There is a natural fit between the commemorializing of the chaos of hands-on secluded guerrilla war and the voice of “magic(al) realism” – the strange mix of belief/disbelief that tells the same tale as reality intermingling with superreality.
In guerrilla combat, engagements are short, sharp, and confused (no ranks march up, no parades of weapons appear), there are as many impressions (or more) as there are actors. There is shock and surprise at the beginning, daze and lingering confusion afterward. Nothing is positioned, all is in flux. Verdicts of outcome are forever uncertain, and their delivery falls to popular spokesmen, or often to no one at all. Rarely are the fallen buried, or their graves marked. The detritus of combat is scavenged away: there is very little or anything to indicate that anything unusual ever occurred.
This is material tailor-made for numbed, true-and-yet-not-true “hallucinized” realism of the sort that Mo Yan is famous for, and it is no surprise that Zhang Yimou’s first effort at what should be called “supernormal” tale-telling (chuanqi shushi..传奇叙事) narrative should emerge from an effort to paste together from folk memory just such a minor but horrifying military event.
But second or third hand heroic narrative even in modern times cannot but be subject to the transfiguring impress (doppelganger tale) of the “greenwoods’ hero” 绿林好汉 or 草莽英雄 or 江湖英雄 – better rendered as (heroic) denizens of the wilderness or vagrant (shiftless) bravos, reliant on double-dealing and/or fraudulent transactions and quick escape to survive. Heroic because (prototypically) quick to take offense in preserving honor, often through revenge. These are of course archetypes culled from Water Margin and the like (including its many spin-off operas).
As they survived into the 20th century (from Boxers to Red Spears to the Iron Society during the the War of Resistance), they seem to have become increasingly back-fused into village society where and when outside threats challenged: unlike the county “magistrate”, official gendarmerie and court bailiffs who were nominally in charge of village protection, they were seen (or at least self-projected) as natural on-the-ground leaders best able to mobilize spontaneous village defense leagues trusted by villagers.