As a sucker for big-budget period flicks, I used to feel that I'd been born a generation too late. In the 90's the age of Charlton Heston and the Shaw Brothers seemed gone with the wind, excepting the odd hobby project of cash-flush actor-directors (think Braveheart and Dances with Wolves). But like so many other cultural spheres, cinema has seen the secular tide of the late 20th century turn, with Hollywood churning out a string of sword-and-musket dramas: Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates, Count of Monte Cristo, Master and Commander, Troy, Alexander, The Last Samurai, The Passion, The New World, Apocalypto.
Chinese (Hong Kong, Taiwanese) cinema has never really gone off the historical theme; 3500-odd years of unbroken tradition weighs heavy on the national consciousness. But it was only in 2002 that Chinese period drama broke into the western mainstream with Zhang Yimou's Hero, which I was rewatching last night. Four years on is a bit late for a film review, but I just realised why I like this movie so much.
It's not for the plot, a creative but unconvincing take on the scheme to bump off the King of Qin before he unified China; so creative in fact that this film can't qualify as historical fiction but needs a new genre, 'historical fantasy'. What message comes through has propagandistic undertones: both Jet Li and the King are true heroes because they put China's unity first (cough, *Taiwan*, cough). Excessively cynical perhaps, but I can understand why some critics claim that Hero plays the outwardly opulent but spiritually impoverished cousin to Chen Kaige's Emperor and the Assassin, which covers the same historical subject matter.
No, Hero wins through wholly on its aesthetic credentials. From beginning to end, it's a riot of colour and composition that leaves the viewer too breathless to question the point of it all. Leave it to Zhang Yimou to prove that - given an all-star cast and a decent musical score - eyecandy can a classy film make.
It's this visual and audial accomplishment that explains why, for me at least, the film isn't spiritually impoverished at all. Hero veritably channels ancient China: not the sweltering coastlands my ancestors come from, but the northern plain and the loess highlands in their severe grandeur, the heartland of Han civilisation. For many nations, physical geography is a key component of national identity, and Hero stunningly evokes the natural and manmade landscape of antique China. Though I was born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, it ignites my connection with a culture that was old when Jesus was born.
Maybe I'm just an atavist, but if so why is the movie industry increasingly catering to tastes like mine? Perhaps we do live in a soulless consumer age - an age in which historical reenacting is a growth industry, political discourse resounds with the clash of civilisations and religious conversion is on the rise - that's turning people back to their cultural roots; trying to relate to the present through the prism of the past. With British admirals warning that we're about to relive the fall of the Roman Empire and the Barbary pirates, anything seems possible...