The all-star cast of Hero
Magie Cheung as Flying Snow
Jet Li as Nameless
Zhang Ziyi as Moon
Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Broken Sword
Magie Cheung in the blue sequence
Chen Daoming as the Emperor of Qin
Director Zhang Yimou
Shanghai Triad — Zhang’s attempt to make popular genre films in the mid ‘90s
Titanic — box office receipts in China amounted to 20% of the annual gross for that year
The Missing Gun — among the wave of films that won international awards in the early 2000s
Shanghai Dreams by director Wang Xiaoshuai
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon set the biggest foreign film box office record ever in the U.S.
Crouching Tiger's co-stars, Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh
Crouching Tiger: Michelle Yeoh
Christopher Doyle did the cinematography in Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express
Emi Wada designed the costumes in Akira Kurosawa's Ran
Tony Ching Siu Tung created the choreography in House of Flying Daggers
Tan Dun's DVD: he composed the music for Crouching Tiger
Hero seems to represent the first emperor of China in a positive way.
Strong visuals accentuate the militarism of the film. Martial arts are represented on a par...
... with Chinese painting.
The 2002 film Hero, directed by the internationally renowned director Zhang Yimou, stormed through China with massive media coverage, vehement critical debates and audience response — both in print media and Internet. In the end, its box office receipts of 2.5 billion yuan out of 9 billion total revenue for all films in that year made it the top grossing film in the entire history of Chinese cinema up to that point. The coming of Hero signified the final institutionalization of a new era in Chinese filmmaking, one that single-mindedly pushes for market success. Thus, we need to ask what conditions in Chinese cinema affected the emergence of films such as Hero and what does that film's success mean for Chinese films' future?
To answer these questions we must begin from when the changes first started. Since the 1980s China has actively re-organized its film industry from a socialist to a semi-capitalist market system. 1982 marked the beginning of “outside” investment in film production. This so-called “outside” refers to sources extraneous to the China Film Bureau, such as private entities from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and some Western companies, which were allowed to participate in this once completely-enclosed filmmaking circle. In 1989 China abandoned the Film Bureau's monopoly of film distribution and allowed the establishment of private distribution companies.
The next ten years were a period of consolidation. By the end of the 90s all three phases of filmmaking — production, distribution, and exhibition — had very much opened to private investment. This process also partly prefigured China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was considered vital for China’s participation in world capitalism. After years of fierce negotiation, especially with the United States, whose approval or veto was decisive in the whole process, in December, 2001 China entered the WTO. China’s strong desire to get into the WTO was not unaccompanied by skeptics within China itself, including from the film community, which was facing economic hard times.
In fact, while the 90s saw the consolidation of a capitalist filmmaking system, they also saw a massive and debilitating slide in the size of the movie-going audience. Box office receipts declined from 1991's 23.6 billion yuan (1 U$ appr. = 7.8 yuan) to 2001's 8.4 billion yuan, a more than threefold drop in ten years. Furthermore, only 35% of the revenue during that time came from China-made films, the remaining 65% derived from Hollywood or other imported films. Meanwhile, film production also dropped throughout the 90s, from 167 films in 1992 to 80 films in 2001.[open notes in new window]
Some film scholars in China blamed the drop in numbers on the shift to a capitalist system, and they doubted whether China could adapt to the pressure of the open market. No doubt, system change did affect film production. For example, the more open system brought in popular films from other cinemas, such as from Hong Kong and Hollywood, which proved highly competitive in the local market. It also generated a large DVD market, part of which relied on piracy practices that seriously hurt the film industry. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that some of the pain that the Chinese film industry suffered during those years was partly self-inflicted by internal censorship.
Many of the best “artisan/cultural” films made during that period — such as, Judou (1990, Zhang Yimou), Farewell My Concubine (1993, Chan Kaige), Blue Kite (1994, Tian Zhanzhan), and To Live (1994, Zhang, Yimou) — were initially banned in China. Similarly, many of the 6th generation new wave films — such as Beijing Bastards (1994, Zhang Yuan), Postman (Ho Jianjun, 1995), Pickpocket (or Xiao Wu by Jia Zhangke, 1997, director of The World, 2004), and East Palace, West Palace (Zhang Yuan, 1997) — were potentially attractive to the new urban masses but not screened. Most of these directors suffered interference from the government and some were even banned from making films for a period of time.
Instead of supporting these films, made in the tradition of artisan filmmaking, the government encouraged a new type of film called the “new mainstream,” through expeditious granting of shooting and screening permits. These films were mostly Hollywood imitations financed by private investments. By the late nineties, 70% of China’s production consisted of “new mainstream” films — such as Part A, Part B (Jiafang Yifang), Be There or Be Square (Bujian Busan) , and Shower (Xi Zao). These films were called the new mainstream as opposed to the “old mainstream” because the latter were “mainstream” by government design, intended as “educational” or “culturally or politically uplifting.” As the government strongly supported them, the films were guaranteed wide distribution. However, even though screened throughout China, the films had a disproportionately small viewership, mostly due to their traditional form and didactic content. Examples include Jiao Yulu (Our Party’s Good Cadre, 1990, dir. Wang Jixin) and The Opium War (1997, dir. Xie Jin). In contrast, the “new mainstream” became the “real mainstream” in terms of popularity.
Thus, from the early 90s one can identify three major types of cinema in China: the artisan/cultural films, usually banned; the state-sponsored films (old mainstream), usually not popular; and the new mainstream entertainment, commercial and stylistically imitating Hollywood.
Hollywood and China
While China was struggling to change, Hollywood, which was only on the periphery of Chinese cinema before the mid 90s, had already secured its global dominance. Toby Miller’s well-researched Global Hollywood describes the situation in detail. In 1980 30% of Hollywood film revenue was generated through export, but by 2000, 50% of Hollywood’s total income came from overseas. Just a single film, Titanic in 1998, generated 1.8 billion dollars through global distribution. Currently, Hollywood films occupy 70-80% of the European market, over 80% of the Central and North American market, and 45-50 % of the Japanese market. But within the United States foreign films constitute only about 3% of the total domestic market. This imbalance has been repeated in U.S.-China cinema trade since the first Hollywood film The Fugitive was launched in China’s mainstream cinema in 1993. During the next few years a number of Hollywood bestsellers were imported, including True Lies, Forrest Gump, and The Lion King. Between 1995 and 2001 China imported 134 Hollywood films, 61 of which were so called “profit share” deals, with guaranteed showings in major cinema chains in China. But during the same period, U.S. mainstream distributors distributed zero mainland-China-made films.
First attempt to fight back
Hollywood blockbusters had a mixed effect in China. On the one hand, Chinese audiences' declining interest in cinema since the 90s was revitalized through highstyle Hollywood productions. On the other hand, Hollywood films threatened China’s own filmmaking because of the trade imbalance. In face of the Hollywood onslaught, China made several attempts to remain competitive. In 1995 a number of directors were successful in making “semi-entertainment” (versus artisan) films to counter Hollywood’s attraction. A number of quality films were made including In the Heat of the Sun (dir. Jian Wen, 1995), which capitalized on the historical background of the Cultural Revolution; Red Cherry (Hong Ying Tao dir. Ye Ying, 1995) which used the Second World War as its epic backdrop; and the gangster thriller Shanghai Triad, (dir. Zhang Yimou, 1995), which represented a genre first re-imported from Hong Kong in the 80s.
Another group of films that scored some success in combating Hollywood was the “little tramp” realist social comedy, most notably by two directors — Feng Xiaogang (Be There or Be Square, 1999), and Huang Jianxin (Signal Left Turn Right, 1996). The former director mixed Chinese urban stories with Hollywood gimmicks while the latter was more sophisticated in style and insightful in critiquing social problems. Some of their films sold well and were able to offer momentary resistance to the Hollywood influence.
But 1998 marked a gigantic and unexpected challenge. It was “the year of the Titanic." The film set a historical record by grossing 3.2 billion yuan, which amounted to an astounding 20% of the total gross for all films that year. Titanic created a shockwave among Chinese filmmakers, critics and scholars. A year later, industry filmmakers and scholars met to discuss yet again new survival strategies to confront the Hollywood invasion.
1999 marked another crucial round of U.S.-China trade negotiation. Particularly important for China, this was the last meeting before the United States would take an affirmative stand on China’s membership in the WTO. In order to please the United States, China agreed to (1) allow 50 instead of 10 foreign films to be imported and screened on a “shared profit” basis each year (it should be noted that China only made about 100-120 films a year); and (2) to allow foreign investors to own up to 40% of cinema investments in China. The effectiveness of Hollywood’s entry to the Chinese market by diplomatic means is a story with long historical antecedents, as have been thoroughly discussed by Harvard historian John Trumpbour in his recent book Selling Hollywood to the World. In his description, Hollywood and the State Department have a relationship similar to that between client and agent, whose alliance can be traced back more than three quarters of a century.
While the Chinese government was incapable, or unwilling, to combat the state-corporation alliance on a policy level, the filmmaking community tried to resist by rejuvenating its morale. In November 1999, a national conference was called in Beijing in which a large number of 6th generation films were screened, including works banned in the past by such directors as Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and others. The meeting confirmed previously slighted accomplishments of the 6th generation directors and acknowledged the many international awards they had gained throughout the years.
Yet underneath the morale boosting lay the anxious realization that entertainment films might maintain an irresistible dominance. Chinese filmmakers, for the entire 90s and early 2000s, were caught between conflicting models of cinema: entertainment versus cultural filmmaking and audience-centered versus art-centered production.
The challenges were daunting. In order to sell well, it seemed that filmmakers had to pander to the uncritical or even vulgar mass taste. Those directors who refused to be “secularized” or “vulgarized” and continued to make traditionally valued artisan films usually ended up failing in the domestic market, albeit winning awards in the international scene. Some examples are: On the Beat (1995, or Police Story, dir. Ning Ying, screened in the Toronto International Film festival and other film festivals); Suzhou River (1999, dir. Lou Ye, Tiger Award, Rotterdam); Devils on the Doorstep (2000, dir. Jiang Wen, Grand Jury Award, Cannes Film Festival); and The Missing Gun (2002 dir. Lu Chuan, screened in Venice, Sundance, and other film festivals).
In addition to economic concerns, thedirectors' desire to regain the domestic market had a nationalistic impetus. Zhang Yimou — the most internationally acclaimed Chinese filmmaker, who had collected numerous international awards after shooting Yellow Earth — spoke about his own frustration. He indicated that small budget artisan films were good for him. But gaining international recognition through festivals did not help much in rescuing Chinese films from market decline. Nor did it move Chinese cinema into the center of world attention. He said,
Zhang’s statement summarized the issues succinctly as Chinese directors saw it. First, the Chinese domestic market must be re-controlled by Chinese films. Second, world recognition of Chinese cinema should go further than the small circle of international festivals. The central question which has puzzled Zhang and many Chinese artisan filmmakers is “how can a culturally refined Chinese film serve as mass entertainment, both for the Chinese and the international audience?”
In other words, can Chinese filmmakers develop a “cultured blockbuster?” If so, what is a Chinese cultured blockbuster? How can a film be both Chinese (not simply having a Chinese story but more importantly carrying Chinese aesthetics and values) and a blockbuster?
While Chinese filmmakers like Zhang were pondering such questions, a film directed by Taiwan director Ang Lee in the year 2000 exploded into the West and suddenly changed the entire scene. The colossal success of the martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) in the West was completely unexpected and maddening. It was unexpected since it did not sell well in the “capital of martial arts” namely, Hong Kong and China. East Asian audiences found the performance less than impressive, especially the Cantonese-accented Mandarin spoken by its lead actor and actress — Chow and Yeoh. Also, East Asian viewers judged the story too slow and boring, and the special effects too familiar. The overall sales in East Asia were so bad that its major investors, Hsu Li-Kong (Taiwan) and Bill Kong (Hong Kong), had no hope for the North American market and sold the film to Sony Pictures Classics at a flat rate of less than the film’s production fee — $15 million U.S. Unfortunately, and therefore maddening to the investors, the filmmakers did not get a penny of the completely unexpected $128 million sales in the U.S. or of its $213 million sales in worldwide distribution!
Crouching Tiger showed it was possible to have a Chinese blockbuster in the West. But still un-accomplished was the making of a film attractive to the Chinese (or East Asian) audience. Zhang's goal was to make a culturally specific and technically sophisticated film that would appeal to both East and West. In this light, we can see the film Hero as an experiment in Zhang’s global/local strategy, a search for a model for a Chinese blockbuster. Understanding that martial arts are an unequivocal expression of Chinese tradition with an undeniable international currency, Zhang deliberately constructed the film’s blockbuster elements.
First, Hero had an all-star crew and cast. The leading actors and actresses were native and international super stars — Jet Li, Tony Leung (Best actor award, Cannes Film Festival, 2000), Maggie Cheung (Best Actress award, Berlin Film Festival, 1991, Best Actress Award, Cannes Film Festival, 2004), and Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger). In addition to the internationally recognized director himself, Hero had
Right from the beginning Zhang made it clear that “Hero is a commercial action film” made with an eye on the global market. As he explained,
From a Hollywood point of view Hero did indeed achieve very high production values, particularly the spectacular action scenes with CGI special effects. It sold very well in most parts of East Asia (except Hong Kong) and was the all time bestseller in China (grossing 2.5 billion yuan out of 9 billion total revenue for all films in that year). Its box office record in the United States and worldwide, although only half that of Crouching Tiger, was still impressive. Critically, the film had good reviews in the West. From a commercial point of view Hero achieved its blockbuster goal. But to the credit of the filmmaker Zhang, Hero did not just provide spectacle but also stands as a very “cultured” Chinese film. Not only did it explore a Chinese story with a martial arts theme but it expounds on Chinese thought and aesthetics. Unfortunately, critics, including Chinese critics, seem to have ignored this major accomplishment of the film. Hero is culturally sophisticated exactly because of the many different levels of "Chineseness" and Chinese arts that it invokes.
Curiously, this very "Chinese connection" has caused strong reaction, both positive and negative, from audiences in China and Hong Kong. Despite the film's box office record, many Chinese critics were negative, or even angry about its political ideology. For most Chinese viewers, the emperor in the film is without a doubt the First Emperor of China, (Qin Shi Huangdi, around 200 BC), notorious for extreme brutality in his attempt to unify and control the country. But the film seems to point to him as the "hero" —in the plotline, all his would be "assassins," whom most Chinese believe were the real heroes in history, were killed or resigned themselves to execution. The film's surprising ending seems a defense of the emperor's excessive militarism under the pretense of uniting China.
The script's complacency towards a brutal dictatorial leader created much disturbance among critics, especially since the Chinese government, under the then Prime Minister Jiang Zemin, had given its support to the film project. In particular, the Prime Minister contributed to the film's production process by lending the People's Liberation Army, helicopters, and other resources; and later, he fomented its publicity by premiering the film in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and personally attending the screening. Some critics, who remembered what happened in 1989 during the Tian’anmen Square Incident, believed Jiang sponsored the film as a way to justify his use of force in suppressing the student movement.
The film had a narrative discourse of devaluating human life for the sake of so-called peace and unity; such a theme was equally disturbing to the audience in Hong Kong, who definitely had reasons to worry about dictatorship after 1997. In his thought-provoking study of Zhang’s films, Hong Kong filmmaker Evans Chan sees Hero as a product of Socialist-party-controlled “art” which, by supporting an historic brutal dictator, expresses a strong fascist ideology similar to the work of Leni Riefenstahl. This ideological reading of the film raises an important question concerning the relation between art and politics in general and Hero and its political context in particular. In the rest of the article I will point out a number of major cultural elements which critics have not paid sufficient attention to. The cinematic presentation of these cultural elements distinguishes Hero from every other film of the same genre. I will also discuss how one may approach ideological objections to the film from a perspective which takes into consideration lessons learned from reading in the history of film/media.