Zhang Yimou (1951) is one of China’s biggest directors in terms of success in the West; I remember his film “Hero” (2002) being one of his most accomplished for its visual depiction and for familiarising us with the popular wu xia genre of novel, which recounts the adventures of mystical and invincible warriors who fought for honour and against the forces of evil during the era of the Chinese Empire.
In a far-off time, seven kingdoms fight for supremacy over China. The Quin kingdom is on the verge of succumbing to the clever ploy of warriors from the Zhao kingdom.
“Nameless, long sky, flying snow and broken sword” have conspired to assassinate Quin’s king. “Nameless”, who has left his three companions behind now finds himself 10 steps away from the king (his big prize). For 10 years he has been practising the technique which, against an opponent at this distance, ensures that his sword lands true, but before completing his mission he enters into conversation with the sovereign in order to present his version of the events surrounding the deaths of his three allies.
The king has his own hypothetical version and contrasts this with the account of Nameless, however, he does not know the real reasons that made Broken Sword abandon his previous intention to assassinate the king. Nameless, it turns out, is the emissary of Broken Sword’s will and is carrying out his word: “our land … let the entire struggle be to let us keep our land!”
We might describe the conceptual intrigue the film cultivates as an anthem to ethnic and national unity. A film which moreover is magnificently produced, a fact reflected in all its cinematographic aspects.
On a narrative level, at the beginning, the historical stage is set during China’s Warring States period.
Then, the Nameless warrior – who has arrived as a hero having triumphed over the three most fearsome enemies of Zhao – receives his rewards for this important feat: first, he is allowed to be within 100 paces of the king, then 20, and finally, 10. As he approaches, he relays several accounts of how he overcame his opponents; several flashbacks lead us to discern these prior events according to different perspectives.
It is apt to point out the symbolic importance of colour in each flashback, as each version comes with a different colour scheme (red, blue, green and white). At the end, the story takes place in the present and we are allowed to witness the outcome: after Nameless’ unexpected course of action upon reaching the required distance to carry out his mission.
As a grand finale, we are reminded of the initial, now accomplished, objective: the triumph of the Chinese people over their own desire to wage war between fraternal races.
As for image handling, a very high standard in terms of visual technical skill is achieved. Each shot is carefully and agilely constructed in terms of camera angle, colour scheme and lighting. The special effects that allow us to see characters flying in combat or defying surface tension when walking on water are exquisitely crafted due to the meticulous work of photographer Christopher Doyle who uses digital techniques to exaggerate the play of colours and hence perfectly accommodate the film’s fantastical theme.
There are no conceptual pretensions here, rather the exploitation of the power of colour. Moreover, we are taken aback by scenes of numerous armies advancing, assembling, preparing for and executing attacks (a multitude of extras and magnificent effects are involved in them).
The auspicious images are enhanced by telling, precise, structured editing with a fine sensitivity that reinforces the narrative goal.
Some moments are fast, others slow, others are as if dispossessed of time which invites meditation, and yet others are arranged in terms of colour for greater visual enjoyment.
I can give a sequence as an example: two women face off in a battle to the death. Both are wearing red dresses.
The scene is a forest of yellow trees. The season that frames them is autumn and each opponent is wrapped in the vigorous whirl of the leaves (a dance of yellow and red). Finally, when one of them triumphs, after the first drop of blood appears, the whole scene is stained in red (red rain triumphed over yellow autumn!). It is not necessary to resort to crude images of mutilations or rivers of blood to evidence death. As the film says, there is a strange relationship between martial arts and music because of the depth they seek and express, the meticulousness they require, the discipline they bring and the openness they afford the mind.
For this reason, music is present at crucial moments; it is expressive, vivid and sentimental.
At one point, a mental combat scene, an elder must play his strange instrument to provide the ideal atmosphere to focus attention on the progress of fight.. Each note vibrates and has the transcendence of a blow; the entire melody equates to a battle. Whilst for some critics the film is highly commercial (which is true if we think of the high cost of the production and the promotion that was afforded it) it is also true that in thematic terms it extols important values regarding the spiritual world of martial arts and leads us to appreciate that such practices go far beyond their spectacular physical movements, because above all, they reflect a great mastery of the mind. Moreover, it reminds us of typical war situations and finishes by suggesting the supremacy of nonviolent ideals.
Several memorable phrases from the perspective of Chinese culture that undoubtedly invite reflection are dotted throughout the film: “people give their lives for many reasons, and for those same reasons they kill”; “Arrows will not erase the written word”; “Calligraphy and the sword seek a return to simplicity”; “Stop, whenever the basis of attack is hatred.”
And as a magnificent complement we are granted a review of the three stages involved in the relationship between a warrior and his sword: in the first stage, the sword connects with and represents the entire body of the warrior. In the second, the sword engages the strength and power of the heart. And in the third, the warrior and his sword separate: the ideal for the warrior is to lay down his sword!. Article provided and published by Confabulación.
(Translated by Nigel Conibear – DipTrans IoLET MCIL – firstname.lastname@example.org) – Photos: Pixabay