September 8, 2004


Classical Music Meets the Martial Arts Epic -- Tan Dun's Score for Zhang Yimou's Film Hero (David Patrick Stearns, 29 August 2004, Philadelphia Inquirer)

A less-engaged composer might have fashioned a big-boned score, as Sergei Prokofiev did for Sergei Eisenstein's 1939 classic war film Alexander Nevsky. But if Hero enters film history as a special meeting of sight and sound (and it might), the reason won't just be that Tan [Dun] delivered something more imposing than his Oscar-winning folkie music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. [...]

[T]an's thoughtfully applied "yin" to the film's "yang" includes the sparest of percussion accompanying the film's grave, formal style of dialogue; the water-torture repetitiveness adds undercurrents of tension. Troop assemblies, so meticulously composed as to be sculptural, are seen amid wordless but robust choruses with drum ensemble, heightening expectations of what's to come.

The film stretches time with slow motion plus extended facial close-ups of characters who are nanoseconds away from either killing or being killed. This could curdle into static pretension, but thanks to the precision of Tan's sonic backdrops, such moments have an elemental depth suggesting how much these characters are pawns of karma. The film's tension between inner and outer worlds also finds an effective counterpart in Tan's juxtaposition of musical gestures in different key signatures.

Although such poetic cinematic flourishes may telegraph that Hero is not a typical martial-arts film, that notion is confirmed by the dreamlike narrative, which is like a Chinese box with flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. Tan knits it all together, not with the usual syrupy anthems but with melodies full of ambiguous shadows reminiscent of another great Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich — namely his Symphony No. 5.

Ultimately, the score takes on burdens usually handled by the images. Hero's narrative style could be confusing to the point of bewilderment. But the score turns the film into a pageantlike series of hot, MTV-like variations on a heroic theme, unfolding in a past of such distant antiquity that anything is possible. You may sense that Zhang falls short of transcending the martial-arts genre. Thanks to Tan's music, the film comes far closer to crossing the "finished" line.

He also did a predictably unusual St. Matthews Passion.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 8, 2004 5:07 PM

I saw Hero on Saturday. It is a graphically beautiful film, however I cannot recall any details of the musical score. The film has the feel of myth to it. My wife hated it, she couldn't stand the multiple retelling of the same plotline, with changes from the first to the last telling. I enjoyed it though.

The theatre posted a sign warning that the movie contained subtitles, so apparently many people complained about it. I think that the early hype confused many people into thinking that it was a more typical kung-fu blockbuster.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 8, 2004 6:36 PM