Hero: a smug film that twists Chinese history and delivers a deplorable message

Zhang Yimou, “Hero” (2002)

If one needs proof that a visually gorgeous film with a good cast can ultimately be undone and wasted by a demoralising and ugly plot and theme, Chinese director Zhang’s “Hero” is it. That the film was tailor-made for Western audiences featuring a mix of Chinese and Hong Kong actors is even more of an insult to both the Chinese (for distorting the history on which the film is based) and Westerners who might assume that Chinese people passively prefer stability and corruption over change and good government. What’s really puzzling is why someone of Zhang’s stature as a director saw fit to make this film.

The film’s story takes place during a period in China’s history well over 2,000 years ago when the King of the Qin state has been brutally conquering and uniting competing neighbouring kingdoms and is on the verge of becoming China’s first emperor. The King has recently – and only just – survived being assassinated by three sword-fighters known as Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. A prefect known as Nameless (Jet Li) arrives at the King’s court and claims to have fought and killed these assassins. His tale is told in flashback. The King (Chen Daoming) counters Nameless’s story by proffering his version in which Nameless had staged his fights with the three assassins who volunteer to die so that Nameless can bring the swords of Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) to the monarch as “proof” of their deaths. This forces Nameless to admit the truth, that he has a special ability to inflict apparent death¬†without touching vital organs and used this to “kill” Snow in front of the Qin army. Before leaving for the capital for his meeting with the King with the two assassins’ swords, Nameless is shown two characters written by Broken Sword in the sand which together explain why Sword, when he had the opportunity, decided not to kill the King.

The film proceeds at a good clip until it divides into its three sub-plots – each differentiated by a dominant colour (red, blue, green) – whereupon it bogs down in soapie weepiness as the lovers Sword and Snow dispute over which of them should fight Nameless and “die”, and whether vengeance on the King for having despoiled their own country of Zhao is the right thing to do. Sword’s decision not to kill the King on the basis that a peaceful, unified state is better than constantly warring ones and that, for all his brutality, ruthlessness and paranoia, the King of Qin must be the best man to achieve that peace, has an effect on Nameless when his moment comes to attack the King.

The morality of the decisions Sword and Nameless make is very dubious to say the least. Is the unification of China, and with it the achievement of peace and stability, really worth the severe suppression of difference and dissent? Should genocide of an entire nation and its culture, language and history be the necessary sacrifice to achieve unity and peace? Is there no other alternative to passive resignation and allowing a brutal ruler to run roughshod over vassal states as he sees fit? If the film is serious about its theme, then it leaves a very sour taste in this viewer’s mouth. The political implications of such a theme for Chinese and Westerners alike are immense: can a utilitarian approach to politics, achieving what most people desire only at the cost of the lives of a minority, be acceptable?

The film’s insinuation that the King of Qin is pressured by his court and army to execute Nameless is even worse propaganda, suggesting that¬†Chinese people essentially are bloodthirsty thugs who do not know mercy and compassion, and that the King wouldn’t have been the tyrant and despot he was if he’d not been subjected to so much pressure by vengeful mobs.

Apart from the smug and inhumane message, the film suffers from weak character development and an over-emphasis on computer-enhanced martial arts ballet. An excellent acting cast is wasted as are also the cinematography and slick special effects.