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Hero's Martial Art


By John Millar - Posted on 14 February 2005

John Millar: You must be very pleased with the film's performance in America?
Zhang Yimou: I didn't think I would get such results, so I'm very happy.
Christopher Doyle: A lot of people disregard the fact that American films look like they do because they are made by Americans. Japanese films have a certain aesthetic because they are Japanese. Even within the Chinese filmmaking community, they are extremely different in the procedure to get a film made. And to my mind Zhang Yimou is very much a product of a more continuous filmmaking community than in, say, Hong Kong. In a way he is extremely Hollywood, at least parallel to Hollywood. There is a hierarchy, a precedent, a certain process that is much more thorough than in other places.
Millar: What exactly is the historical context of the film?
Jet Li: We are talking about 2000 years ago. In China they had the first emperor unifying six small countries to become one and he did it very well. I think everybody knows that. He believed he was doing the right thing, other people look at it from a different point of view. My character is from a small country. His parents died and because the emperor destroyed my country, I want to learn martial arts to be able to kill him.
Millar: Would you describe Hero as a martial arts movie?
Li: I believe you can use martial arts to tell a different story. Ang Lee used it to talk about love, between one man and two women. Zhang Yimou is one of the best directors on mainland China this is his first action film, but he has done his own story.
Yimou: In the beginning, I followed the traditional ways these martial arts films are constructed by referring to the genre of martial arts stories which are very popular in China. Then I discovered most of the good stories have been made not once, twice, but many times by other directors. So, I thought since they have all been created by these famous authors, why don't I write my own version?
Millar: Do these stories originate from ancient times?
Yimou: Although this genre existed in ancient times, all the films brought to the cinema are based on stories, these martial arts stories, from the 20th century. According to my research, the earliest source is from the Tang dynasty, 1700 years ago. There was a famous Chinese poet who wrote poems based on the martial arts type of character.
Millar: The actual martial art itself comes from that period?
Yimou: Although martial arts have been practised for thousands of years, these characters, these martial arts, almost samurai type of characters, found in the poem, actually relate to an even earlier dynasty. Unlike in the Japanese films, where the samurai is a historically based class of people, these fighters were very much part of the creation of writers rather than historically based.
Zhang Ziyi: I think Crouching Tiger was very meaningful for me because it was my first action movie. I didn't know how to do that. For me that was so hard. There was so much pressure. Hero was the third one - after Crouching Tiger, I did Rush Hour 2, then I did Hero - then I worked on House Of Flying Daggers, also with Zhang Yimou. So I was much better experienced and it was easier for me. But I'm not like Jet. He can do it better than anyone.
Millar: How difficult is it to put these elaborate fight scenes together?
Ziyi: Fighting with all those leaves, that was very hard for the right reasons: to get the right colours for the scene we only had three days. The schedule was so hard. For each single shot, the crew helped us to blow the leaves and the director told us to keep our eyes open, don't blink. It was so hard for us because of all the dust in the leaves. After every shot we had to use eye drops to clean our eyes. With House Of Flying Daggers, because I played a blind girl, I needed to dance blind and fight blind, putting these different parts together. That was very hard.
Li: We spent six months shooting in China, with post-production for another year. This is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, costing $30 million. It made $100 million dollars in Asia. It is not so difficult in that we don't have a time schedule when we are shooting and everybody supported the director - what kind of martial arts, what kind of locations and so on. Everybody supported him. He just did whatever he wanted. Thankfully, he did a wonderful job.
Millar: How hard did you find it?
Li: Martial arts, for me, is not very difficult. The other actors had to spend a few months training beforehand. Shooting the action sequences is normal, shot with only two breaks, or three breaks, something like that.
Millar: Is it ever dangerous?
Li: Not dangerous at all for me. It is okay, after the training for the other actors. For me it is not dangerous at all.
Yimou: This was my first martial arts film. I found in immensely complicated. If you see on film two minutes of fighting that would take me two weeks. You find that in creating this film about four fifths of the time I spent filming action scenes. So I spent a lot of time thinking of new angles and new ways to present these fight scenes, because there have been at least 500 films like this in China and the East. Through this experience I have learnt so much.
Millar: You are also regarded as a meticulous director.
Yimou: Because I started as a cinematographer, the scenes are so important to me. I have to be meticulous about every single frame. That is how I work. I am the kind of director that every detail has to be in my head before I begin to shoot my film, unlike Wong Kar Wai, for instance, who is completely different in style and works by improvisation. So in the opening scene, where you see some water droplets coming down, how each of those drops and where they fall is already in my head before I start. At the same time, while filming the fight scene, I was filming these drops of water coming down and people were wondering what on earth was I filming that for when I should be focussed on the fight scene. But it was already in my head, how I would integrate the fight with the water coming down.
Doyle: We knew the film had to have certain amount of colours, we knew one had to be red for certain historical or cultural reasons, and then the others had to be based in what the location could give us. So the lake was very blue at a certain kind of day. And then there was a space where the shale or mica, the rocks would reflect a kind of greenness. And then you have the yellow leaves. What happens with the desert, when we first saw it, it looked fantastic, then when we started to work with it we thought it would be white. So what happened is we did the intelligent thing and let the exteriors dictate the interiors. The rhetoric of colour is important and it evolves, it should be based on personal taste. It is cultural, it is about experience, all those things.
Millar: What is Zhang Yimou like as a director?
Li: He is very special he is an artist. Sometimes we did only two or three shots a day because we were waiting for the sun. One location we worked on a lake. The water had to look like a mirror. That is really difficult to control. After two hours, say, a small wind comes and disturbs the water. Then we all go home. We would lose time, we would lose money, Zhang just has to get what he needs. In the palace sequence, when I walked out, every soldier has to have the right coloured light on their shoulders. We would wait until four o-clock for the right shadow. We spent days waiting for the sun to come out. He is that kind of director. He fired five thousand horses because he wanted them all black.
Doyle: You must never forget how frustrating it must be for a director to have made some 15 films, of which only two or three have been seen by the Chinese people. I don't think we should use any judgement on this from a Western perspective. Zhang Yimou is not making films for the West; he is making films for his heart. They just happen to be accessible. He realised the only way to access his own people was to make films of a certain nature that still have the integrity.
Ziyi: Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee have totally different personalities. They have different imaginations. Zhang Yimou is trying to create his own martial arts world. I think he is still trying. Like with Hero, he wants to talk about a big subject, but in House Of Flying Daggers the focus was human love.
Millar: Would you liken yourself to Stanley Kubrick?
Yimou: He is a great director. When I was studying film, he was so important; we learned from his films. He is a master, and again the whole film is in his head. The other reason why I am so meticulous is because it is so expensive to make a film. Every minute is money, so I have to be prepared.
Doyle: Like with any artistic person, it is going to be the total work that will present the person. Maybe Zhang Yimou has this incredible plan that we don't know anything about, because he is Chinese and has grown up with all these intrigues. So maybe he has a really incredible plan that he doesn't want to divulge to anyone. I don't know that much. He has lived a very cruel life.
Millar: What kind of restrictions were put on him?
Doyle: Basically his films were banned. It was an assertion of pressure, of politics, or whatever. The way he makes films now, they are going to be everywhere, because of DVD, there is no control really anymore.
Millar: What are the themes of the film?
Yimou: I feel the main theme is sacrifice. In order to achieve peace, you have to have sacrifice to follow a belief in this idea of creating peace. In fact, this is a key film in the history of China, the culture of China, this concept of sacrificing oneself for the greater good.
Millar: Did you always have Jet Li in mind as Nameless?
Yimou: I have seen every single Jet Li film. He is a true martial arts actor and is the best in the world. But I felt that his strength didn't lie in intimate scenes, so I didn't give him any of the love scenes. The role of the assassin has no emotion, not to anyone. He has to be completely inscrutable. That is Jet Li's strength.
Millar: Did any of the actors struggle with the martial arts?
Yimou: The other actors were not really experts, so all of them had to put in a lot of effort. Jet Li also gave them a lot of ideas.
Ziyi: I love to do it by myself and in the action parts you have to shoot continuously. It was easier for me because of my background in dance, but the power is different. Dance is very soft, enjoy yourself, but with martial arts you have to work with another person. From the beginning, I didn't know how to protect myself. You get hurt very easily.
Millar: Have you been injured?
Ziyi: Yeah... it was okay.
Millar: Do you worry about being typecast as a martial arts star?
Ziyi: I don't only want to make martial arts movies. Of course, they are more international and we have a chance to be seen in more places like America and Europe. In China, I am working on different things. I am still young. I want to learn other things. I want to work on different characters. I want to become a better actor. So I've worked with Wong Kar Wai on 2046. That is totally drama, no action.
Millar: How close are the roles you've played in these films to your own personality?
Ziyi: It's funny, when people see me, they say, "You are so small, you are so little, how come you can kick that ass?" I love Crouching Tiger very much because I didn't know I could play this strong girl, a very powerful girl. I think Ang Lee helped me to find that kind of personality. I didn't know I could do it. I think I am different, I am softer. I can't kick people.
Millar: Why has the film appealed to Western audiences?
Li: I think it is not a real martial arts movie. It is not about violence, or the formula. It is not kick ass, like Jackie Chan or Jet Li. It talks about a much deeper thing, mentally. That is why I wanted to make the movie. It looks at something in a different way. It is about compassion.
The whole film is a unique action movie. Different colours talk about the different story perspectives. They have love with very beautiful scenes. The most important message is that violence is not the only solution.
Millar: Were you frustrated at the time it has taken to come out?
Yimou: In fact, I went to America, with all these discussions of re-edits, and I attended the test screenings. I gave it a lot of consideration because I felt the distributors were looking at it from a Western audience point of view. Of course, it has taken a long time to come out but the results have been so good everybody should be happy. I do feel this version, which is five to seven minutes shorter than the Chinese one, in my opinion is too short. Those scenes are very good.
Millar: A lot has been made of Quentin Tarantino's involvement.
Yimou: The key role that Tarantino played was in post-production, when there was all this discussion of re-editing . He put in a lot of work to preserve the work as much as he could. We are friends, but we never discussed this directly. It is only later that I found out how much he helped to keep the work intact. I am grateful for his support.
Millar: Have you had any offers to direct Hollywood films?
Yimou: I feel I only know how to make Chinese films. So if Hollywood wants to fund a Chinese film that is great, but I am incapable of making an American film.
Millar: How has your experience of Hollywood differed from making films in China?
Ziyi: Rush Hour 2 was so different from how I work in China. There was so much more glamour and they have more talent in every part of the crew; they know what they are doing. In China, the director is the one who is very important. He's in charge of everything.
Millar: Has the world of working in cinema lived up to your expectations?
Ziyi: I don't know. I just follow it day by day. If I have the right project, I will do my best. That is all. I never think about the next one, or the future. I think day by day. I work hard for today and then tomorrow. Dreams can come true.

Hero is out on DVD on 21st February

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