Monday, October 19, 2009

Movie Review: Hero

Directed by Yimou Zhang. 2002.

There seem to be two types of reactions to Yimou Zhang’s Hero, those who ignore the content altogether and simply see it as a beautiful and elegant visual feast and those who see it as either pro or anti communist.  I do not think either of those critical approaches is particularly useful, partially because the word “communism,” like many others, is the victim of verbicide. The word can refer generally to communal living, to socialism, to Marxism, or to the current Chinese communist party.  Now I do not wish to get lost in that forest of meaningless words and thus will attempt to consider the actual implications of the film and then decide on what to call it. Such implications may or may not be explicitly political.

Most of the matters to discuss occur in the last twenty minutes of the film.  The first is some advice offered Nameless:  “The people have suffered years of warfare.  Only the King of Qin can stop the chaos by uniting all under Heaven."  Nameless continues to say that, “He asked me to abandon the assassination for the greater good of all.  He said, one person's suffering is nothing compared to the suffering of many.  The rivalry of Zhao and Qin is trivial  compared to the greater cause.”  The king is brought to tears by the fact that his archenemy understood his “beneficent” motives so well when his own advisors did not.  This is the essential message of the film, that it is a noble thing to sacrifice oneself for the greater good.  Of all the messages of the film that are open to interpretation, this one is not.  The film’s American-release title (“Hero”) encourages this theme, as does the epilogue, which states that, “the nameless warrior was executed as an assassin but buried as a hero.”

The film does not address any details or potential problems associated with the notion of, “sacrifice for the greater good.”  Mainly, what is the good?  Who decides what it is?  By what authority do they?  What about people who do not want that “good?”  Do they vote on the good? Individual rights? What about the sacrifice of more than one?  Is there a limit, or threshold when the number of sacrificed becomes too many?  These questions are not entertained, but the answer is that it is ultimately the emperor who decides all of those things.

Yet two additional characteristics of the character, “Nameless” are worthy of note, his name (or rather lack thereof) and his excellence.  His lack of a unique name makes him symbolic of all of the Chinese people of all time who have died for the national unity or improvement of China.  The film is a glorification of selfless and altruistic sacrifice.   The hero’s excellence is also of great importance, since he is not simply a citizen but also the best swordsman in the land.  Yet his death is necessary for the unification to continue.  Did he in fact have to die?  Did Broken Sword and Flying Snow have to die?  Not really, but for the sake of the story’s significance they did.  While nameless could have simply gone into exile, he had to sacrifice himself to become the hero.  While Broken Sword could have gone on with his life, he had to sacrifice himself to prove his love for Flying Snow, as she had to do to prove it to him.  Yet Nameless was the greatest warrior in the land and he had to die for the warring Chinese states to become one land.  The situation, though, is slightly more complicated than that since Nameless first not only dissented but also attempted to assassinate the king, then agreed to the king’s plan.  The king’s advisors warn him, “If your majesty is to unite the land this man has to be made and example of.”  Based strictly on the internal evidence of the movie, we have to assume that Nameless was killed not because he was the best or because he dissented, but only because he attempted to kill the king. 

The next passage we must discuss is the king’s analysis of Broken Sword’s philosophy of swordsmanship:
King of Qin:  It's just dawned on me!  This scroll of Broken Sword's isn't about sword technique but about swordsmanship's ultimate ideal.  Swordsmanship's first achievement is the unity of man and sword.  Once this unity is attained even a blade of grass can be a weapon.  The second achievement is when the sword exists in one's heart then absent from one's hand.  One can strike an enemy at paces even with bare hands.  Swordsmanship's ultimate achievement is the absence of the sword in both hand and heart.  The swordsman is at peace with the rest of the world.  He vows not to kill and to bring peace to mankind.
There are two possible interpretations of this passage.  The first is that this is a longer and more attractive way of saying that the ultimate goal of war is peace.  The second is that in the act of practicing swordsmanship one learns the nature of the world and that its nature is peace.  This second interpretation suggests that the study of swordsmanship is the study of self in relation to others and that such study will yield the understanding that peace is the natural way.  This seems not to have been the interpretation of Nameless and the king, since Nameless says, “Because of my decision today many will die, and your majesty will go one living.  A dead man begs you never to forget the ultimate ideal for a warrior.”  This statement suggests he interprets Sword’s words to mean while peace is the ultimate ideal, it can be brought about by killing.  Actually, the implication is broader, since the king intends not simply to kill those who quarrel and war but any who refuse to be a part of the nation he is trying to build and any who jeopardize it.  Additionally, it suggests a fundamental hypocrisy in the king’s (and country’s) founding premises.  It is as if to say, “We acknowledge this to be our fundamental premise, but we are not going to act on it when it is inconvenient.” 

Now we must ask two interconnected questions.  Does nameless fulfill the hero’s ideal, and which interpretation of Sword’s philosophy does the film promote?  To answer the first question, Nameless does fulfill the ideal you consider the king “uniting the peoples” to be peace.  The fact that the epilogue includes the details about how King Qin Shi Huang went on to unify the warring states into China and build the great wall, “to protect his subjects,” but not his tyrannical rule, his burning of books and scholars, and his attempt to eradicate Confucianism, makes the film an espousal of Qin’s interpretation of Sword’s philosophy.  So is answered, I think, the second question and thus I write espousal because even if the epilogue had addressed the negative aspects of Qin’s rule, the film could still have concluded, “Yes he went on to do evil, but he made us a nation.  We at least appreciate him for that even if we deplore his tyranny.”  That might have sapped the strength of the end of the movie, but it would have been more honest.  If the movie is to be understood as directed toward people who have an understanding of Chinese history and Qin’s subsequent tyranny, then the final scene would leave the viewer with the effect of, “My God, what he went on to do. . .”  Yet I do not believe this is so, since the effect could have been achieved with a long fade and then an epilogue mentioning the events of the rest of his reign which are deliberately left out.

What do we call these ideas, then?  Overall, the film for all of its beauty is about sacrifice for the greater good, the primacy of the group over the individual, and the right of some to define and impose that good on others.  Such ideas are altruist, collectivist and autocratic/oligarchic.  I care not whether you call Hero specifically communist, though it would be appropriate since the film entertains the same logical and moral contradictions.

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