Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) is a profoundly beautiful and moving film that celebrates Chinese culture and tradition and promotes noble and patriotic sentiments. Hero is based very loosely on an actual event that took place in 227 BCE near the end of the Warring States Period. It tells the story of an attempt to assassinate Qin Shi Huang, the King of Qin and later the first Emperor of China.
Because of the previous attempts of three assassins—Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword—the King of Qin does not allow anyone within 100 paces of his throne. However, when word comes that a local prefect known only as Nameless has killed all three assassins, the King summons him to court to be rewarded.
For killing Sky, Nameless is rewarded with 1,000 pieces of gold and feudal authority over 1,000 households. He is invited to advance to 20 paces from the throne, drink with the King, and tell him the story of his battle.
The battle will surprise anyone who is unfamiliar with the conventions of Chinese wuxia cinema, which I like to call “flying Chinaman” films. The Chinese believe that their martial arts can endow them with super powers, including the ability to fly. It seems jarring to most, but as someone who has had recurring dreams of flight since childhood, I found it easy to suspend disbelief. It is no more jarring than people breaking into song in a musical, and it must be appreciated for its beauty, not its realism. It is a breath-taking combination of martial arts with gymnastics, ballet, and acrobatics.
Next, Nameless killed Broken Sword and Flying Snow, a male-female team of estranged lovers. As his reward, Nameless is given 10,000 pieces of gold, authority over 5,000 households, and invited to sit 10 paces from the throne, drink with the king, and tell his story.
It is here that Yimou adopts one of his most bold and captivating cinematic gestures. The tale of Flying Snow and Broken Sword is told three times, each in a different color scheme: red, blue, and white. Later, when Broken Sword tells his own tale, the color scheme is green. Each tint indicates a particular subjective slant, but, as with Kurosawa’s Rashomon, there is no question that there is a real story under all the different perspectives.
When Nameless tells the story of how he defeated Flying Snow and Broken Sword, the color palate is red, and they are portrayed with scruffy-looking bangs. The suggestion is that they are emotionally overwrought and impulsive. Nameless explains that Flying Snow had once had an affair with Sky, which is why she and Broken Sword were estranged. When he showed them Sky’s broken spear, their simmering jealousy flared up, and Flying Snow killed Broken Sword. The next morning, Flying Snow met Nameless in single combat. But she was emotionally out of control, so he was able to kill her.
The King, however, disbelieves the story. He has met Flying Snow and Broken Sword three years before, when they stormed his palace together and almost assassinated him. He saw them to be noble warriors, not the hysterical punks described by Nameless.
The King concludes that Nameless, too, is an assassin. Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword must have sacrificed their lives so that Nameless could advance to 10 paces from the throne. Nameless must have perfected a move that would allow him to kill the King at that distance before help could come. “It seems,” says the King, “that I shall not escape my fate.”
When the King retells the story of Flying Snow and Broken Sword as he imagines it, the color scheme is a celestial blue. The two assassins are elegantly groomed and attired, exquisitely sensitive and decorous, and above all noble. It reveals that the King has a romantic and chivalrous imagination.
When Broken Sword tells Nameless the story of his life, culminating in his attempt to assassinate the King three years before, he explains that at the moment he could have killed the King, he stopped, for he realized that there was a greater good than his personal mission, a greater good than the kingdom of Zhao for which he fought: namely the good of “our land,” by which he meant not Zhao or Qin, but all of China. The good of China required peace, and peace required unification under a single Emperor. The King of Qin had the power to unify the seven kingdoms, so the greater good demanded that he be allowed to continue. So Broken Sword aborted his mission when victory was in his grasp.
Nameless relates this story to the King, who is moved to tears—as are most viewers. He claims that nobody before had understood his motivations. Even his own court regarded him as a tyrant. In truth, Qin Shi Huang was a tyrant and a philistine, who in the name of unity burnt books and executed scholars. Hero portrays him as a sensitive and refined man who was deeply concerned with the good of all his people. He may not be the real first Emperor, but be would be an ideal first Emperor, rather like Cyrus as portrayed in Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus.
I will say no more about the plot, save that history records that the King of Qin actually did go on to unify China as the first Emperor, building the Great Wall and a massive tomb complex, guarded by a life-sized terracotta army, which is still being excavated near present-day Xi’an.
Hero is an epic film, yet it tells its story with amazing economy, lasting only 99 minutes. It is emotionally moving and conveys a very serious moral and political message, namely the good of national unity and the forms of self-discipline and self-sacrifice necessary to achieve it. Another important theme, exemplified in all the characters, is the unity of cultural refinement and martial virtue. Calligraphy and swordsmanship are developed in unison and illuminate one another. Hero upholds the full range of noble, aristocratic virtues: courage, self-control, self-discipline, good manners, aesthetic refinement, chivalry, and self-sacrifice. It is a pleasure to see a movie free of clods screaming obscenities at each other and rutting like pigs.
Hero is very well-acted. Nameless is played by Jet Li, Flying Snow by Maggie Cheung, and Sky by Donnie Yen. The best performances are the magnificent Chen Daoming as the King and Tony Leung as Broken Sword. But even minor roles are superbly realized, my favorite being the dignified and unflappable elderly master of a calligraphy school under military siege.
Hero is also a feast for the senses, with breathtaking landscapes and sumptuous interiors. The opening scenes, when Nameless arrives at the Qin court, are particularly spectacular and clearly influenced by Triumph of the Will. The ritual and hierarchy of the Qin court, with its Greek chorus of gray-clad courtiers who swarm like mice, is awe-inspiring, as is the march of the Qin army. The gorgeous soundtrack, which sounds like Chinese Ennio Morricone music, was composed by Tan Dun, who has also composed an opera about Qin Shi Huang called The First Emperor.
I highly recommend Hero. It is a pleasure to see that not everything Made in China is cheap, toxic junk. But it is also sad that whites must go so far afield to find films that uphold patriotism, refinement, and nobility. Spiritually speaking, however, I found this film far less alien than most Hollywood movies, even those with all white casts. Watch Hero for a concrete experience of what movies would be like if our film industry were not controlled by an alien and hostile people out to degrade and destroy us.