Sunday, July 10, 2011

Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi in "Hero"

“Wow—I didn’t expect THAT!” were my exact words while watching the scene in “Hero” in which Flying Snow kneels, leans the dead body of Broken Sword, her lover, against her own and lifting a sword high above her head drives it through the body of Broken Sword and into her own. I was so taken with this movie, so caught up in the story and characters that I was literally living in the moment—its moment, as each moment was created on the screen. I had no idea what would be coming next nor did I care to know. “Hero” is a wonderful movie. The story is simple and powerful; its universal themes are how unconditioned love of one person for another is both transcendent and destructive; that complete devotion to one’s country can blind a patriotic person to the needs of humanity generally, including his own needs; and that death and destruction are necessary prerequisites for the unification of a great nation.

It is hard to imagine a better cast in better roles. Jet Li is the stoic, silently intense and extraordinarily skilled killer. His brooding good looks and ability to hold himself almost unnaturally still is perfect for “Nameless”. Tony Leung Chiu Wai is a true movie star. He can carry movies, can immerse himself in an ensemble, can do comedy, romance, action, drama—you name it. As Broken Sword he once again shows his ability to take on all the parts of a character so that you don’t see Tony Leung—he is the character, whether rebuffing the advances of the lovestruck Moon in their gorgeously designed house or trading sword cuts with Flying Snow in the desert, each trying to keep the other from going into a battle that can only result in his or her death. Donnie Yen, given the relatively thankless role of Sky, acquits himself well. Yen, whose greatest fan I am not, shows the martial arts skill, the craftiness and guile and the nascent heroism so that he is a worthy opponent for Nameless.

Maggie Cheung disappeared within Flying Snow, becoming the character in a way that many strong, talented and internationally renowned actresses find difficult. Often one is more aware that one is watching the actress than the character she is playing. This is not confined to film, of course. Having seen Natalia Makarova as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake”, Glenda Jackson as Lady Macbeth and Jane Eaglen as Isolde—all extraordinary artists at or close to the height of their powers—one is aware of how easy it is for the artist to dominate the role, no matter how well drawn the character is. While this is also something which has happened more than once in lesser movies, here is seemed that Maggie simply immersed herself in the features, disposition and words of Flying Snow.

Zhang Ziyi was impressive especially since Moon was not that well developed. She was the ingénue/student/neophyte, almost a stock character. Zhang did as much as she could with this underwritten role. Chang Diy Ming as Qui Emperor was terrific. It was obvious (but only in retrospect) that Nameless, no matter how cunning his approach, how enthralling his story or how deadly his kung fu, would be successful in killing the emperor. Leaders in martial arts movies, especially relatively young and fit leaders, are often their own best defenders and Chang was very much in this mold. He deployed the silk baffles that obscured the killing ground, he was quick and skilled with his sword and he made is clear that his life would be sold very dearly.

The narrative was exquisite. Different and shifting points of view showed us that none of the characters can be trusted. Someone may be lying or he may be telling as much of the truth that he knows but each of them presents only what he knows or wants other characters (and the audience) to know. The flashbacks and changing accounts of the same incidents worked because the story they were telling was clear and simple. The final outcome—the unification of China through conquest—seems to have fit the reality as seen and lived by the current rulers of the Mainland. However, this “reality” is undermined by the unstable structure of the movie that contains it, since the audience knows it cannot trust any perspective, even an one that seems omniscient.

Christopher Doyle’s camera captured the bleak beauty of the desert. The shoot itself must have been difficult for all the actors and technical people but possibly more so for Doyle and his camera operators. They covered themselves with glory, producing shot after breathtaking shot.

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