“Hero” - Zhang Yimou (2002)

The wind blows.
The river is cold.
The hero sets forth.
He may never return.

So, famously wrote the legendary Chinese hero Jīng Kē some 2200 years ago, prior to setting out on his mission to assassinate the ruthless King Ying Zheng of Qin (later the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang). Throughout Chinese cultural history Jing Ke has been an inspirational symbol of individual heroism, just as King Zheng has been the iconic representative of Chinese totalitarian collectivism. Ever since then, their confrontation has offered an ideal artistic metaphor for China’s writers and artists to examine the nature of Chinese social organization. Zhang Yimou, the preeminent filmmaker of China, was one of the more recent artists to seize this opportunity when he made Hero (Yīng Xióng, 2002). Though his film was an immediate commercial and critical success as an action/adventure wuxia thriller, what is of interest here is Zhang’s rather problematic perspective on the issues raised by Jing Ke’s story.

Zhang Yimou began his film career by entering the cinematography section of the Beijing Film Institute when it was reopened in 1978 after the depredations of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976). He was graduated in 1982, along with fellow classmate Chen Kaige, who was in the director section, and Zhang then worked as the cinematographer on two of Chen’s first films, Yellow Earth (Huang Tu Di, 1984) and The Big Parade (Da Yue Bing, 1986), before launching his own directorial career that led to a string of artistic successes in the 1990s. All of Zhang’s film productions during this period evinced an exquisite existentialist vision of the struggle to find fulfilment in a changing world, and the effect was invariably accentuated by Zhang’s technical virtuosity of visual expression. A common theme to these films was the notion of an individual protagonist, usually a woman, struggling to make her way in turbulent social circumstances. Within this broad scheme there were basically two stylistic categories:
  1. Carefully staged and orchestrated historical dramas situated in richly colored, atmospheric environments. These explicitly expressionistic films feature professional casts, and they include Jú Dòu (1990), Raise the Red Lantern, (Dà Hóng Dēnglóng Gāo Gāo Guà, 1991), To Live (Huózhe, 1994), and Shanghai Triad (Yáo A Yáo, Yáo Dào Wàipó Qiáo, 1995).
  2. More open, naturalistic dramas mostly set in the present day, often featuring a largely nonprofessional cast. These include The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiū Jú Da Guān Sī, 1992), The Road Home (Wŏ De Fù Qīn Mŭ Qīn, 1999), Not One Less (Yí Ge Dōu Bù Néng Shāo, 1999), and Happy Times (Xìngfú Shíguāng, 2000).
With Hero, however, Zhang departed from his previous style by fashioning a grandiose martial arts film in the Hong Kong wuxia filmmaking tradition, featuring an unprecedented budget ($31 million) and a string of Asian films stars including Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Donnie Yen, and Zhang Ziyi. To some extent this radical move in style could be seen as a natural step for Zhang, who having already demonstrated a mastery of film technique encompassing drama, comedy, and film noir genres, could now be seen as demonstrating his mastery of yet another genre. And the new style could also be seen in the context of and response to his contemporary Asian film director, the Taiwanese Ang Lee, who had made a similar move from artistic dramas to Hong Kong martial-arts films with his 2000 epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wòhŭ Cánglóng). After all, Lee’s step up to big-budget wuxia adventure (although only half of Hero's budget) had been an enormous worldwide commercial success that established a wider recognition of his work.

But there seems to have been something more to this change of direction than simply seizing the opportunity to make big-budget epics. Zhang Yimou’s Hero displays a striking, even disturbing, shift in his thematic perspective. And I would speculate that this shift on the part of Zhang may have been influenced less by general interests in expanding his repertoire and more by the felt need to respond to the work of his former partner (and perhaps now rival), Chen Kaige. It must be noted that Chen had quickly started working with Gong Li, Zhang’s former romantic partner and leading lady, as soon as they had split up in 1995. She had been Chen’s female lead in Temptress Moon (Fēng Yuè, 1995) and in The Emperor and the Assassin (Jīng Kē Cì Qín Wáng, 1999). We should also note that The Emperor and the Assassin was based on the very same theme of Jīng Kē’s historic assassination attempt that appears (in somewhat altered form) in Hero. Before discussing these general issues, though, it is appropriate to take a closer look at Zhang’s Hero. First, I will review Zhang Yimou’s basic story as presented, and then look at the film along the four dimensions of (1) cinematography and mise-en-scène, (2) narrative structure, (3) wuxia action, and (4) thematic content. In my opinion, Hero, despite its enormous financial success ($180 million in gross revenues) and the critical accolades that it has received, suffers from fundamental failures along three of these dimensions.

Before considering the Hero narrative, it is worth referencing the original quasi-mythic story of Jing Ke (which is fairly closely adhered to in Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin). In that original story Jing Ke managed to persuade an out-of-favor Qin army general whose head was up for ransom to commit suicide so that Jing could get permission to closely approach the Qin king with his severed head. Jing Ke then did indeed get his fateful audience with the brutal king, but when he thrust his dagger at the king, he missed, and after a violent struggle, he was killed.

In Hero, the story is elaborated with a number of additional characters on the assassin’s side:
  • Nameless (played by Jet Li) is the Jing Ke character from the Zhao kingdom, but he is only known as “Nameless”, and the name "Jing Ke" is never referenced.
  • Broken Sword (played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is an accomplished swordsman and student of calligraphy who has previously attacked the Qin king and is a wanted man. He is the lover of Flying Snow.
  • Flying Snow (played by Maggie Cheung) is the daughter of a killed Zhao general, and she has sworn to avenge her father’s death and kill the king of Qin. She is also an accomplished swordsperson and is the lover of Broken Sword.
  • Sky (played by Donnie Yen) is famous in both the use of swords and spears and has previously tried to kill the King of Qin.
  • Moon (played by Zhang Ziyi) is Broken Sword’s loyal (and beautiful) attendant and apprentice.
The film narrative of Hero, which comprises five major “acts” or sections, encompasses four principal stories that are dramatically depicted as told (with corresponding color-codings) by Nameless, King Ying Zheng, and Broken Sword.
  1. Nameless Comes to Qin (16 minutes). Nameless comes to the Qin palace with great fanfare, since he bears proof that he just killed King Zheng’s three most feared enemies: Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow. Normally everyone must remain at least 100 paces distant from the king, but when the proof of Sky’s death is presented, Nameless is allowed to approach within 20 paces. He then begins telling his tale, which we could call Story #1. Nameless relates that Sky had spent an amorous night with Flyling Snow, which had caused a jealous rift between Broken Sword and Flying Snow. He says that he set about the task of killing Sky as a prelude to approaching the two sulking lovers. After a confrontation with Sky at a gaming parlor, they engage in an elaborate sword fight (call this “Flying Wuxia Sword Fight #1" – FWSF1), which results in Sky’s death. Upon hearing this, King Zheng allows Nameless to approach within 10 paces.
  2. Story of Broken Sword and Flying Snow (25 minutes). Nameless now relates in Story #2 how he killed the other two. Since Broken Sword is a student of calligraphy (and believes that the art of swordsmanship is intrinsically linked to calligraphy), Nameless approaches Broken Sword at the calligraphy academy and requests instruction concerning a new secret way of writing the character for ‘sword’, for which there are already 19 conventional ways of writing it in various parts of China. Upon hearing this tale of such a multiplicity of ways of writing a single character, the king interrupts Nameless’s story and proclaims that he will someday establish a single written language for China in order to end this confusion. Thematically this is important, because it is one of the so-called contributions of the first emperor: he did indeed establish such a unified written language and thereby helped unify the land. Then Nameless continues his story. First an elaborate battle in defense of the calligraphy school from an attack by Qin army soldiers (FWSF2) is depicted, after which Nameless informs Broken Sword and Flying Snow of Sky’s death and of Sky’s wish for his lover and soulmate, Flying Snow, to avenge his death by engaging in a duel with Nameless. Jealous from hearing the news of Sky’s passion for his beloved Flying Snow, Broken Sword then rips the clothes off his maiden, Moon, and makes passionate love to her in front of Flying Snow. Although this love scene is brief, it is artistically suggestive and filled with passionate moans of lovemaking. Flying Snow then kills Broken Sword out of jealousy and is then physically, but unsuccessfully, attacked by Moon, in a swirling display of female swordplay (FWSF3). In the duel the next day, the still-grieving Flying Snow is no match for Nameless and she is quickly killed. So the outcomes of Nameless’s stories #1 and #2 are that Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow are all dead.
  3. King Zheng’s Version of the Events (16 minutes). King Zheng doesn’t buy for a minute Nameless’s two stories of what happened. He surmises that Nameless must have practiced and perfected some sort of invincible swordsmanship move so that he could kill the king from a distance of 10 paces, and that he needed to kill either Broken Sword or Flying Snow in order to provide him with permission to approach that closely to the king. Then the king’s version of what he thinks really happened is visualized (Story #3). Flying Snow first wounds Broken Sword so that she, alone, will be the one to sacrifice herself (so that with such evidence Nameless will be able to approach the king). Then Nameless and Flying Snow engage in some swordplay that is witnessed by Qin army troops (FWSF4), which ends in Snow’s death. Then Nameless and Broken Sword engage in another flight (FWSF5) that involves flying picturesquely over a lake. The king’s story comes to an end, and he concedes that with all other armed personnel kept more than 100 paces away from him, Nameless is now too close to be thwarted by the king's guards and is in perfect position to carry out his assassination. So the outcome of this story #3 is that Sky and Flying Snow are dead.
  4. Nameless Gives Another Account (19 minutes). Nameless concedes that the king’s version of events is partially correct and that he has perfected a move that can kill the king at a distance of 10 paces. But now that he is position to kill the king, he hesitates, and the king asks why. Nameless now says he will explain what really happened, and so he launches into Story #4. First Nameless points out that earlier he had, after long practice, acquired the skill of being able to stab someone with his sword with such accuracy that it would miss all the vital organs and not kill his victim. Thus when he had bested Sky, he had injured him, but had not killed him. Subsequently, when Nameless approached Broken Sword and Flying Snow with his plan to kill the king, Broken Sword did agree that Nameless’s plan could work, but, paradoxically, he insisted that the king of Qin must not be killed. After some more random, showy violence involving Flying Snow, Broken Sword, Nameless, and Moon, Broken Sword is moved to explain why the king must not be killed. He relates (in what we could call Story #5, within Story #4) how, three years earlier, he and Flying Snow had attacked the king’s palace (FWSF6) and had been in the position of finishing off the king. But just then Broken Sword had an insight, based on his training in calligraphy, and realized that the king must not be killed. When Nameless asks for an explanation, Broken Sword writes the characters in the sand, “Tiān Xià”, which is usually understood to mean “all under heaven”, but which is translated in the subtitles as “Our Land”. The outcome of Story #4 is that Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow are all still alive (thanks to Nameless’s uncannily accurate swordsmanship).
  5. The Denouement (17 minutes). Nameless now asserts that he finally agrees with Broken Sword that the king must not be killed, and he says to the king, “only your majesty has the power to bring peace by uniting our land.” At the same time the king, who has turned his back on Nameless in a stoic posture of awaiting his execution, contemplates Broken Sword’s calligraphy and surmises that it symbolically signifies that the “sword” should be united with the “heart” and turned to good. The warrior should embrace all around him and ultimately lose his desire to kill. Meanwhile the scene shifts to the distance, where Flying Snow is signaled by a messenger that the assassination attempt has been unsuccessful. Accusing Broken Sword of having seduced Nameless onto the wrong path, Flying Snow challenges him to a duel, in the event of which (FWSF7) Broken Sword drops his sword and allows Flying Snow to kill him. Grief stricken, Flying Snow then kills herself in order to be with Broken Sword in the “after life”. Then, back at the palace, the guards exhort the king to kill Nameless: “if our land is to be united, then this person must be made an example of” (i.e. executed). The king, in his weakness, accepts this verdict and orders the execution, which ends Nameless’s life. The outcome here, finally, is that Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Nameless are all dead.
Now let us examine the four dimensions of (1) cinematography and mise-en-scène, (2) narrative structure, (3) wuxia action, and (4) thematic content.

1. Cinematography and Mise-en-scène
The cinematography in Hero, credited to Christopher Doyle, although certainly Zhang Yimou had a serious hand in this area, is spectacular throughout. The Australian Doyle achieved fame as Wong Kar Wai’s customary cinematographer, and Wong’s open-ended narrative style has given Doyle the latitude to explore and display his enormous talents in cinematic expressiveness. In some ways, in fact, Doyle could be considered to be a co-creator of Wong’s fascinating and moody filmic creations. Doyle was also the cinematographer of some other noteworthy films, including Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon and Lau’s and Man’s Infernal Affairs (2002). Putting Doyle together with Zhang Yimou on a film is a dream combination.

There are many spectacularly composed presentations: the atmospheric shots of lone warriors riding across desolate landscapes, the shots of the famous Guilin area, the magnificently composed shots of imperial armies waving colored flags and marching in ominous processions. The stories of Nameless, King Zheng, and Broken Sword are presented with individual color motifs that convey a dreamlike feeling to the tales. Nameless’s first stories are told with yellow and red motifs, while King Zheng’s version of the events have a blue motif. Broken Sword’s final story has a green motif, and Nameless’s final encounter with King Zheng is essentially in white and black.

In short, the cinematography and mise-en-scène in the film are the most successful aspects and are probably primarily responsible for the popularity of the film. But given the deficiencies of the story, these pleasures are ephemeral. The dynamic nature of the cinematography means that it does offer more than just picture postcards, but narrative and thematic substance are the real core values of any truly successful film. The dynamic visual expression on display in Hero is diverting, but that is not enough.

2. Narrative Structure
As a narrative, there a number of things fundamentally wrong with Hero. The various stories presented do not fit together into a coherent whole. This problem is aggravated by the various interruptions that take place so that the numerous sword fights can be conducted. In particular, the sword fight between Nameless and Broken Sword that takes place over the lake after Flying Snow’s death is part of the king’s imaginings of what happened, and this is narratively implausible. Even granting poetic license characteristic of this genre, there is no justification for the king to fantasize about this confronation.

In addition, the roles of key players are inconsistent across the various stories, and they do not present believable characters.
  • In the end, Broken Sword agrees to fight Flying Snow in a duel, but then lays down his sword at the last minute to prove his pacifism and thereby ensure his own death. Why be so suicidal?
  • The king, who claims to be such a strong leader, weakly assents to his guards’ demands to have Nameless executed. Is this the kind of strength of character that can unite a nation?
  • The only roles that show even the slightest degree of character depth are those of Nameless and Broken Sword. The others, particularly the women, seem to be artificial insertions only for the purpose of presenting women wielding swords (which seems to be especially popular with wuxia audiences these days). The Moon character is particularly gratuitous, and the Sky character, who is initially presented as a major operative, soon disappears and is not seen again.
  • The acting performances seem indifferent. Only Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi show much commitment and passion. Maggie Cheung, whom I have appreciated in other roles, is not put to good effect here. And Jet Li, in the key role of Nameless, is not at all compelling, nor does he generate sympathy to whatever is his cause.
With respect to the overall narrative structure, we should remark that despite the trickiness of the Rashomon-like conflicting versions of what happened, the narrative structure of the story is ultimately awkward and inconsistent. The key motivations behind the passions underlying each element are not provided. As a consequence, the movement from one story to the next seems relatively arbitrary.

3. Wuxia Action
As I have remarked elsewhere in connection with John Woo’s Red Cliff, the Hong Kong martial arts chop fooey (also known as “wire fu”) style is inspired by computer gaming environments and greatly diminishes the sense of reality and immediacy to a film. With various characters able to fly about by merely pointing their fingers, we are talking about another reality, in which the meaningful interactions with which we are familiar are probably meaningless. These wuxia action interruptions, the "FWSFs" described above, are ultimately ludicrous to behold, although one must acknowledge that a considerable degree of effort must have gone into realizing these effects for the screen. My criticism in this respect applies, by the way, equally much to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. In that film there were actually some potentially interesting character relationships, but they were undermined by the excessive degree of wire-fu histrionics. These “magical” effects apparently please the adolescent audiences who spend so much time in vicarious experiences of electronic media that they have only a blurred ability to engage in real authentic interactions.

4. Thematic Content
My biggest concern and disappointment with Hero, however, is concerned with the thematic content. The message that Zhang Yimou delivers in this film is that totalitarian statism is necessary to ensure peace and “unity”. This kind of propaganda may square well with ego-driven Chinese chauvinists concerned about national pride, but it is more a reflection of insecurity than of confidence. The stridency of such a position does not fit with Zhang Yimou’s earlier films, which evoked compassionate sympathies for the everyday feelings, yearnings, and loves of ordinary people.

Ruthless totalitarian dictatorships invariably attempt to justify themselves by claiming that they are the only bulwark against an even worse condition: chaos and anarchy. It is true that given such exclusive either-or alternatives, one may accept the preferability of one unsavory option to the other – thus Saddam Hussein’s depredations in Iraq may well have been preferable to the brutal violence that has since ensued. But such evaluations render neither Hussein’s government nor that of Qin Shi Huang (Ying Zheng) as ultimately desirable, and the either-or proposition should not be accepted as the only possibility.

The controversial reign of Qin Shi Huang is always viewed in the context of the Chinese Warring States Period (476 BCE - 221 BCE), during which the original Zhou dynasty had broken up into separate states, which by the end of that period had coalesced into seven mutually contesting regional states. During that period many contemporary commentators bemoaned the disunity of China and were severely pessimistic about the future. They felt that China had fallen onto evil times. Even before this time, and ever since, Chinese writers have longed for national unity that could bring harmony “under heaven”. Thus apologists for Qin Shi Huang, such as Zhang Yimou in Hero, will argue that compromising with the demands of such a leader was (and apparently always is) necessary for the “national interests”.

But this is only one side of the story. In fact, the Warring States Period was one of the most fertile and productive eras in Chinese history [1]. There were major, in fact world-leading, scientific and technical innovations made. Intellectual ferment was at its highest and led to the emergence of the “100 Hundred Schools of Thought”, that included Daoism, Confucianism, and Legalism. The economy flourished, and as a consequence, the population greatly expanded during this period. Although there were inter-state wars, these were, until the latter stages of the era, mostly undertaken by professional armies and were not so devastating to the general population as later wars were. When Qin Shi Huang closed the period and established his police state, he put an end to all this creative development.

Examining at a 2200-year distance the balance sheet of the reign of Qin Shi Huang reveals some stark results. On the presumed positive side, his reign led to
  • the standardization of written text
  • the standardization of money
  • a national road system
  • improved waterways
  • the Great Wall (at a reported cost of one million laborers)
But on the negative side there were several devastating occurrences:
  • Massive Human Slaughters. There were enormous sacrifices of human life in order to carry out the public works projects, including military campaigns. In 260 BCE when the Qin army defeated the Zhao state, it slaughtered the whole surrendered Zhao army of 400,000 men, in one of the greatest acts of brutality in history. 

  • Book Burning [2]:
    "Standardization of thought was an important goal in Legalist doctrine and in Qin policies. Philosophical thinking was considered detrimental to the efficient working and fighting that the state required of its subjects, and thinking could lead to treasonable questioning of state policies. The Qin state therefore prohibited philosophical disputation of the sort that had flourished in the Warring States era . . . In 213 BCE all writing other than official Qin historical chronologies and utilitarian treatises on divination, the practice of agriculture and medicine, and the like were collected for burning. . . . Because intellectuals found it hard to change their ways, the emperor in 212 B.C. reportedly executed 460 scholars and had them buried in a common grave as a warning against further defiance of his orders."
  • Public Surveillance. The Qin emperor initiated the notorious institution (which still survives in China) of dividing up the whole country into a set of small mutual-surveillance units to maintain micromanaged control and intimidation. Even today, citizens are not allowed to gather without official sanction. The Olympic Ceremonies and the 60th Anniversary Celebrations of the Communist government (both orchestrated officially by Zhang Yimou) could not be attended by the public, but could only be watched on television [3].
In fact the greatest periods of Chinese fecundity and prosperity occurred when government was relatively weak and consensus-based – during the Warring States Era and during the Song Dynasty. Both of these eras were ultimately shut down by authoritarian regimes (Qin Shi Huang in the first instance and the Mongolian takeover in the second instance) that turned the country into a police state for more efficient plunder of the citizenry. The fact that the Chinese people ultimately recovered from these disasters is to their everlasting credit, but the grim consequences of totalitarian control should not be masqueraded as virtues today. The emergence of China in the last thirty years has not been due to the manipulations of an overly controlling government, but instead due to a partial relaxation of the control mentality that has had the effect of unleashing the creative brilliance of the people.

This brings us back to how we may interpret Zhang Yimou’s perspective on these issues. It is disappointing that almost all of my own Chinese friends and associates regard Hero as Zhang’s best film, and specifically because of its political message of sacrifice to the national cause above all other considerations of human compassion and fulfilment. They don’t like to see films that may show China in a "weak" light and thereby reduce its prestige. For them the semantic understanding of the prhase “Tiān Xià” seems to carry more of the national chauvinistic intent of “Our Land” (with an emphasis on "our", as opposed to "your") than the traditional Chinese understanding of simply “everything under heaven”. This concern for national pride on Zhang’s part may also be reflected in what happened in 1999 when he withdrew his submitted films to the Cannes Film Festival, The Road Home and Not One Less, because he reportedly felt that his films were invariably being judged on political grounds that suggested criticism of China [4,5].

Or maybe not – maybe the strident undertone of Zhang Yimou's Hero was only temporary, a hiccup. When he later produced the opera, “The First Emperor”, in 2006, which was also about Qin Shi Huang, the theme of the opera was highly critical with respect to its subject. And his Curse of the Golden Flower (Man Cheng Jin Dai Huang Jin Jia, 2006) was another artistic turn altogether at the grandiose historical epic – on that occasion Zhang Yimou gave us something that was darker and much deeper than his two preceding epics.

  1. Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization, Cambridge University Press (1996).
  2. Charles O. Hucker, China’s Imperial Past, Stanford University Press (1975), p. 43.
  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/30/china-60th-anniversary-communist-party
  4. http://www.freemedialibrary.com/index.php/Zhang_Yimou_withdraws_from_Cannes
  5. http://www.beijingscene.com/V05I007/inshort/inshort.htm


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minchogaberov@gmail.com said...

Hello, i appreciate your comitement to this review, and respect your research.
I'd like to disagree on your point, that the king's character is inconsistent, because he yields to his servants will to execute Nameless.

He is not a tyran or sick ruler, who would bend the rules as he pleases. He is comitted to an ideal larger than his ego (unity) and sacrifices his freedom and risks his life to achieve it. Leting the servants execute law is a natural decision - so i understood it. It is also abouh honour, to keep a word.