly, like goofy, dreamy-eyed cartoon people, bouncing around, propagandizing their fairy tale emotions. But as the secrets are revealed, we learn that they (as in their characters) have been just acting all along: Takeshi's Jin is an imperial soldier pretending to be a rebel and Zhang's Mei is a rebel pretending to be a harem girl (itself already a theatrical occupation). Daggers thus resembles movies about acting, undercover spies, and con men: in these genres, good acting paradoxically means bad acting, for only bad acting would correctly represent the flawed dramaturgy of normal people. Most of Daggers's events thus seem girded to a double pattern-everything occurs first as playful theatrics and second as a more ominous reality: Mei hits targets in the Pleasure Pavilion and then does the same in the woods; she tells Jin to leave twice with counter-intuitively injurious results and, most sentimentally, sings a Han dynasty lyric about a kingdom-destroying beauty, first as pop tune and then as autobiographical epitaph. In the most meaningful, not merely rhyme-like echoes, the second event re-explains the first with a vicious, ironic nostalgia. This curious parallelism is what makes Daggers more than a mere genre movie. Girded by the rails of pattern rather than real plot, the film feels blithe, difficult to pin down, and categorically ambiguous-a fact implied by its various titles. While the American title is lovingly lowbrow and Shaw Brothers, the Chinese title is weighty, sleek, noirish, and launched into objective fact ("Ambushed in Ten Directions"), the Japanese one romantic and vaguely French ("The Lovers").
Daggers, however, is director Zhang Yimou's follow-up to the callowly beautiful Hero and, like that movie and a number of others (Ashes of Time, Bride with the White Hair, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, Zatoichi, Warriors of Heaven and Earth, and, in a way, Goodbye Dragon Inn), it belongs to a martial arts/art-house genre of films by hip young directors upgrading genres they loved as teenagers-"martial arts plus."
Daggers, like other "martial arts plus" movies, is visually buoyant, well choreographed, and willing to drag Hong Kong movie conventions up by the collar. In one scene, Kaneshiro's character, Jin, pegs a squad of Chinese troops with his bow and arrow. They fall down, dead. After Jin and Mei take off, the soldiers straggle up, brush the dirt off, and the arrows fall out from the soldier's armpits, sashes, and loose articles of clothing-Jin has purposely just barely missed all of them! This burlesque image-macho imperial soldiers playing possum-is Hong Kong convention. In the opening battlefield sequence of Tsui Hark's first Swordsman remake, a soldier stumbles onto another soldier's corpse. But the supposedly dead soldier opens his eyes and admonishes the first to get his own spot! Zhang complicates this display of Jin's over-the-top prowess when, halfway through the movie, Jin ends up flinging arrows at imperial soldiers-the guys on his side-and it seems fatally obvious that this time (to use my Jean-Claude Van Damme movie preview voice) he's shooting to kill. The Hong Kong convention (already a subversion of our war film clichés) is itself subverted.
"Martial arts plus" movies tend to be fun, hysterical, and lifeless: they conflate Hong Kong exoticism, choreography, and zany exploitation flick bloodletting with American production values and the most potent Hollywood commodity of all-rampant sentimentality. But, like many martial arts plus movies, Daggers is also never really touching. It is willing to trade emotions (things so intrinsically ascetic that we cannot even see them) for the aestheticism of production values, spectacle, and homage. Because they quantify lyrical effects, martial arts plus films hoard their art rather then saving them up only for the most crucial, tactical moments. These effects end up micromanaging the movie and, as style-anthologies, films like Kill Bill rarely meld together into larger, mist-like whole. So the martial arts plus movie (like noir, surrealist art films, musicals, and Godard) must answer a rather unromantic question: is mere art enough for art?
The problem with martial-arts-plus aesthetics is actually that they are not aesthetic enough-if by aesthetic, we also mean quirky, individualistic, deviantly fresh. This is the difference between generic, gauzy failures (Hero or Kill Bill Vol. 1) and the fuller, quirkier successes (Ashes of Time and House of Flying Daggers). The former movies have a parasitical relationship to art, while the latter create it. Let's call the former movies "rhetorical" and the latter movies "specific." Works are "rhetorical" if they can be paraphrased without losing fidelity, "specific," if any summary would inevitably leave something out. The following notable or recent films are viciously, dumbly rhetorical: The Dreamers, The Hours, Goodbye Lenin, the last two Matrix movies, Femme Fatale, The Red Violin, most Merchant-Ivory movies, The Shawshank Redemption, Cinema Paradiso, American Beauty-all barely-peopled movies where the characters are stand-ins, mannequins. As their sentimental, soundtrack-cudgeling characterization, rhetorical works are deficient, embedded works. They are embedded because they lack the rupturing uniqueness to be anything other than a symptom of their society; this is why rhetorical works often partake of parable, kitsch, parody and satire, pastiche, propaganda, nostalgia, and mass art. They are deficient because they lack aesthetic adventurousness, camouflaging themselves with shared clichés and signals. As Manny Farber once wrote, comparing similar scenes in an ossified, late Godard film to an early one, "Adultery is neither represented nor symbolized in traditional terms; it is rather triggered like Pavlov's dog by a series of associations which remind us of earlier movies." Unoriginal and sentimental, rhetorical works tap into the generic longings, biases, and sorrows of the community, instead of springing from the less universal, quick-darting individual brain
It is easy for documentaries, neorealist films, and comedies to be specific, since life and humor are inescapably quirky, and hard for abstract, metaphysical works-such as Marienbad, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, Toto the Hero, Amelie, and in literature, the works of Kafka and Borges-to be other than virtuously rhetorical, since these works want to be only their ideas. The terms are therefore not normative. Neither type of work is necessarily better than the other. Rhetorical works are merely usually worse. They tend to be strong on plot and poor on character-since characters, unlike plots, degrade in reality as they're cloned from film to film. What often makes the anomalously great rhetorical film great is the way acting lights a film with individuality. The difference, for example, between Zhang and his Fifth Generation Chinese competitor, Chen Kaige is that almost all of Zhang's earlier films are precise, bawdy, and subtly psychological; this can be said of only two of Chen's major films, the neorealist Yellow Earth and Farewell, My Concubine, a color-by-numbers film that surrounds Leslie Cheung-the film's sole item of life!-with a theatrical melodrama where even the people are props.
Hero is an entirely rhetorical film, being both propaganda and formula, yet many western critics have unintentionally condescended to it, seeing it as too pretty to warrant disgust. But Hero's thesis-the petty moral which occasioned its several million dollar financial commitment by the Chinese government-is that totalitarianism is not only justified but preferable, for what we lose in freedom, we gain in security. What else should we expect from a film that premiered at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, the site of newly ascending Chinese premier's Hu Jaobing election? (It was, incidentally, a premiere festooned with huge placards announcing "China's film industry-on forward! Cheer toward the Oscars!") And who is the sovereign that Hero rallies behind and supports? While the film purports to offer different modes of heroism, only one of these heroes is still alive and onscreen by the close credits. I'm talking about Shih Huang Ti, the Qin monarch who became the first Emperor of China after a notably brutal military campaign. Easily read as a precursor to modern Beijing, Hero's hero initiated book-burnings for all non-technical or non-Qin related documents (including dissident texts). Those scholars he did not merely exile, he burned or buried alive. Once we see Hero as a pro-dictatorship film sponsored by the most powerful dictatorship in the world, the film can't help but feel repugnantly beautiful, outrageously tacky, like an Indiana Jones movie in which Harrison Ford hands Hitler his whip so Germany can build a prosperous European Union.
"The view," Zhang Yimou said in a recent interview, "that I've changed in the last few years is quite a widespread opinion. Because people read political messages in my films, they expect me to be a political fighter who's always on the front lines. So whenever they cannot read into my works a kind of dissident view or political interpretation that they read into earlier films, they become disappointed." Zhang's assertion-that his films are apolitical-is hilariously disingenuous. It's not as if Zhang's previous films-which tended to be about China's feudal, patriarchic past oppressing actress Gong Li-were star-romping science-fiction shoot-'em-ups. Hero itself is vibrantly, obviously political. As Tony Leung, one of the stars of Hero, recently said (and later recanted)-"I agree with the message of peace and human kindness in the film. For example, during the June 4th incident, I didn't join in any demonstrations, because what the Chinese government did was right-to maintain stability, which was good for everybody." By "June 4th incident," he means the Tiananmen Square protests. Or as Zhang said in another interview: "I've made adjustments to accommodate the spirit of the times."
But perhaps we can be more hopeful. If Hero worships an autocratic empire, then its symbol of that empire-the Wizard-of-Oz-meets-Leni-Riefenstahl storm troopers-is hardly sympathetic. And although the film brown-noses dictatorial bureaucracy, ending with Chen Daoming's emperor ordering his armies to kill Jet Li's Nameless-even though Nameless saved his life!-the film is more obviously in love with Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung's lovelorn freedom fighters. While this may be a convenient narrative, in which resistance leaders find themselves co-opted into the authoritarian storyline, the ease with which Leung and Cheung smash through the petty goth brigades and Qin Dynasty stone might suggest something else-Hero as wish fulfillment. In 1992, when an interviewer asked Zhang Yimou if he was making The Story of Qiu Ju to appease government authorities, Zhang answered neither yes nor no. Instead he clutched his neck as though being strangled and said, Do you know how difficult things have been for me?
House of Flying Daggersreads like an inversion of and an apology for Hero. Unlike any other Zhang film, Daggers thrills-and perhaps ultimately disappoints-in its embrace of oddball, almost-Seijun Suzuki-spirited exuberance rather than realist political discourse. It has no dissident view because it has no view. (If it is political, it is political in its avoidance rather than confrontation of politics-that is, as political as any Hollywood action movie.) Unlike Hero, Daggers's intelligence stays bottled up. Its plot twists are only about its characters-fictional rebels and fictional armies-rather than, say, the utilitarian benefits of totalitarianism. Thus, while Hero was only visually epic, tinny where it tried to overwhelm us with mere quantity, fatuous political discourse, and adolescently black-plumed hordes, House of Flying Daggers feels most expansive at its most personal. The movie's still not totally specific, but it is a rare film-its most specific moments are sleek and weirdly graceful: the light pouring out of Zhang Ziyi's skin; the rusty mortal forest; mud and leaves flung into the air. Daggers also rejects Hero's jejunely totalitarian politics in two ways: first, by assigning rag-tag dissidents as protagonists, ignoring the brutal and drone-like government troopers; second-and more subversively?-by being a purely private historical epic. We never learn the identity of Nia (the leader of the House of Flying Daggers) and the film cuts to the love story right as the imperial troops advance on the rebel hideout. We never learn the outcome of this climatic fight scene and leave unsure who are the ambushers and who are the ambushees. Any subplot larger than the lovers is left astray, unleashed and elliptical, so that the entire sociopolitical world of House of Flying Daggers is a decoy.