Over the last few days, I have had the opportunity to see two distinct movies that deal with similar themes. The pervading theme I am referring to, of course, is people killing other people. One of the movies involved killing with guns, and the other involved killing with swords. Oh, and both of the films are over two years old.
With the clues provided above, I have no doubt that you have come to the conclusion that the two movies in question were Avalon and Hero. Beyond the thematic linkage of death-dealing, these two films, both products of Asian cinema, share another link in that they both deal with the question of “what is real?”
Avalon, which of the two I’m sure is the one you are less familiar with, is a Japanese film from 2001 by Mamoru Oshii, the producer of Ghost in the Shell. The film takes place in a non-defined near-future where many people are sucked into an illegal virtual reality wargame known as Avalon. The top players of the game can make a living off of it, spending their days raking up points and, hence, credits. The heroine of the film, Ash, is one of those top players, worshipped by her inferiors, feared and respected by her peers.
As nice as that sounds, Ash isn’t really satisfied with just being one of the best. Rumors swirl in the world of Avalon about a secret level created by the programmers, a place where only the greatest of players can get to and which holds challenges and rewards far beyond anything the game has shown so far. But it is not without risk; one of Ash’s former teammates made his attempt to find the secrets of “Special A,” and his mind never came back from the virtual world. All that remains of him is a blank husk of a body, sitting in a hospital staring vacantly at infinity.
This, of course, does not deter Ash. (If it did, it wouldn’t make much of a story.) No, in fact, it only spurs her on. She uncovers the riddles and sifts through the rumors, eventually making her way into “Special A.” And that’s where things get… more confusing…
But back to that in a moment; for now, let’s talk about a Hero.
Hero, by Chinese director Yimou Zhang, tells the story of Nameless, a mighty warrior who defeats three assassins attempting to take the life of the King of Qin, a powerful warlord attempting to conquer all the states of ancient China. As Nameless is brought before the King to tell the story of how he conquered such powerful foes, a Rashomon-like tale, both shifting and fantastic, emerges.
The idea of “questionable reality” comes into play with both of these films, first through Avalon‘s virtual world, which Ash may or may not be in at any given time, and then through Hero‘s use of multiple recollections of the same events. When Ash sees a ghostly figure standing in the hospital, is she still in the game? When Nameless recounts his exploits to the King, is he telling the truth?
To answer those questions, we must look at how each of these movies deals with reality.
Avalon presents us with two worlds: the world of the game, Avalon, and the world that Ash lives in when not playing. And while the virtual world is quite clearly virtual, with two-dimensional explosions and strange weapons and machines, her “real” world is equally as questionable. She sees the same people in the same spot on the train every day, the clouds never move, books have no words in them, and her dog vanishes when she is not looking. All of these things, although strange, don’t seem to faze her, leaving us to wonder if this just truly is the state of her reality.
In Hero, we begin clearly anchored in the present, and all else that happens occurs in relation to it. When the various tales are told, we are given clear indication that we are in a “possible” version of reality. This is partly accomplished through the use of color. The four different stories told in Hero are each draped in a particular color. Mostly, these allow the different versions to be kept distinct, though there is also much speculation as to what each of the colors mean. White could mean truth, but what of green?
Color is also used in Avalon, but to a slightly different effect. The virtual world of Avalon is yellow. It harkens back to old computer monitors long gone. Ash’s world, conversely, is steeped in sepia tones. That is, however, not without exception. Certain things in Ash’s world are given full color. Her dog, the food she sees being eaten by a friend, and occasional other moments. Perhaps this color is used to indicate things that Ash is truly focused on, things that, to her, are suddenly more “real.”
This theory is given some credence when Ash finally makes the ascension to the mythical “Special A.” Chasing down a ghostly figure, Ash suddenly finds herself waking up from her virtual reality terminal in a room different from the one she entered. Text flashing on her monitor tells her: “Welcome to Class Real.” The mysterious Bishop, who has been offering advice throughout the movie, tells her it is time to face the ultimate challenge, and that the rules are different here in Class Real. No more killing innocent bystanders, no exiting until the mission is complete, and only one way to win: kill the very friend she has come here searching for. As Ash steps out the door and into the daylight, she encounters a new world: our world. A world drenched in bright, full color, with people smiling and laughing and moving. Is Class Real indeed “real?”
Hero quickly lets us know that what we are seeing is merely possibility, with the King casting his own aspersions on Nameless’ tale and creating his own version of events. When all is said and done, however, we are presented with a definitive version of events, supported by the very characters from the stories themselves. There is no question left in our mind as to what we are supposed to believe; the truth has been laid before us.
Avalon, conversely, does not give us such luxury. If Class Real is reality, then what has Ash been doing up to this point? Why is her dog that vanished from her world suddenly in this world? As if not content to let us ponder those questions for more than a few moments, Ash quickly tracks down her former teammate Murphy, who has some theories of his own. Murphy believes that Class Real is indeed reality, and he has no desire to ever return to Ash’s world.
Ash questions how this could really be reality, as she has seen Murphy’s lifeless body sitting back in her own world. Murphy says it doesn’t matter, and he tells her that she will believe him when he is dead and his body doesn’t vanish into a swirl of digitized data. He challenges her to a duel, a challenge that she takes. And strike him down she does, and as he lies bleeding, he tells her to embrace this new world, as it is her reward. With that, he dies.
He disappears into a swirl of digitized data. Ash storms forward, more confused than ever, only to encounter the same ghostly child, who this time gives a ghastly smile. This time the message flashed on the screen tells us “Welcome to Avalon,” and when the screen pulls back, we do not see Ash; we see the credits.
If that came across as slightly confusing, then count yourself lucky. Most people watching this movie will probably fall into the “deeply bewildered” category.
Creating a story in which reality is thrown into question can be a tricky affair. It essentially boils down to two different perspectives of storytelling: there is the view that the onus is on the storyteller, and then there is the view that the onus is on the listener or viewer. Hero, Rashomon, and even The Matrix, follow the ideal of the storyteller ultimately being responsible for clearing things up for the audience. Hero gives us the possibilities, but then leaves us with a definitive answer as to what we are supposed to put our trust in. To some, this can be somewhat disappointing, as they want some mystery left for them to try and sort out themselves.
Avalon falls into the other category, the one that leaves all the questions on the audience. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is tricky. When one makes the decision to put the burden on the audience, they have to make sure that they provide a framework in which the answers can fit. Avalon fails in this regard. It leaves far more questions than answers and barely provides even the scarcest of information to let someone draw their own conclusions. Ash is far too shallow a character to truly serve as an anchor, as her motivations are barely hinted at, other than that she wants to be the best.
She dedicates herself to finding Murphy, but we are never really told why. Were they lovers, friends, or just teammates? Without any sort of anchor or framework, any conclusion that someone reaches is inherently invalid and unsatisfying. One is left with the sense that perhaps there are truly no answers because the storyteller himself doesn’t have them.
That is not a feeling an audience should ever be left with.
So, ultimately, the question comes down to this: if you have two movies dealing with perception and reality, which do you chose? If you enjoy having reality twisted, violated, and ultimately broken, leaving you slightly peeved with a fountain of questions, including what just happened to one hour and forty-five minutes of your life, you might like Avalon. Alternatively, if you enjoy beautifully shot films that may not leave you with too many questions but will leave you fully satisfied, then you’ll probably like Hero. The choice of which reality to accept is entirely yours.
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