Monday, June 18, 2007

Imperialism, Chinese style

In my first year here in China, Zhang Yimou's historical epic Hero was launched. It has some great martial arts scenes and is gorgeous to look out, but..... well, the story is ludicrous, the final moral impossibly obscure. Nevertheless, it was a major cinema event, and it was very heavily promoted throughout China. When it first came out in cinemas, there seemed to be no dubbed or subtitled version available, so I went to see it entirely in Chinese (in a cavernous - and very expensive - theatre in a mall on Wangfujing, Beijing's main shopping street). At the time, I understood very little Chinese (4 years on, I am proud to report that I understand even less). The film was of course completely incomprehensible to me. The key events are endlessly 're-told' from different perspectives, Rashomon-style. All I could gather was that Maggie Cheung stabbed her boyfriend 4 or 5 times (and only on one of those occasions with any discernible reason). And I thought I'd been in some dysfunctional relationships! Ah, well.

A few months later I saw Hero again, at Cherry Lane Movies, a foreigners' film club that shows Chinese films with English sub-titles. When I had the benefit of understanding the dialogue..... the film made even less sense.

However, I was entertained at this second showing by having my cynical buddy Big Frank (one of my original China posse, the Three Amigos) on hand to make wry comments on the film's many implausibilities.

This whole reminiscence about the film Hero is in fact prompted by yesterday's quotation from Tacitus, which pointed out that Rome's approach to extending its 'civilization' was to kill everyone who stood in its path. In this film (and in real life, too - there can seldom have been a less admirable candidate for a country's national hero) this is very much the approach of Qin ShiHuangDi, 'The First Emperor'. At one point he has sent his enormous, sinister, black-clad army to wipe out the gentle and studious 'Calligraphy People'. The beatific, white-haired calligraphy master injoins his followers to keep practising their brush strokes even as millions of deadly arrows rain down upon them. "Remember," he says, "no matter what they do to us, they can never destroy our culture."

"Well, NO," came the scathing observation from Big Frank beside me, "I think you'll find that if they kill you all, they can." Quite so.

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