During the third century B.C., before becoming a united Empire, China is split into a number of warring feudal kingdoms. Jet Li, the ‘Hero’, is an ordinary peasant of extraordinary fighting skill. He comes to the service of Qin, the ruler, and puts his amazing skills to work for his protection against various assailants, played respectively by Asian stars such as Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi.
Here I am interested in looking into the film’s distribution and reception history, as I believe it shows important patterns of the changing dynamics in world cinema. With Hero we have a situation where a non-Western film gains reputable and even superior standing in comparison with more traditional products of global Hollywood without necessarily becoming fully dependent on the exposure granted by Hollywood’s global distribution machine.
Made for an estimated 30 million US dollars and thus being the most expensive Chinese film to date, Zhang Yimou’s Hero is often referred to as China’s ‘frank attempt to surpass Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Roger Ebert). Other reviews usually develop an argument about the potential of foreign film, frame it through the success of John Woo and Crouching Tiger, and cover it as a Hong Kong film. The article in Time magazine, is representative in that it summarizes Hero as ‘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.’
Confronted with the question as to what extent his work on Hero is triggered by the success of Ang Lee’s film (which at its time had the best box-office for non-English language film), director Zhang Yimou responds:
I don’t know much about the West. I’m not Ang Lee who knows so much about western market and the taste of western audiences. My English is not as good as his. In the past, am I just a farmer director? (laugh) But I think we need the international market. The budget is high. To make sure the boss (investor) make money, only focusing on the domestic market is not enough. Piracy has destroyed the domestic market. Now a movie with 30 million returns would be something very incredible and the producer can only get 10 to 15 million. This is only 100 thousands US dollars. This is not enough!
Hero‘s distribution history in the US seems to be the most interesting aspect in the film’s life, as it is reveals patterns that may be more significant that they seem. The film was released in 2002 across Asia, and rapidly became a blockbuster hit; it was one of the nominations for a foreign Oscar in 2002. Miramax had originally acquired U.S. and some international distribution rights in 2002 after the film’s great success in Asia but, as it has often been the case with other films acquired by Miramax*, a significant period of time passed before before the release of the official U.S. version. Meanwhile, the film gained a cult following in the States via copies of the DVD imported from other countries, a completely legal practice given the absence of a US-labeled product. In newsgroup reviews, Homer Yen remarks that because of the delay, by the time of its theatrical release the members of the sizable Chinese community in the US had already seen the film on DVD, either pirated or imported from HK. Another newsgroup review claims that Miramax have been dragging their feet with Hero‘s release as they apparently did not expect to be able to garner a significant income from another ‘wuxia’ film so soon after Crouching Tiger. They were evidently wrong, as Hero quickly ended up among the highest grossing foreign films in the US. Here is J. Hoberman’s account on the story behind the release, from the Village Voice:
Hero’s backstory is also action-packed. Having acquired the most costly movie ever made in China back in 2002, Miramax sat on its U.S. release, diddling with the running time, until other forces came into play. Quentin Tarantino persuaded his padrone Harvey Weinstein to restore the movie to its original length. Then, Weinstein’s estranged padrone Michael Eisner released some extra bucks to facilitate the movie’s release, acting to placate the Chinese officials whose help he needs for his Sino Disney World.
On release in the U.S., Hero had Tarantino’s names attached as a ‘producer’, clearly revealing the insecurity of the distributors who evidently did not believe the film could have a life of its own, without the endorsement of an American cult icon.
During the opening weekend at the end of August 2004, however, Hero made $18,004,319 (playing at 2,031 theaters with a $8,864 per screen average, and soon reaching its widest U.S. release at 2,175 screens). According to the IMDb, the opening weekend grosses were, respectively, for the UK £1,005,571 (26 September 2004; 254 screens), Australia AUD 2,258,748 (6 November 2004), for Italy €1,689,089 (10 October 2004; 313 screens) and for Spain €461,720 (16 November 2003; 91 screens). For more detail, see the good overview of the box office and reception of film at the Wikipedia entry.
According to Box Office Mojo Hero‘s worldwide gross came to $177,394,432, of which the international box office accounts for 69.7% ($123,684,413) and the domestic U.S. market, for 30.3% ($53,710,019). There are several observations that need to be made here: a) The distribution of Hero‘s revenues pretty much replicates the revenue balance of a typical Hollywood epic distributed internationally, with about one-third coming from the domestic US market, and roughly two thirds — from international markets. b) In the case of Hero, however, this is achieved by a combination of over ten distributors who handled the film in various countries and not one distributor that handles the film across multiple territories, as is typically the case of a Hollywood (even though one should also note that some major Hollywood players have been involved with the film internationally). c) Box Office Mojo’s data cannot be complete as there is no full reporting in the context in which they operate, nor do they include reliable DVD figures. It is likely that the film’s revenues could be thus, significantly bigger, especially as it is clear that nobody is keeping track on the piracy that plagues non-American releases. d) There have not been attempts to estimate if and what Miramax have lost by delaying the film’s release. Still, it is important to speak of this situation as economically important as it is about losses incurred (or potential profits not realised).
By way of comparison, again according to Box Office Mojo, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was made for an estimated 15 million dollars, made about 60% of its revenues from the domestic US market ($61,231,307) and only about 40% from international territories (circa 40 million dollars), totaling slightly over 100 million dollars in 2001.
Hero is a co-production between China and Hong-Kong (even though these are officially ‘one country’ today, they still co-produce between/within themselves). The realization of the film is largely a Chinese effort, with a line-up of Chinese and Hong Kong actors, led by diasporic legend Jet Li. When it comes down to visual effects, however, the credits list includes Hollywood specialists who have also been involved with films such as Moulin Rouge or The Matrix. Thus, the film is also partially representative of the trend to internationalization in special special effects, which I am discussing elsewhere.
Maybe because it cross-referenced two popular genres, the ‘wuxia’ martial arts film and the lavish costume drama, the response to Hero and the film’s media coverage was massive, including scores of interviews with the director and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who received numerous awards for his work (alongside the scores awards and nominations for the film, among which were nominations at the Oscars, the Golden Globe awards, and so on). A breathtaking number of user comments on the IMDb (790) is suitably matched by the number of external reviews linked here (245), indicative of the number of printed reviews that are not linked. (It is interesting to note that participants in the on-line exchanges are mostly based in the US, UK and Canada, thus one cannot say that much of cross-cultural discussion is taking place). The critical receptions, however, vary. On the World Socialist’s web-site the film is deplored for compromising with the status quo of cinema dictated by pragmatic box-office interests, while on the imdb message board a user interprets the film as an overt communist propaganda (with its low class protagonist-freedom fighter and its values of patriotic self-sacrifice). And while most reactions to Hero are in the ‘Wow!’ range, acknowledging it as a visually stunning poetic masterpiece, featuring jaw-dropping art direction and martial arts, there are reactions like the one of a newsgroup reviewer who complains over misleading marketing which made him expect a Tarantino-type film and which put him off due to the subtitling.
Besides Ang Lee’s Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000), in the context of various discussions Hero has been cross-referenced to films ranging from Leni Riefehstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934), through Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Ran (1985), coming to present-day texts such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003/2004) and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). Other references include Tsui Hark’s Jet Li classic Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China, 1991), The Last Samurai (2003), Alexander (2004) and Beowulf (2007).
* See Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent classical essay, The World According to Harvey and Bob, also Peter Biskind’s book on Miramax.
© Dina Iordanova
18 July 2008