Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)

Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)

There’s a little making-of featurette on the Miramax DVD of Hero[1] that has some decent interviews with the cast and crew along with some breathless Hollywood narration. Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Donnie Yen speak impeccable English, which makes one wonder what might have been if Hollywood wasn’t so racist and dumb, while Ching Siu-tung sports some questionably-dyed hair and Christopher Doyle complains about the lack of bars in the remote deserts of Western China. After the usual rigamarole about shooting challenges and directorial perfectionism, someone asked Zhang Yimou what he thought the film was about, which he either answered honestly or deftly dodged by asserting that what he wanted people to take from the film, long after they’ve forgotten the plot, are the memories of certain images: women in red fighting among swirling yellow leaves, sorrowful men flying and dueling on a lake as still as a mirror, a sky of black arrows, a desert moonscape haunted by lonely figures in white. Taken at his word, he undoubtedly succeeded: Hero builds upon the aestheticization of wuxia begun with Ashes of Time and made popular by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: it’s undeniably beautiful. His two follow-up films, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, are as well, but where the former luxuriates in the irrational melodrama of tragic romance and the latter is consumed by the emptiness at the heart of its own baroque decadence, there’s a reticence to Hero, a by-product of its episodic structure, narrative instability and potentially repellent politics.

Jet Li plays a literally nameless warrior who claims to have defeated three powerful fighters who had pledged themselves to the assassination of the King of Qin, a man engaged in a quest to conquer the other six states of the Warring States period, to reunify the nation.[2] As a reward for his victories, Nameless is allowed an audience with the King where he will tell of his exploits. The prologue is the story of his fight with Sky, played by Donnie Yen, in a rain-soaked chess house. Much of the fight plays out, Nameless says, in their minds: the two warriors facing off and imagining moves and counter-moves in a grainy black and white. This is the best pure fight sequence in the film, the only time two accomplished martial arts performers will face-off, and its reunion of Li and Yen, a decade after Once Upon a Time in China II, was one of the film’s biggest selling-points. The fact that it’s almost entirely imagined, yet asserted and felt to be true, sets the stage for the shiftiness of the stories to come. For this is a told movie, an imagined movie, it takes place in the words of the nameless man and the King, and the purpose of their duel remains uncertain, even after its conclusion.[3]

After the story of Sky’s defeat, Nameless is allowed to move within ten paces of the King (they are still separated by a phalanx of candles) and tell how he defeated Broken Sword and Flying Snow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung, respectively), a couple who had almost succeeded in assassinating the King three years earlier. There are three versions of this story, each corresponding to a definition of “hero” as related in the Miramax version of the movie’s opening sequence: a hero is one who fights for love, for friendship, or for an ideal. The first story is drenched in red, it finds Flying Snow and Broken Sword hiding out in a remote calligraphy studio along with Sword’s student Moon (Zhang Ziyi). Nameless commissions Sword to draw a banner with the character for “sword” on it.[4]⁠ Then Nameless tells them he killed Sky and lets out that Sky and Flying Snow were in love, which sends Sword into a jealous frenzy, which he satisfies by sleeping with Moon and then telling Snow about it, whereupon she kills him. Then Moon challenges Snow to a duel in a yellow wood, which turns blood red when Snow kills her. Then Nameless kills Snow in front of the Qin army.

The King doesn’t buy this at all: Snow and Sword are not so easily ruled by their passions. He relates his alternate theory: that Nameless is actually there to kill him, that he has enlisted the three heroes to help him get within ten feet of the King so that he can use a mysterious and unstoppable technique. The three will bravely sacrifice themselves for Nameless’s cause, but Sword and Snow disagree on which of them should be the one to die. Snow wins and dies, and at her funeral Sword and Nameless fight a duel (imaginary again, like the one with Sky) skipping across a pristine lake as the world turns from blue to white (the color of death) with snow.

Nameless agrees with this version of events, but with one caveat: Sword actually did not want to assassinate the King. We see a flashback to Sword and Snow’s assault on the palace three years ago (dressed in green, they find the King’s throne room draped with billowing green tapestries, which during the course of the fighting are sliced apart). Inexplicably Sword, at the last second, lets the King live. The two assassins escape, but Snow is livid with Sword’s betrayal. When they meet Nameless (all are now dressed in white), Snow wants to go along with his plan⁠,[5] but Sword refuses and says he will do everything he can to stop Nameless. He fights the two of them, and they succeed in wounding him but not fatally (Moon here attacks Nameless and is easily brushed aside). Snow and Nameless fight their fake duel before the Qin army, and everyone meets in the empty desert before Nameless’s departure. Sword draws the characters tiānxià (天下) in the sand (translated for us Americans as “Our Land”) and explains that the reason the Qin King needs to live is because he’s the only one who can unify the country, that the toll of 250 years of violence⁠[6] is too great, that the people need peace. He may be a bloody tyrant, and his wars of conquest may be terrible and cruel, but at least if he wins there would be some stability. The King is shocked by this revelation: who knew that his assassin would be the only one to really understand what a terrific guy he is!

He gives Nameless his sword, convinced that he now shares Sword’s belief, and turns to contemplate the character, which apparently contains the true secret of swordsmanship. It turns out that the secret is that ancient bit of wisdom about Global Thermonuclear War: the only winning move is not to play. In the meantime, we see Sword and Snow face off and she accidentally kills him when he refuses to defend himself. Crushed by grief, she kills herself along with him. Moon cries. Nameless, apparently realizing the truth of Sword’s words, decides to spare the King, who allows him to leave. But as Nameless marches off, the King’s advisors swarm to his side, insisting that the assassin be killed, to be made an example of for the sake of (soon-to-be) imperial authority. The King, also crying, agrees and a skyfull of arrows swoops toward the motionless Nameless, standing at the palace door. We don’t see his body, just the person-shaped absence of arrows on the door.

This is taken to be a justification for authoritarianism in the name of nationalism. That true heroism requires submitting to Power, no matter how corrupt or murderous, in the name of unity. In a nation defined, in the West at least, by its repressive government, the film can thus only be read as a betrayal by Zhang, a filmmaker who over the previous decade had been lauded as an anti-authoritarian figure, a singular artist pushing back against the system with highbrow, humane dramas, several of which were not allowed to be seen in his own country. This perception was compounded by Zhang’s production of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which, like Hero, were lauded for their precision, beauty, and scale, but dismissed as a glorification of the anti-democratic state. Zhang hasn’t helped matters by claiming disinterest in politics: even if that’s true, his work has a political content whether he cares or not. That said, I don’t think this is a particularly accurate reading of Hero.

To begin with, the film’s nationalistic interpretation is at least partially based on a mistranslation (again, thanks Weinsteins). I don’t speak Chinese, but Jason Anderson sums up the issue:

In Zhang Yimou’s martial-arts pic Hero, a seemingly minor change in translation confounded my understanding of the film. According to the English subtitle on the international-release version I bought on DVD last year, the phrase on the banner that Jet Li’s nameless warrior gives to the king — “tian xia” — means “All Under Heaven.” For me, the phrase tied into the ambiguity I saw in the film’s politics; the tyrant’s campaign to unite China could be interpreted as either divinely ordained or brutally rapacious. In the Miramax version subsequently released in North America, the subtitle reads “Our Land,” a Woody Guthrie-esque line that conveys a simpler but potentially more problematic strain of nationalism.

At a Hero screening in Massachusetts before the film’s opening in August, an audience member asked Zhang about the modification. After the two English phrases were carefully explained to the director by his translator (Zhang speaks no English), he replied, “We struggled for a long time with the translation because it’s difficult. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes, ‘To suffer yourself when all under heaven suffer, to enjoy only when all under heaven enjoy.’ In the Chinese tradition, the idea of ‘tian xia’ has a very profound significance, and a true hero can hold ‘all under heaven’ in his heart. If you ask me if ‘our land’ is a good translation, I can’t tell you. All translations are handicapped. Every word has different meanings in different cultures.”

Traditionally, tianxia is used to describe “all under heaven” in political terms, because the Chinese Emperor is in fact the Emperor of the whole world (whether the rest of the world is aware of that or not). When Broken Sword writes the characters for Nameless, he’s arguing for a kind of universal unity, world peace, under a single authority. It’s a nationalist argument in that it is China that is at the center of that authority, radiating outward from the Emperor to all the substates of the world. This is historically accurate: this was what the King of Qin wanted and this is what he achieved, a few centuries of disunity here or there between dynasties aside, this was the conception of the Chinese state until the 19th Century. Given present controversies regarding Chinese assertions of sovereignty in places like Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea, glorifying this history is sure to both please the present PRC government and annoy its opponents. But this conflation of tianxia with the Chinese state (of whatever era) is only nominal: because of the traditional equation of “China” with “civilization”, one can just as easily read Sword’s argument as in favor of robust and active pacifism in confronting the forces of violence in the world.

For this isn’t all Broken Sword argues for. The other character he writes (“劍” jiàn, or “sword”) teaches both Nameless and the King that true power lies in withholding violence. Nameless takes the advice and chooses not to kill the King. The King wishes to do the same and allow Nameless to go in peace, but is urged by his bureaucracy to kill him and he gives in to their demands. Thus we see the limits of philosophy in the face of the machine of state. The ideal that Broken Sword is working towards is the kind of world unity wherein violence is absent, where other passions (honor, charity, wisdom) rule instead. He dies because the woman he loves cannot conceive of such a world (even when she begins to understand, the only thing she can think to do is kill herself). Nameless dies a martyr to that world, while the King becomes a tragic figure: aware of the world he could make, but for all his power, unable to achieve it. The film’s final image, Nameless’s arrow-shadow on the palace gates, recalls Chang Cheh (this hero too dies standing up) and is as well a kind of inversion of the famous photo from Tiananmen Square, an anonymous (nameless) hero standing alone before a tank, the armored incarnation of state power.

Zhang has always been a director of images and emotions rather than ideas. This has made him particularly adaptable to the changing conditions around him. When he and his fellow Fifth Generation directors were emerging from the Cultural Revolution onto the world festival circuit, the very fact of his existence made him a hero to the West and a suspect figure at home. As China modernized in the 1990s, the state prohibitions on his films were lifted and his reputation and obvious talents made him a prominent enough figure that he could be put in charge of something as vital for the national self-promotion as the Olympic ceremonies. At the same time, this prominence set him up as a symbol of the establishment for the next generation of directors, who found themselves working under much the same conditions Zhang and his colleagues had found in the mid-1980s (low budgets, remote locations, interfering censorship, government bans). I don’t think Zhang himself ever really changed, just our perception of what filmmakers in China are and should be capable of doing. There was a time when directing a humane if superficial chronicle of life in Mao’s China was a heroic act, but now we demand more. Thirteen years later, I honestly can’t say if Hero is fascist or not. I suspect it might very well be both, and that the facts of making popular films under a repressive regime require more ambiguity in political messaging than we, who take our freedoms for granted, would like. I do know that this reducto ad Riefenstahlium that surrounds it does not tell the whole story. And I know that I’ll never forget two men standing in the rain, imagining a duel to the death to the sound of a guqin. Or two women in red whirling in the wind, tornados of yellow leaves compounding their grief over the man they both love. Or two men skipping across a liquid mirror, the beautiful world made still and silent by death. Or the emptiness of a desert wasteland, peopled only by the ghosts of failed ideals.

  1. Remember when Miramax shelved this for two years and then dumped both it and House of Flying Daggers in US theatres in a three month span, artificially deflating the gross of each film, but Hero is still the third most successful foreign film in US box office history? ↩︎

  2. ⁠Which he did: the name “China” is generally considered to be derived from his (ultimately short-lived) Qin Dynasty. ↩︎

  3. As does the ultimate fate of Sky: he will be spoken of again, but never seen. ↩︎

  4. Which he presents to the King: it will remain unfurled behind him, a giant blood red character on white paper, for the rest of the film. ↩︎

  5. It involves a precision stabbing: the hero will look dead but will survive. This is what Nameless says happened with Sky, who is now said to be recovering nicely. ↩︎

  6. It’s not called the Warring States period for nothing. ↩︎