Little Big Soldier is one of Jackie Chan’s most polished films — a little on the disappointing side, but also perhaps the most politically intriguing film he’s ever made. The story is fairly straightforward: a peasant farmer who’s been drafted into an endless war on the eve of the Qin dynasty’s consolidation of power captures an enemy general. He hopes to trade the general to his government in exchange for exemption from service. Since it’s a Jackie Chan movie, you know that Chan’s character is not going to remain so venal and ruthless throughout the film, and since the film follows the buddy film formula, you know that these two foes will inevitably join forces and come to a mutual understanding. There’s no suspense in that. The suspense derives from the undercurrent of tragedy and historical inevitability that is set up by the film’s opening shots. An ancient scroll unfurls, promising to depict events frozen (and immutable) in the amber of history.
A massive, bloody battle plays out, leaving thousands dead in a battlefield muddy with blood. Then we see one figure pop his head out from a pile of corpses: Chan, with a fake, spring-loaded arrow poking through his chest, as if Steve Martin had just wandered into the wrong century by mistake. Throughout the film, we’re shown visions of the farmer’s dreams of walking through his fields of flowers back home, but they are frequently interrupted by vicious incisions of violence presaging his death. (SPOILERS ahead!) These visions aren’t MacGuffins meant to lend fake gravitas to a silly comedy. They are blunt foreshadows of the fate of the poor farmer, who, though comic in behavior, is ultimately tragic. Through his death in the final frames of the film, Little Big Soldier trumps and inverts Zhang Yimou’s fascistic Hero.
Let me offer a caveat emptor right up front: I actively dislike Hero. I hate the fact that most of the film does not actually take place (the “it was all in your mind” gambit being only a slight step up from “it was all a dream”), and I found the strong political overtone to be disturbing. It’s a visually beautiful film with some stunning martial arts action, but the entire film is constructed in such a way as to valorize and celebrate the sacrifice made by the titular Nameless “hero” played by Jet Li. Though he had come to assassinate Qin on behalf of all the people who wished to remain free from his totalitarian rule, he changes his mind, deciding to betray his allies because Qin convinces him that it would be better to live in a peaceful, unified China than one in which the different warlord factions are in a state of perpetual war. In the final shots of the film, we see the Nameless hero voluntarily be led to his execution against the palace gates. Thousands of arrows are loosed upon him, and one of the film’s most memorable images is that of the outline of his body amidst a virtual wall of arrows. Zhang eulogizes Nameless’s sacrifice as noble and heroic, and because we’ve spent the last two hours as witness to his stoic martial prowess and tactical brilliance, it’s all too easy to let the association become causation: Nameless displays heroism throughout the film, so it must be heroic to sacrifice all he has fought for in the name of a greater ideal.
In the context of Hong Kong’s recent reunification with China and the continuing efforts of the ruling Communist Party to identify itself with romanticized versions of Chinese history, I found Hero’s thematic content to be distasteful; offensive, even. Everything about the film’s aesthetic is romanticized — the combat is elegant, mystical, and superhuman; the milieu is conveniently color-coded according to tradition; even the titular hero’s death is bloodless and aesthetically pleasing, with his silhouette leaving behind a legacy of peace and unification. The finale of Hero almost felt like a rebuke to the finale of Throne of Blood, in which Mifune Toshiro’s frenzied tyrant pathetically bats away a continuous hail of arrows loosed by those he has oppressed. Finally, he crumbles, and his death is as antithetical to heroism as it is possible to get. In Zhang’s cinematic pre-Qin dynasty, heroes shed no blood and valor is measured by stone-faced parries of an opponent’s attack and stone-faced acceptance of one’s own submission to death. In any other context, this kind of fascistic pageant of willing submission to unremitting domination would be distasteful, but as a barely-coded love letter to a regime that has unapologetically practiced profligate human rights abuses for the better part of the last century, it is utterly abhorrent.
Plus it’s a flashback-within-a-flashback shaggy dog story, which is almost always irritating when it takes itself seriously.
Chan’s screen persona is the virtual opposite of Jet Li’s. Both are elegant, witty physical performers, but Chan is much more comfortable playing the clown. Li is an aggressive, deadly killer, whereas Chan is a survivor who rarely kills and is usually fleeing from a confrontation. Chan is also a clown in the vaudeville tradition. This is repeatedly emphasized throughout Little Big Soldier as Chan’s farmer is contrasted with the handsome young general (who is also a prince). The general is a much more skilled soldier, and he prefers to take his opponents on directly. He doesn’t abase himself or spurn his ideals for the sake of survival, whereas Chan’s farmer will do virtually anything to get home alive. Obviously, since he’s Jackie Chan, he proves that he does have some measure of courage, and he is rather clever, but he’s not a hero. That’s the whole point. He’s just a regular schnook who’s sick of blood, guts, and war. He wants to grow his crops, find a wife, have a family, and let all the mucky-mucks duke it out with each other.
Yet… He carries the flag of his homeland with him throughout the film. It’s just a little podunk province in the grand scheme of things, but it’s his home, and he loves it. One of the first things we see in the film is the farmer flapping the dust off his flag on the battlefield, but it isn’t until the very end that he proudly unfurls it on the border of his homeland, assuming that he’ll be welcomed back as a war hero, but finding instead that the Qin army has already conquered and ransacked his home. Shocked, he stands there in confusion, his flag waving in the breeze, oblivious to the shouted warnings of the Qin soldiers that they will kill him unless he puts down his flag. Too stunned to react, they shoot him full of arrows. Unlike the offscreen death of Jet Li’s hero, the nameless farmer in Little Big Soldier’s death is not glorified for patriotism’s sake — neither for the sake of unification nor for the sake of his homeland. As the film’s opening shot (and closing shot) indicate, the noble myth of patriotism is lost in the bloody mess of history. A farmer dies, leaving no one to carry on his name or the virtues of the simple life he might have led. He dies with the image of his homeland’s flag and a tiny bird he’s nursed earlier in the film in his clouding field of vision, and though these images are ambivalent in terms of political ideas or the support of any particular regime, they speak volumes about the kind of peaceful life that Chan values.
Over the last decade or so, it’s been a little disappointing to see Chan become the international face of China in pop culture. Whatever his personal politics have been, in his films, he has always celebrated the struggle of the little guy against the big bruisers, but apart from a general sense of nationalism, his films are generally apolitical in the larger sense. Since he’s one of my personal heroes, I guess I expected that of anyone, he would have the kind of clout as a celebrity to speak out against his country’s worst abuses, but he hasn’t done so. Instead, he’s become one of China’s poster boys. In the featurettes made for Little Big Soldier, Chan speaks with enviable naivete about the reunification of Hong Kong with the mainland and how everyone is now just “Chinese.” I hope that’s true. And the pains that he and the film’s director, Ding Sheng, took to emphasize the mercenary nature of the pre-Qin milieu, both in the interviews and the film itself, would seem to support the idea that both artists are perfectly happy with the “peace” that reunification has brought.
The film itself brings considerable nuance to these questions, though, and I think it’s a much better film for it. I think it’s very telling that Chan and Ding (both men worked on the story and screenplay, respectively) shun the jingoistic patriotism of Hero, demonstrating instead a fundamental ambivalence about the unification itself. Sure, there’s peace. But the film is about remembering the human and political cost of that process. In the years leading up to reunification, HK cinema grappled with the inevitability of a reconciliation with the mainland after having lived under British rule for so long; now that it has happened, it might as well be ancient history, but it’s clear that the aftershocks still remain as different strands of Chinese heritage work to meld together. As a result, Little Big Soldier doesn’t necessarily celebrate the reunification, even though the peaceful process and the cultural assimilation might be desirable. But Chan and Ding remind us that some irreplaceable things have been lost.
Not only does the nameless farmer lose his life through a callous misunderstanding (and thus not live to see the “peace” he’d yearned for), but the film reveals that, when all is said and done, this apparent mercenary had a particular fondness for his homeland the way it was. In a way, this farmer really doesn’t belong in the new, unified China. His inability to be the kind of chameleon he needs to be earns him a summary execution on a pier. Even though the farmer’s example persuaded the prince to lay down arms and unconditionally accept the Qin crusade, the farmer’s simple virtues — the desire for land, family, and a legacy — have been wiped out. The musical refrain of the film is Chan’s performance, in character, of a folk song, in which he wonders what he’ll grow when he gets back home, is haunting, lovely, and stirring. It is the farmer’s dream that carries on after the scroll has rolled back up, as Chan belts out a modern arrangement over the end credits.
Little Big Soldier is a personal elegy, not a piece of propaganda. Maybe it’s a bit of a reach to say that Chan identifies himself with the soldier and Hong Kong with the farmer’s little corner of pre-Qin China, but I don’t think so. The film is too earnest and deliberate in its emphases for the political subtext to be missed. Which isn’t to say that it’s a great film. As I said at the outset, I was disappointed. Ding relies on Ridley Scott’s washed-out color palette, a la Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, etc., and the mixture of handheld cameras and uneven editing are carried over into Chan’s action direction. The choreography isn’t terrible elaborate (which is appropriate), but the aesthetic doesn’t serve his action style very well, and it all feels a bit slapdash. Certain tangents in the story aren’t woven as tightly into the narrative as they could have been (such as the bits with the innkeeper’s daughter), but overall the film is far more ambitious than most of Chan’s projects, and given that this was only Ding’s second feature film as a director, it’s surprisingly consistent in its use of motifs, and it is certainly technically accomplished. The music is especially good. Naturally, the centerpiece is Chan’s performance, it is one of his very best. Though much of the film covers the familiar territory of comic kung fu hijinks, these elements aren’t so overplayed that they undercut the more bitter undercurrents, and there’s a scene in a cave in which Chan chokes back a sob while looking up at the moon that is a marvel of transparent sincerity. Between his natural charisma, his still-astonishing physical prowess (at age 56!), and the subtle range of his dramatic chops, Little Big Soldier is, if not a great film, a wonderful showcase for the world’s greatest actor. As with any other great performer, Chan has used his entertainment medium to grapple with key themes in a meaningful way. Maybe he’s not a deep political thinker, but a film like this leaves me with no doubt that he’s one of cinema’s great humanists, and the fact that the way he defines his role as China’s ambassador has such surprising facets only makes me admire him all the more. ☕