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Hero and Zero
by Lucius Shepard
September 12, 2004

When you�re watching Zhang Yimou�s Hero, the recent film starring Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, and Tony Leung, it becomes impossible to disassociate yourself from the film�s politics, primarily because the moral of the story is what the director wishes you take away with you. The problem is, that moral seems to present a justification for all the excesses of the Chinese government since time immemorial. Despite all the pretty pictures (and they are exceedingly pretty�credit to the brilliant cinematography of Christopher Doyle), the story of love and self-sacrifice that the film constructs is merely a device designed to mask the creaky propagandist fable at its heart.

The fable comprises four stories (each with a variant color scheme) told by a warrior (Li) named Nameless to the king of Qin, China�s first emperor (Chen Daoming), a man committed to a program of epic slaughter in uniting the separate kingdoms into an empire; the stories relate to Nameless� battles with and conquest of three warriors�Sky, Snow (Cheung), and Broken Sword (Leung), all sworn enemies of the king, whose brutality they abhor. After the conclusion of each tale, Nameless is invited to move closer to the king until, eventually, he is only ten paces distant. Every story reveals a new layer of truth. At length it becomes clear that, despite witnesses to the contrary, he has killed no one, effecting this charade by means of a martial arts move that permits him to appear to deliver a killing stroke, one that strikes no arteries or vital organs�how he perfected this move is anybody�s guess, but what springs to mind is a Monty Python skit in which John Cleese, dressed as a Chinese swordsman, slaughters hundreds of docile volunteers. Sky and Snow are in league with Nameless, who has manipulated the situation in order to draw near the king so he can assassinate him. Broken Sword, however, has had a change of heart. He has decided that a powerful, ruthless man such as the king is necessary to unify �Our Land.�

Miramax cut more than twenty minutes from Hero and, though some of the cuts are ragged, a Miramax trademark, to tell the truth, I didn�t much miss them. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie to which Hero has been compared, the characters were living, breathing men and women who claimed our sympathy; here, they are mannequins who occasionally emit ritual grievous cries (except for Jet Li, who throughout remains stoic to a fault, as characterless as his name), and, as a consequence, the Rashomon-style story threatens to strangle itself in its own coils. The movie has a ceremonial stiffness and self-importance that snuffs out every flicker of life and is quite at odds with its hyperkinetic set pieces. Taken by themselves, the fight scenes are wonderfully choreographed. Particularly noteworthy are an aerial battle above a mountain lake in which the combatants go skipping like stones across the water; an attack by archers wherein Maggie Cheung whirls and leaps, fending off thousands of arrows with her sword; and a duel between Cheung and Zhang Ziyi (the princess in Crouching Tiger) that ends with Ziyi dying as the autumn leaves turn red. But all this beauty is unrelieved in its vacuousness�we might be leafing through a coffee table book entitled A Technicolor History of Our Noble Land. It is, after all, a national epic that Zhang Yimou is crafting here, the government�s view of history�its intended audience is Chinese, and the Chinese are expected to salute.

In the movie�s culminative scene, Nameless stands unflinchingly in the face of a flight of arrows that darkens the sky, willing to sacrifice himself on the altar of national unity�it�s a scene that calls to mind the solitary little man who faced down the tanks in Tiananmen Square, and I believe we being directed to make this association, to conclude that both his sacrifice and the regime who ordered his death are nobly intended, and that this process leads to a political revitalization. Killing is compared to calligraphy and music. Everyone dies beautifully. Barely a drop of blood is shown, and then it is seen flowing gracefully along the blade of a shining sword. The movie�s deification of ruthlessness in the service of progress, the heroic architecture of its vast sets, its gorgeous montage and its sanctimony, its every element evokes the Leni Riefenstahl School of Filmmaking. As a fascist work of art, Hero is a triumph; as a movie, it, too, dies beautifully.

* * *

Suspect Zero, the new thriller directed by E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire), is a film with the tattered remnants of a script. It once had, reputedly, a good script written by Zak Penn, but that was then, and this, unfortunately, is now, and the script has been rewritten, and there�s not much meat left on the bone. It opens with the camera taking a rat�s-eye view as it trundles through a rain-spattered garbage dump, stopping to focus on a milk carton bearing the image of a missing child, a sure sign that there�s menace afoot. Cut to the inside of a lonely desert diner, where a fat salesman is having a lonely cup of coffee. Ben Kingsley, bald and baleful, settles opposite him, addresses him by name, shows him some photos of dead children, and chases him out into the night. The next day, the salesman�s body, minus its eyelids, is found on a stretch of desert road. Enter Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), a high-profile FBI agent who has been banished to the sticks (New Mexico) for mishandling a case and thereby allowing a serial killer to go free. He begins receiving mysterious faxes from Kingsley, alerting him to the operation of a serial killer who may have killed hundreds of men, women, and children, having no discernable pattern or victim profile. Mackelway assumes that Kingsley, who proves to be an ex-FBI operative named Benjamin O�Ryan, is the killer. In the course of the investigation, he learns that O�Ryan was part of a remote viewing experiment, a process by which people are trained to enhance their psychic abilities, enabling them to see at a distance and even into the future. Since he himself is prone to visions and dreams, he doesn�t find the proposition far-fetched and, together with his partner Fran (a woefully underused Carrie Ann Moss), he sets forth to track down O�Ryan.

What remains of the script (if ever there was a good script, and certain intelligent touches lead one to suspect there was) is a simple X-File-ish story with a touch or two of Se7en thrown in. Merhige attempts to gloss this over, to add depth, with a gloomy, overactive montage, lots of extreme close-ups (mostly of the back of Ben Kingsley�s head) intercut with grainy black-and-white footage. He succeeds in creating a mood of menace and eerie desolation from the New Mexico landscape (according to Merhige, there is not one clean surface, unweathered wall, or trash-free lawn in the entire state), and he further succeeds in constructing an image system that wants to persuade us there are layers of truth in the story waiting to be uncovered, a system that reaches its dramatic peak when Mackelway rips away the wallpaper in O�Ryan�s bedroom to reveal a terrifying mural. But there are no layers of truth to be revealed, merely a predictable twist, and all this style serves to mask a lack of substance. There�s no need to pay eight bucks for this mess. Scatter some garbage across your floor, put on some sunglasses, and play a Marilyn Manson video�you�ll get more or less the same effect.