Chimera Song Mosaic
Sunday, March 20, 2005
I can’t wait to read the rest of the issue because everything tempts me: thematically grouped essays on, shall we say, American Imperialism, Foreign Policy, torture, etc.; something about “gay marriage backlash”; “New Jews from the Old Country: David Bezmosgis, Gary Shteyngart, and Others” (Russia!); a long review of Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (haven’t picked this up yet but obviously should since—other than her being fascinating—she’s now in Houston and I might actually get to attend a reading or run into her at Brazos Bookstore or Rice Village or somewhere.
Something also really interested me in the old one (last issue, BR vol. 29, no. 6): a review by this interesting film reviewer, Alan A. Stone, whose review of Zhang Yimou’s Hero both fascinated and annoyed me. Briefly, Stone argues that Zhang is moving toward both Hollywoodization and Party Politicalization in his recent films. Stone clearly knows a lot about Zhang. However, I have a huge soft spot for him that partially stems from my aesthetical leaning toward art, not politics (yes, I know they can be the same thing), and partially from overt sentimentalization.
When I first became interested in international (no, foreign) cinema, I didn’t approach from any kind of a study of film per se, but from a study of literature from a poet’s perspective (then a tutored, more regular one) and from a general interest of a commitment to travel and knowing the world, its languages, landscapes, and cultures. My first “favorite foreign films” (if such categories have any value at all) were Chinese, and my first (and really, my only) favorite director was/is Zhang Yimou.
Okay, so I am obviously biased. However, let’s point out of few things: I have never been to China (of course I want to go there, but haven’t yet); I have not yet seen Hero (so you could stop reading right now); I have not formally studied ilm; and I more or less stopped watching Zhang's films when Gong Li, his former muse, split up with him, and his films floundered a bit, while Gong Li floundered a bit (did anyone watch the horribly titled and more or less awful film, Chinese Box?), while Zhang almost immediately shifted to Kung Fuesque territories.
I am not a fan of Kung Fu. In fact, most cinematic fight scenes or other visual feasts of violence (like explosions or car chases—the only car chase I ever enjoyed in a film was in the fabulous Ronin, where you simultaneously got to know the streets of Nice intimately. Something for everyone!) turn me off, bore me completely, and disgust me with their indifference to human suffering. Like anyone, I suspect, I can appreciate the beauty and aesthetic appeal of elegantly choreographed and stylized fight scenes like those of The Matrix, Kill Bill, vol. 1, and the achingly beautiful House of Flying Daggers. Something for everyone!
So am I actually arguing against Stone? I guess not. Rebellion against the Party aesthetic was very clear in the film everyone loved (but I hated, strangely enough! Perhaps because it was not directed by the Romantic and the poetic Zhang but by the Kung Fu Maestro Ang Lee), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Perhaps I am just annoyed by the idea of rebellion! anarchy! revolution! infamy! for the sake of, well, effort at artistry (or being an artist—wink, wink). Whereas Zhang’s films, like The Story of Qiu Ju (loved it) and Hero, as Stone points out, clearly uphold Party aesthetics, Stone now says that others are questioning whether Zhang has “given in to Communist Party pressure.”
Perhaps, yes, he has "sold out" in the worst way. But is it possible, maybe, that Zhang has, oh, I don’t know, changed his personal politics as the years have progressed? What if supporting the Party is something he actually believes in (in addition to the fact that it is advantageous to him, which I suspect is the real reason behind most people’s political beliefs: fear of change, or fear of the status quo. They really are the same thing).
Another possibility that is not examined is whether or not the Communist Party might have anything of value to add to the international discourse on the individual’s place in society—whether or not anyone is interested in listing to what “they” have to say about that topic. Just as I am persuaded by the United Farmworkers’ Union’s rhetoric here in the southwestern, agricultural part of the United States, might I not be similarly moved by the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda?
Propaganda is propaganda, as far as I am concerned. If I am able to recognize it as such, I can make choices about how I am going to respond, rationally and emotionally, to it. The obvious distinction is that the UFW’s rhetoric is the rhetoric of the powerless (though not, I must say, the powerless), and the People’s Republic’s rhetoric is the rhetoric of the powerful, the ruling "class." This is a big difference. But I must say that I refuse to be told that I should not listen to something just because it falls under a bad name, or in a bad category.
I’m not saying that Stone is doing this—I’m sure he assumes that intelligent readers will be able to decide for themselves how to deal with this “question.” However, superficially speaking, the easiest way in the world to dismiss an opponent is to call him or her a “bad” name: Communist, Racist, Nationalist, Fascist, Liberal, Republican, Christian, Muslim, etc. Boo to the dogmatic bad-namers! I myself have been tempted to reduce the thoughts and opinions of fellow humans to dog poop, to regulate them to the obscure and lonely, dismal trashheap of the unlistened to.
Despite my personal contentions about some of the issues discussed in the essay, Stone really does give Zhang the benefit of the doubt. His closing statement: “Zhang Yimou has already made another kung-fu film. If creativity is really about survival first and artistic value second then one can only hope that, with his survival assured and his resources fairly unlimited, Zhang Yimou will rediscover the artistic values that made him one of the world’s great filmmakers.” I hope so, too. I would also argue that he has.
Here is my real issue (I suspect) with the article: Stone should have waited to watch House of Flying Daggers before finishing this article. It came out after the film, and I had already seen the film he mentions before I read his article.
And what did I think of the film? Well, it is a miracle. Several things: First, the premise is formulaically, as Stone suggests, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It even hosts the same actress, Zhang Ziyi (no relation to the director, I’m told, but “they” say she does bear a haunting resemblance to Gong Li, which I stubbornly refuse to see, partially for reasons of loyalty to Gong). Zhang Ziyi’s character is a rebel who is fighting against the institution, personified by a very good-looking undercover police officer. The fact that the undercover police officer is good-looking is probably a hint that this time Zhang Ziyi won’t play a rather stereotypical rebel with a cause (like she did in Crouching Tiger).
I’m not going to give the story away, because the story is one third of the best part. Suffice to say that it is a love story, and it has a sad ending worthy of any “Chinese film” sad ending of the 90s (Zhang Yimou wasn’t the only one doing this with films like Shangri Triad, To Live, Raise the Red Lantern, and Ju Dou—also check out the wonderful and very painful Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, brought to Western audiences by Joan Chen—most of these criticisms of Communists China (especially the cultural revolution), lush (for the rich!) Dynastic China, or, strangely enough, somehow both.)
But how dare we (okay, maybe just film critics) try to force Chinese filmakers to create what is most palatable for Western audiences--criticisms of modern China? Isn't violence what's really most palatable for Western audiences anyway?
The second best part—no, the best part of the film—was the beauty. It is the most beautiful film I have ever seen in my life. This includes Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, which prior to this was the most beautiful film I had ever seen in my life—maybe if it gets digitally remastered, I’ll have to watch it again to see who’s edging up.
The actors were part of the beauty, of course. The guy was super-hot, as I mentioned, and Zhang Ziyi, well, everyone remarks on her beauty and compares her to Gong Li. Stone says, “Zhang Ziyi is known in China as the little Gong Li, and her forte as an actress is the projection of an inextinguishable innocence.”
However, this “innocence” is precisely what I object to about her appearance in the films in general (her natural appearance is no fault or credit of her own, of course). Both Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li are beautiful, no question, but whereas Zhang is young and very thin, Gong is “old” and very curvy, and whereas perhaps the East needs an actress like Zhang to show thin women and everyone else than flat-chested is beautiful (though I doubt they do need this), the West already has Calista Flockhart, Laura Flynn Boyle, and Sarah Michelle Geller. The entire world (of men) do not need yet another visual that validates their urge to copulate with pre-teen girls (although she is not a teenager anymore, Zhang could certainly pass for one—or for a boy. She is often disguised as a boy in her films). Hardcore rebel, ass-kicker extraordinaire, Zhang is nevertheless highly sexualized in every film I have ever seen her in.
So maybe I gravitate toward the politics of beauty, the vanishing point where the political and the aesthetic combine and blur to indistinguishable. Zhang (the director) starts to sound to me like a bit of a lecherous old man. But this isn't really fair (for any reason!) considering Hero stars the mature Maggie Cheung. Maybe what I'm really looking for is for Zhang Yimou and Gong Li to make up and make films together again. Maybe that's what he's looking for, too, in actresses like Cheung.
Back to the acting (and the grace, vision, and sheer genius of the directing), there is not a spare moment in the film (except perhaps the martial arts demos and fight scenes, which for me last a breath or seven too long). The actors breathe and wait and pause, and their interactions are real, real, real. This is such a satisfying contrast with the amazing artifice of the acrobatics.
The third thing I loved about the film is (you guessed it, right?) its politics. It goes down like this: Man is a lazy and slovenly Party-boy, towing the proverbial line of the greedy, fat, and ugly cats without much aplomb. Woman (please, “girl” makes me cringe) is a rebel with a cause, but interestingly enough, there are hints that the cause is as fruitless, self-serving, and superficial as the “best” of them (evidenced by their keen uniforms—artifice and aesthetic propaganda at its highest).
The government is found to be corrupt (big surprise), and the best-organized and most successful rebellion is also found to be corrupt (hmm . . .), so the lovers fantasize about dropping out of life, leaving social responsibility behind, and running away together. This individualist, nonconformist, Bartleby-the-Scribneresque message is so strong that it leaves me, rabid individualistic cum skeptical socialist, who is also a pacifist and quite the Gandhi lover, along with Americans everyone (I suspect, although they are not well-described by the above terms), with a warm, fuzzy feeling. But no. I told you there was a sad ending of Chinese film and Shakespearian proportions. Well, maybe not Shakespearean. Yes, Shakespearean.
I’d have to watch it again. You should, too. Perhaps for the first time. Don’t listen to other people; listen to me. If you love beauty, maybe you even love beauty whose true nature is evil. Maybe we should have kept the beautiful (some say) and historical (created by a Nazi sympathizer) curtain in the Vienna Opera House*. This is a wholenother argument, perhaps.
Aren’t I a grown up? Can’t I view something both beautiful and terrible and be allowed to talk about it?