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Making of a Hero
by Stephen Short and Susan Jakes
Time Asia

Zhang Ziyi rolls across a library floor in a gauzy white tunic, trying to perfect an action stunt and she's in pain. Her forefinger is a swollen lump, bruised from an injury the previous day, and each thrust of her sword sets it throbbing anew. Her instructor lists the problems to work on: straighten the legs, revolve the body faster and finish at a better angle. Ziyi huffs, shuffles her Nikes, then dives again. No good. She squeals in agony. Director Zhang Yimou gives his action director the word: "Simplify it." Cinematographer Chris Doyle heaves a sympathetic sigh, which you can see because it's so cold, swigs spirit from his hip flask and puts the moment in perspective: "You know, if this was America ... well, you wouldn't catch Winona Ryder doing that."

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No, and you also wouldn't catch many people attempting what Zhang Yimou, renowned for lush emotional masterpieces like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, has set out to achieve in his newest film, Hero. Flush with Chinese, U.S. and Hong Kong funding, Hero is the most ambitious martial-arts epic since Taiwanese director Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars in 2001 and broke the box-office mold by becoming the most successful foreign film to hit the U.S. That victory remains both a blessing and a curse for the Chinese film industry: it raised awareness of Asian films tenfold in the West, but has compelled the region's filmmakers to try to duplicate Lee's magic formula.

On the shoulders of Hero ride the hopes of all Asian cinema. Did Crouching Tiger's popularity portend a huge global market for Asian movies, or was it a fluke? That uncertaintyˇand Hero's $30 million budgetˇhas piled pressure on everyone on the set. It's palpable, but rarely mentioned, like the wire propelling an actor through an action sequence that gets computer-erased in the final print.

Conceived by the 50-year-old director, the plot of Hero offers an unexpected twist on a traditional tale set at the violent dawn of the Qin dynasty, circa 220 B.C. China's soon-to-be first Emperor is on the brink of conquering the war-torn land and three of his most passionate opponents (played by Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi) are trying to assassinate him. The Emperor hires one man (the inimitable Jet Li) to stop them. Love, jealousy, rivalry and a flurry of martial arts vivify this ripping yarn.

When it comes to making an epic action film, Zhang evidently felt: Why have cotton when you can have silk? The unprecedented collection of talent at work on this project reads like an A-to-Z list of the region's most beautiful, bankable and influential. Besides the stellar leads, Hong Kong actor/director Donnie Yen, the high-flying martial artist known for his rhythmic, graceful style, pits his gravity-defying leaps against Li in a scene that will have kung fu fans roaring for more. Working in three languages (Mandarin, Cantonese and English) and vastly different styles, these actors helped forge the martial-arts genre that made Hong Kong film's name.

It's hard to imagine a headier celebrity cocktail.  Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger composer Tan Dun has been tapped for the score. But Academy toasts and red-carpet strolls are a long way off, and Zhang's attitude toward his work is decidedly sober. He must lead cast and crew through the grueling 150-day, 7-a.m.-to-midnight production schedule, slated to finish at the end of January. This afternoon, they are filming in Hengdian TV & Movie Cityˇa local entrepreneur's attempt to build a Hollywood of the East, about a three-hour drive from the historic city of Hangzhou. Shooting stops for no one. Lights are rechecked; random crew members scurry out for cups of hot water or to make urgent transpacific calls on their cell phones. Action director Tony Ching shows Ziyi a new approach. He rolls over twice on the floor in his Polo Sport winter jacket, strikes a pose and gives her a self-congratulatory grin. He gets a wry one back. The Burberry scarf wrapped around his neck hasn't moved a bit.

Enter the lethal weapon himself, $10-million-per-movie actor and martial-arts master Jet Li. Engrossed in the Buddhist texts he travels with everywhere, Li has reposed catlike at Zhang Yimou's side throughout Ziyi's ordeal. "Don't worry," he says with an easy smile, "this scene for me is like taking lunch for you." He rehearses once with Ziyi, hand in overcoat pocket, gives her a couple of last-minute pointers, removes the coat, gets a final makeup fix and the cameras roll. The shot is done in the blink of a Jet fighter kick. Li beams and mirthfully shadowboxes with the stunt guys, while Zhang Yimou can at long last call it a wrap. Best case scenario: a sequence that took three hours to make will translate into three, perhaps four, seconds of the final movie.

Despite Zhang's experience and many successes, this is unfamiliar territory: his first action picture. A mainland Chinese director both praised and feared because of his near mania for absolute artistic control and excruciating detail, he is uncharacteristically feeling his way as he shoots the fight scenes. Huddled behind a portable fortress of boxes and monitors, with his Marlboro baseball cap pulled low, Zhang watches Ching direct take after take without so much as a word. In an early morning moment of candor the next day he mulls over the scenes with Ziyi. "Yesterday," he concedes, "I was completely lost. I didn't know where that scene was going. It's hard to invest this fight with the right emotional tone. The actors sense my uncertainty and get frustrated. But," he hastens to add, "that only happens with the action scenes."

Chris Doyle, the Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking Australian cinematographer and self-appointed court jester, may have helped blueprint the nihilistic and neon mood that so defines Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai's work, but he, too, has never lensed action. Even those working on the movie who are veterans of the genre are feeling the pressure. Action master Ching is expected to exceed the visual pyrotechnics that Yuen Wo-ping created for Crouching Tiger, but he acknowledges their styles are as different as chalk and cheese. Ask him to compare Yuen's work with his own and he parries the question like a judo master slipping a throw: "He's power, I'm beauty."

If Ang Lee's film was ambitious, Zhang's target sounds positively utopian. His goal is nothing short of reinventing martial-arts entertainment altogether. "If you look at the history of Chinese martial-arts literature," he says, "the plot always hinges on revenge: 'You killed my master, now you must die.' It's the same for American Westerns. For years, this has been the only theme in Chinese martial-arts films, whether it's Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. I want to take the genre in a new direction. In my story the goal is the negation of violence. The characters are motivated by their desire to end the war. For real martial-arts masters, true heroes, the heart is far more important than the sword."

In Zhang's work, beauty has always been the hallmark. Hero will be no exception. The film will offer three versions of the story, told from different perspectives and each shot in its own colorˇblue, white or redˇfrom costume to furniture to bedsheets. As Doyle enthuses, "This film will be a real journey into color."

It will also be a comparatively silent journey. Zhang has deliberately kept the dialogue to a minimum. "I wanted the language sparse and spare to reflect the elegant austerity of classical Chinese literature," he says. "In many scenes the visuals and music will carry the narrative." Such news will be heartening to mainland Chinese ears. One of Crouching Tiger's few blemishes was Hong Kong actors Chow Yun-fat's and Michelle Yeoh's shaky Mandarin. While immaterial in the U.S. and European markets, it didn't go down well in the film's own backyard.

This is also the first time Zhang has worked with Hong Kong actors, let alone two of its biggest stars. Leung and Cheung, more accustomed to the spontaneous riffing of Wong Kar-wai, are struggling to get the gist of Zhang's directorial technique. "He does keep us guessing," Cheung says, with a hint of exasperation, "but then we only do one or two takes for every scene. He doesn't do lots of options." Contrast this with Wong, who might shoot one scene 30 or 40 times, 15 of which are experiments that help shape the final cut in his mind. "Zhang does have a very strong idea of what he wants," says Leung. "It's just that we don't." When told Cheung and Leung are bewildered at how little he seems to direct them, Zhang chuckles. "There's a Chinese maxim that says if you're playing a perfect drum, you don't need to pound it," he says. "The gentlest tap is all it takes to get what I want from such capable actors." That's the single most striking feature of watching Zhang Yimou's work: his selection of the perfect instruments to maximize the tone he wants.

In the new film Zhang is extending this ability to create a new form of action scene: rhythmic, poignant and majestic. Yen, whose working relationship with Li goes back a decade, sees that. He's fresh off success in the U.S. where Yuen Wo-ping's 1993 classic Iron Monkey, in which Yen plays a lead, was rereleased by Miramax and made $10 million at the box office. He applauds Zhang's command of a new style: "For a guy who has never directed action, he's got a nuance for certain pauses, certain breaks. He never stops looking at the bigger picture and perfecting as he sees fit. Me? I'd just get it over with."

Zhang can be patient because he seems to have the master reel already filmed and locked away in his head. "I don't start shooting until I know exactly how every scene will look," he says. And he's not exaggerating. He delights in the minutiae of his vision. The rhythm. The angles. His taciturn bearing vanishes as he pantomimes the way his camera will trace the edge of Jet Li's sword or follow a tear down Cheung's cheek. When Cheung complains that he makes her cry too often, he counters, "Nothing moves me more than the sight of a woman crying onscreen."

In his search for perfection, he'll travel hundreds of kilometers to find the ideal backdrop for each scene. Before the shoot in Heng-dian, the 300-strong crew crisscrossed mainland China from Dunhuang in the northwest of Gansu province to Jiuzhaigou in northern Sichuan. Last year, the company dropped everything to head for an ancient oak grove in Inner Mongolia to shoot a fight scene between Cheung and Zhang Ziyi at the height of the fall foliage. "I had a guy out there specifically to keep an eye on the leaves," says Zhang. "He made videotapes of their progress as they turned from green to yellow. I'd call every day. 'What do they look like?' 'Too green. Still too green.'" As soon as half the leaves were golden, the crew rushed north. Says Zhang: "We used three or four cameras simultaneously at different angles. And the leaves had to be perfectly yellow. We even implemented a leaf classification system. Special-class leaves could be blown in the actors' faces, first-class in front of them, second-class behind them and third-class were scattered on the ground." A mat gathered leaves as they fell so the crew could collect, clean and classify them, then gently send them drifting back down again.

Out of such obsessiveness emerge images of seemingly effortless beauty. Zhang shows us the unedited six-and-a-half-minute sequence from the Mongolian shoot, a scene so breathtaking it will no doubt earn a place in the cinematic pantheon. Dazzling in red costumes against a pale yellow sun, the two women ballet rather than battle it out, leaping over the treetops and chasing each other's dress trains, while leaves, fanned by the wind, drift down like confetti tossed by an admiring god. It's as though Zhang took a French impressionist canvas for a backdrop and spooled it onto the lensˇa Monet brought to life by two dancing scarlet brushes.

On our last night, we watch Cheung and Leung play a key love scene. As they lie silently side by side, lost in the folds of meticulously rumpled bedsheets, the status of their relationship is vague. Technique must do the talking. The camera travels tantalizingly to the bed and slowly brings the two characters into sharper focus. Four bamboo blinds, spaced at 1-m intervals, must be consecutively raised as the camera zooms in. The four crew members who are perched on the rafters controlling the blinds like marionettes are getting far more attention than the actors. "Action." The blinds are raised. Zhang hates it: "Too fast. Too impatient, blinds three and four." "Action." "Too messy. Keep your hands steady." And again and again. For more than an hour.

This isn't working. Several times, Doyle opens his mouth as if to offer advice, but keeps silent. The crew looks increasingly baffled, while Zhang, implacable, works to reconcile the chaos before him with his well-ordered mental storyboard: positioning Maggie Cheung's fingers on the bed, adjusting the speed at which the blinds raise, finding the exact camera angle and revelatory moment when Cheung and Leung come into full focus. Finally, as the minutes tick by, he just sits and thinks. The only movement in the room is the gentle swaying of the blindsˇfour heartbeats. But when shooting resumes, he explodes. "You guys," he wails, looking up at the rafters, "you just don't understand blinds."

The tension pants at this point, so he chooses to break it. "Maggie," he deadpans, "I think you need to cry." She grimaces in mock frustration. Zhang tells the crew to let the blinds swing. "Action." The blinds sway and raise. Seconds slide by on the monitor ... 23, 24, 25 ... but Zhang doesn't call a halt. Finally, everyone understands what the fuss is all about. The scene on the monitor is vintage Zhang, slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call. When he cries "cut!" the crew responds with gasps, sighs and smiles, a collective glow of postcreative consummation. "Let's get a drink," cracks a weary Doyle.

As we prepare to leave, it's well past midnight. The crew is gone but Zhang Yimou is still awake, working alone in his editing-room-cum-dormitory, poring over the day's rushes. For sure he's tired, but the creative fire is still burning bright. Did someone say pressured? You would hardly sense it, to see the way this Hero works.

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