A number of comments on this blog (and at least one of the main posts) have mentioned Zhang Yimou in positive terms. He has directed small-scale, thoughtful, human films such as Not One Less and The Road Home as well as gorgeous costume/action blockbusters like Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower, besides having directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. He is without a doubt one of the great film-makers of recent decades. His only major role as an actor was in one of my favourite Hong Kong films, the insufficiently famous Terracotta Warrior (1989), directed by Ching Siu-Tung, in which he is an unlikely but highly effective action hero. A taste of it can be found here. Apparently it was released in the US as Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior, but I will stick with the shorter title.
Ching perhaps has greater renown as an action choreographer than as a director; it was in this capacity that he collaborated with Zhang on Hero and House of Flying Daggers, as well as working on other films with international recognition. The genre in which he excels is not the kung fu film that is what most people first think of as Hong Kong cinema, but the swords-and-sorcery martial epic, in which swordplay, costumes and pyrotechnics combine to stunning effect, a genre that only broke through in the West with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
A full appreciation of Terracotta Warrior requires some familiarity with the original The Mummy, the 1932 extravaganza with Boris Karloff in the title role. This is a love story in which the good guys are archaeologists attached to the British Museum, and the baddy is the undead Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian priest buried alive for having dared fall in love with Princess Ankhesenamon, and revived by ancient magic when his tomb is opened. In the "present day" of 1930s Cairo he attempts to abduct the love interest, Helen Grosvenor, thinking her (correctly, as it ultimately transpires) the reincarnation of Ankhesenamon. While the original The Mummy came a decade after the excavation of Tutankhamen's Tomb, Terracotta Warrior came 15 years after the discovery of the Terracotta Army in the vicinity of the tomb of the First Emperor of China. It is not so much a remake of The Mummy as a post-colonial rebuttal. The "undead" figure, and the hero of the film, played by Zhang Yimou, is the First Emperor's personal bodyguard, entombed in terracotta as punishment for deflowering one of the Emperor's "500 maidens". The reincarnated maiden is played by Zhang's real-life muse, Gong Li, and in the 1930s section of the film is a spoilt aspiring starlet, filming on location. This film-within-the-film, it turns out, is a front for organized criminal activities (the extent of Triad money-laundering through the film industry was highly topical in Hong Kong when Ching was filming). The baddies are looters of antiquities who sell their stolen treasures to foreign collectors (including foreign museums), and are using the film as a cover for moving equipment in and finds out. Tomb raiders are still active in China, and not so long ago a high-profile case gave rise to a feature about them in the South China Morning Post.
Unlike The Mummy, a good third of Terracotta Warrior is set in ancient times, charting the slow unfolding of the relationship between the conflicted warrior (a man of honour loyally serving a tyrant) and the traumatized maiden (orphaned by the emperor's "burning of books and burying of scholars", and later abducted to his court). (Highlights here.) This gives their "undying love" rather more emotional depth than a fantasy action-adventure would normally find necessary to establish. The climax of this first part is the consummation of their slow-burning, largely silent romance in an alchemist's workshop during a thunderstorm (to a soundtrack of the immortal Sally Yeh's thematically appropriate "Burn Heart with Fire", which can be heard at the previous link). The eroticism of mainstream Chinese cinema is far more effective for not forcing one to look away in embarrassment (exhibit A in this regard being Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, which without any sex scenes at all puts Maggie Cheung on a par with any cinematic sex symbol you could care to mention).
After 40 minutes the curtain falls – almost literally, in a bold theatrical touch – on the doomed Qin Dynasty love affair, and a very different drama begins, centring on 1930s tomb raiders. The longer, second part of the film has strong overtones of Indiana Jones, but also undertones of Time Bandits. The transition is signalled by the sound of an aeroplane flying overhead. It can hardly be by accident that the film manages to pack in every form of ancient and modern transport possible – horses, handcarts, stilts, palanquins, chariots, ships, cars, trains and aeroplanes; even, at the very end, a minibus.
Zhang Yimou went on himself to direct successful costume dramas both about the First Emperor (Hero) and about 1930s gangsters (Shanghai Triad), each of which is a more accomplished work of art. Neither, though, can compare with Ching Siu-Tung's Terracotta Warrior for zest, inventiveness, silliness and delight. Part of the beauty of the film is that it does not take itself too seriously, and while full of excellence is unpretentiously and avowedly escapist entertainment. The director set out his philosophy of escapist fiction in the post-modern Dr Wai and the Scripture with No Words (1996), in the long cut of which Jet Li is a frustrated paperback writer who becomes a character in his own cheap martial arts story (I've never understood why the international release only gave the cheap martial arts story, without the framing fiction of rewrites and re-editing that makes its sudden shifts in narrative direction funny rather than baffling).
Terracotta Warrior is very hard to find with English subtitles; perhaps not in the US, but certainly in the UK. I have long had it on VHS with French subtitles and recently acquired a German DVD, and have wondered if its inaccessibility has something to do with rights disputes rather than simply a lack of appreciation. There is, however, relatively little dialogue, and once informed of the plot it is probably possible to enjoy the spectacle without having to understand all the words.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.