The movie Hero, by director Zhang Yimou, is a unique movie in many respects. An authentically Chinese film, the movie was greeted with rave reviews and box office success in the Western market. Hero is the third highest grossing foreign language film of all time in the United States. This movie is notable for its artistic use of martial arts, and a unique visual style focused on color is prevalent in the film. However, some critics have noticed that Hero has subtle touches of propaganda. But what may seem to some as propaganda is much more. First, we will review the film and find the reasons that people feel it is propagandist. Next, we shall explore the source of this supposed propaganda, and where critics feel it has originated. Finally, we will review a scene that displays overtures of propaganda, and explore its meaning in depth.
The story of Hero is told primarily through flashbacks. The plot revolves around Nameless, a warrior who has bested the deadliest assassins in the land. He is brought before Emperor Qin, a brutal dictator who has been living in fear of these assassins. Nameless recounts how he accomplished his feat, beginning with a battle with Sky in a house of Go, a strategy game roughly equivalent to American chess. Qin sees through Nameless’ tale of victory, and attempts to piece together what really happened in his own version of the tale. Finally, Nameless tells the true story of how he beat Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow; he is working with them to assassinate the Emperor. Just when he has the opportunity to fulfill his task, Nameless spares Qin in favor of his goal to unite the land of China. Nameless dies an assassin’s death, but he is given a hero’s funeral. Hero is regarded as one of the best Chinese films of the new millennium. It is certainly a triumph of modern filmmaking, with a Hollywood-sized budget and high-flying action sequences. However, it has received criticism for aspects of propaganda. One example is the reasoning behind Nameless’ decision not to carry out his task. His change of mind begins before he confronts the Emperor when Broken Sword, a talented calligrapher and warrior who strives to give up fighting, writes a phrase in the sand. The phrase he writes is commonly translated as “Our Land”; he does not want the Emperor killed because the highest form that a warrior can choose is not to use his craft. Broken Sword wants Nameless to pick peace over war. Qin, a violent despot, has slain millions in his attempt to rule the land now known as China, but Broken Sword feels Qin should live so that he can complete his task. Qin claims that Broken Sword understands him perfectly; all along he wanted to unite the peoples of China. It seems that the film is making reference to the real Emperor Qin, often called the first true Emperor of China, who ordered his vicious army to murder millions of people in the task of “uniting” China. Hero’s Qin says that perhaps one day he will make one language for all of China, so as to end the confusion that comes from different dialects; the real Qin did just this. While this movie is strictly fiction, and does not claim to be historically accurate, at first glance it seems to justify the actions of this vicious ruler. Zhang Yimou’s focus on Qin’s method of rule received much debate.
Art and Politics
The political climate surrounding Hero begs discussion. According to Jenny Kwok Wah Lau, in her article “Hero: China’s Response to Hollywood Globalization”, China’s Prime Minister Jiang Zemin “…contributed to the film’s production process by lending the People’s Liberation Army, helicopters, and other resources.” Further, “…he fomented its publicity by premiering the film in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and personally attending the screening.” This comes as a ringing endorsement of the film from the same Prime Minister who oversaw the Tiananmen Square incident, which resulted in the death of 400-800 people at the hands of government troops. There are many similarities in Hero between Emperor Qin and the Prime Minister. The most obvious parallel in the film between Emperor Qin and Prime Minister Jiang Zemin is the use of cruelty and overwhelming force to accomplish a goal. After Tiananmen Square, the press was forced out of China and politicians who had supported the protestors were removed from office. Hero’s Qin, much like the Prime Minister, used an overwhelmingly large force to destroy his enemies in the name of unity. The movie justifies this as a necessary evil, which writer Lau notes is contradictory to the theme of peace being the ultimate goal of a warrior. Strangely, translation issues may be responsible for much of the controversy surrounding this film. Broken Sword’s message in the sand, “Tianxia”, was translated in the DVD release of the film as “Our Land”. This message is commonly seen as an endorsement of Qin’s actions with the end goal of uniting China. However, this translation may not be entirely accurate. “Tian” means sky or heaven, and “xia” means under. Therefore, according to many, it is more accurately translated as “All the land under heaven”. As Zhang Yimou stated in his documentary Cause: The Birth of a Hero, “What ‘All Under Heaven’ means here is the peace for the world.” From this perspective, Yimou was not trying to promote Chinese unity but rather world peace.
To highlight the different ways of interpreting this film, we should review a scene from Hero. Of particular interest is the pivotal scene where Nameless must decide whether he will kill the Emperor or spare him. All scenes where Nameless and Qin are talking take place in the Qin palace. In many ways, these scenes resemble a Go game, with each unmoving character deciding what move to make to win; this is also paralleled by Nameless and Sky’s mental battle in the Go house. As the spectators, we do not know what course Nameless will take until he actually makes his move, and spares Qin the blade. As this mental battle is waged, Nameless and Qin take turns telling their version of the story; first Nameless’ lie, then Qin’s guess, and finally Nameless’ truth. At the beginning of this scene, after Qin is made aware of the truth and Broken Sword’s request for nonviolence, Qin changes. He asks how Nameless will kill him, and Nameless says that he will take Qin’s sword. Qin hands over the sword willingly and takes a moment to contemplate Broken Sword’s calligraphy. Meanwhile, Nameless must make his decision. Qin comes to understand the highest ideal of a swordsman: to give up the sword, both in hand and in heart, and to live in peace with the world. Nameless does not kill Qin, because of this revelation, and asks him not to forget those that have given up their lives in the name of peace. Qin’s advisors urge him to kill Nameless so that the law of Qin is not seen as weak. Ultimately, Qin must order his soldiers to kill Nameless, but Nameless is given a hero’s funeral. Nameless becomes a hero because he gave his life to save Qin’s, and deliver a message of peace in the process. This scene can be interpreted in many ways. At first, it seems to endorse Qin’s brutal rule. Emperor Qin confesses in the course of the story that his advisors think he is a cruel autocrat. By not killing Qin, it seems as though Nameless is allowing himself to be killed in favor of Qin continuing his conquest of China. Yet there is more occurring in this scene than is first evident. Qin is urged to kill Nameless by the same advisors that feel Qin is a ruthless leader. The advisors represent both his inner conflict and the forces that are acting on him. Qin was not the only violent leader of his time. Conflict was inimical to life in feudal China. It is safe to assume that the emperor of the Zhao kingdom was just as atrocious. Qin knows that he must make a decision that is a mirror of the decision Nameless just made. Nameless knew that if he killed Qin, there would be a battle to fill the power vacuum left behind. Qin knows that if he does not kill Nameless, he will appear weak and invite assassins and others to challenge his power, causing the same power struggle. The film does not so much endorse Qin’s ruthless reign as it does invite the viewer to question the morality of the situation. In a contemporary Hollywood film, one might expect to see Nameless valiantly kill the Emperor and bring peace to the nation. However, thoughtful viewing audiences will find issue with this. Reality is not always so black and white, unlike Go pieces. Killing Qin will not end the bloodshed, even though he perhaps deserves that fate after his deeds. Nameless wants to impart to Qin the model of a warrior who has put aside the blade, even if it is not possible for Qin to live the ideal. In the same way, the film wants to impart to the leadership of China the concept of peace. Unlike Qin, however, it may be possible for a modern society to live in harmony. Hero is a film that invites the viewer to question the purpose and the logic of violence as a means to an end, in the hope that peace is an achievable solution.
Hero is a film of contradictions, yin and yang in one movie. It is a genuinely Chinese film that has had great success in the Western market. It is both appreciated and condemned by film critics. It was endorsed by the Chinese leadership and at the same time advocates a peace somewhat unknown to their system of rule. It is a martial arts film from a director known for his understated dramas. It simultaneously promotes peace and allows that the suffering of the few is not as important as the survival of the many. Despite these conflicts, Hero excels in ways seen in very few films. Zhang Yimou has crafted a tale with elements of colorful art and inspiration from classics such as Rashomon. By including so much in one film, Yimou pioneers a new vision for Chinese film that is cinematically beautiful, entertaining, and thought-provoking. It can be argued that this film has a taste of propaganda, but this is a rather simple interpretation and does not analyze the film as a whole. Like a casual observer who does not understand the rules of Go, Hero has layers that are not immediately revealed. To say that Hero is propaganda is to underestimate Zhang Yimou’s talent for the understated.
All Under Heaven by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This post was originally submitted for a class on world film.