Posted by sepoy on September 13, 2004 · 6 mins read

Hero(2002) is playing everywhere and making some good money. I am happy. It was one of the movies that I was really, really looking forward to. Gerry would read monkeypeaches on a biweekly basis, keeping us abreast of this coolness being directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (anyone who knows me, knows about my deeply disturbing obsession with these two) as well as Jet Li. On top of all that, the cinematographer was Christopher Doyle whose color palette and composition pushed every Wong Kar-Wai movie into the masterpiece realm.
What more can one want in a movie?
I saw Hero last year. Visually, it is a masterpiece. The Rash√ômon-style narrative with different hue/theme to each retelling is extraordinary. The acting of all principals is brilliant. The story, for those wondering, is set in the Qin dynasty (250 BCE) with four assassins out to kill the Emperor. Nameless, played by Jet Li, faces the pivotal choice at the end: does the greater, long-term good of "Our Land" triumph over revenge for a brutal regime?
Needless to say, many see Nameless' choice as one that endorses the present regime in China. In Village Voice, J. Hoberman compared Zhang Yimou's wuxia epic to Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi documentary:

Such power politics are not inappropriate given the film's cartoon ideology. There's more than a bit of Leni Riefenstahl to Hero√“and not just because of the implied "worship" in the title or Zhang's homage to Star Wars' famous Triumph of the Will swipe. Hero's vast imperial sets and symmetrical tumult, its decorative dialectical montage and sanctimonious traditionalism, its glorification of ruthless leadership and self-sacrifice on the altar of national greatness, not to mention the sense that this might somehow stoke the engine of political regeneration, are all redolent of fascinatin' fascism.

My dear friend DMan, whose opinion is heard in the highest circles of power, claims that Zhang Yimou "slept with the revisionist propaganda of the Chinese regime in Hero and now all of his brilliance is reduced to CGI special effects and overblown melodrama in House of Flying Daggers."

The same could be heard in the Chinese press (for the record, I don't have a clue what the Chinese press said, as this is second-hand info):

"'Hero' does not have the courage to present the massacres Qin Shihuang ordered in the name of peace under heaven," said Tou Jiangming, writing in The Sat-China Weekly. "The history so often questioned by modern thinkers is ignored by Zhang Yimou." Or as a critic using the pen name Bu Tong put it in The Beijing Youth Daily: "Zhang Yimou's movie has a deep servility inside. He tried to understand what the world looks like from the ruler's standpoint."

In Salon, Charles Taylor offers a much-needed corrective to such hyperbole [annoying ad-watching required]:

Apart from the offensiveness of charging a filmmaker whose films have been banned by the Chinese government -- and who has been prevented from traveling to collect the honors those films have garnered -- of suddenly licking the government's feet, the anti-"Hero" arguments don't take into account that the film ends not in a surge of patriotic feeling but on a pronounced mournful note of contingency and skepticism. And they ignore how the movie forces the King to live up to the ideology he so glibly spouts about sacrificing the happiness of the individual for the good of all. In our final glimpse of the King, the man has been dwarfed by the trappings of his power.

I stand somewhere in the middle of those two views. I don't for a moment think that Zhang Yimou has kowtowed to the communist regime or is doing propoganda for the state. The man's work speaks for itself. The conception of a Hero in Hero is much more complex than the general accusations against it. Zhang Yimou, in my view, presents us with three archetypes here: The lone warrior of honor, the principled and despotic King who sees the greater good (go Musharraf!?), and the martyr for the one nation under heaven. Most commentators assume that Zhang Yimou projects Nameless as the "Hero" of the tale. But, one can just as easily posit that it is Broken Sword who is the real Hero or the Emperor. The fractured narrative lends equal credibility to any of these characters and what emerges, for me, is not an endorsement of one particular "Hero" but a deconstruction of the very mythos. He raises more questions than he answers, sure. It is, after all, a commercial venture. Still, I do not think that Yimou's observation of nationalist pride is glib. Jet Li answered, thusly, in an interview:

Q: What's your definition of Hero?
Jet Li: It's funny different people defined it so differently. In China, a hero puts his country before his family. In America, if you can't even protect your own family, you're nothing. To me, a perfect hero is no hero. Because heroes are only borne of tumultuous times. If there is peace, we won't need heroes.

That the mandarins of China seized upon Hero as furthering their cause, that Zhang Yimou made a commercial film, does not prevent us from taking something else from the movie.


Dman | September 13, 2004

As usual, brilliantly written... however, my comrade, you are right that he is somewhere in the middle in Hero. Note that it was originally made in 2002. In House of Flying Daggers (2004) you will see that his tranformation to the dark side is complete. Call it commercialism or state ideology or artistic maturation, but he ain't the same guy I used to know from Raise the Red lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, Ju Dou, The Road Home, or Happy Hours. Yes, his PAST work speaks for himself. But he would be neither the first nor the last to sell out.

sepoy | September 13, 2004

Dman: I will wait until I see HOFD and if your judgement holds, it will be sad to see Yimou sell out. Only because it is sad to see anyone you like sell out - when I am begging over here to sell myself.

Chan'ad | September 13, 2004

An absolutely beautiful movie. My main complaint is that there isn't enough martial arts. Why else do you need a 3 time National Wushu champion to be in your movie if you don't flaunt his skills. I definitely agree with Dman though that Zhang's more recent films are markedly different from his older ones like Red Lantern et al. I guess he took some inspiration from Carlos Santana and decided that it was finally his time to rake in some dough. Nothing wrong with that... I don't mind watching his older flicks over again.

vu | September 13, 2004

I donít quite understand Taylorís argument in his Salon review. I tried but could not find any dramatic irony in ìHeroîís ending. How significant can the ìcontingency and skepticismî be if the movieís last image is of the Great Wall of China overwritten by the words ìOur Landî? All the blood and historical anguish suggested in such an image cannot outweigh the fact that the wall still stands, and that China itself still exists. All the characters at the end are indeed portrayed in tragic shades (maybe even with doubt on the kingís part), but itís a tragedy that defines self-sacrifice. I donít think it matters who is seen as the ìheroî in the film, whichever way you look at it, a final decision is made among the main characters (the king included): to sacrifice the individual for the greater good. The fact that they suffer and that we mourn them only bolsters the heroism of their sacrifice. I agree that Yimouís approach is far from glib, but I also think his film has a definite message about individuality and obligation, a message that Iíve always been ambivalent about, being a Vietnamese-American dude with traditional Vietnamese parents. I donít question the filmís portrayal of nationalist pride so much as I am uncertain about the moral precept that underpins it. Politics aside, though, Iím a big fan of the movie with a few aesthetic quibbles. ìHeroî is unquestionably a marvel of cinematic craftsmanship, with a moving and enjoyably complex narrative, but while itís easy to be seduced by the filmís breathtaking pyrotechnics, I couldnít overlook the fact that Yimou often overdoes the dramatics (a few too many slo-mo shots) and ends up nullifying some emotionally powerful scenes once we find out that half the movie is imagined. Other than that, itís one bitch of a movie.

sepoy | September 13, 2004

Vu: Speaking as a traditional Pakistani raised on the twin sacrificing swords of Faith and Nationalism, I know what you mean. Maybe we are reading too much into it. I think that Yimou is concerned more with the commercial nature of the enterprise than fine-tuning the moral ambivalence of the heroes. This interview kinda did it for me.

gerry | September 13, 2004

Two quick thoughts and a word from Brecht: I'm not sure you can make a film about national unity in China without suggesting a parallel to Beijing-Hong Kong and Beijing-Taipei relations. I don't think that the parallel should dominate the interpretation of the film, however. The movie's accounts of "individuals sacrificing themselves for the good of the many" runs counter to the vibrant, vulgar consumerism on display in Shanghai and other capitalist redoubts. Andrea: Unhappy the land that has no heroes. Galileo: Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.

desesperanto | September 14, 2004

All the blood and historical anguish what i found problematic both aesthetically and politically is that the king is (self)described but not *shown* as causing enormous suffering. i bet the ironic tragic heroism would go down a lot less well if there had been actual footage of cruelty. re:"speaking as a", the king's line about my authoritarianism is better than endless skirmishes made me think of afghanis welcoming the taliban for just the reason -- and eezha thamizh people welcoming the ltte.

elck | November 22, 2004

I've been enjoying your pages sepoy. Hero: I was rather excited to see it, but it was ultimately a letdown. Glad to have a well-reasoned contrasting view though. But I'll stick to my guns on this one. I wrote briefly about the film on my pages: http://vernacularbody.typepad.com/vernacularbody/2004/08/chinese_box.html http://vernacularbody.typepad.com/vernacularbody/2004/08/hero.html elck