September 7, 2004


Anti-Hero: A LAVISH APOLOGIA FOR AUTHORITARIANISM. (Elbert Ventura, 09.07.04, New Republic)

Nearly two years after premiering in its native China, Zhang Yimou's Hero, the most expensive production in Chinese history, has finally opened in U.S. theaters. As befitting a major new work by a celebrated auteur, critics have heaped superlatives on the movie, singling out in particular the ravishing visuals and balletic swordplay for praise. But while the movie's formal beauty certainly deserves recognition, it seems to have blinded reviewers from a more serious reckoning with the movie's subtext. For beneath Hero's kaleidoscopic swirl of color and bodies is a troubling moral of self-abnegation in the face of state power. After a career spent delicately sparring with censors, the critically-beloved Zhang has now made a most lavish apologia for authoritarianism. [...]

Set in the third century B.C., the movie retells the country's creation myth via a fractured, Rashomon-style narrative. An opening crawl tells us of the King of Qin (Chen Daoming), a tyrant who dreams of bringing peace to the land by conquering its seven warring states and uniting them under his dominion. Enter Nameless (Jet Li), a warrior who claims to have vanquished three assassins whose lifelong missions were to kill the king. As a reward for his exploits, Nameless wins an audience with the ruler. The movie unfolds in flashback, as Nameless recounts each battle. But all is not as it seems. After Nameless finishes his tale, the king offers his own version, revealing to the warrior that he suspects it was all just a cover to get Nameless close enough to kill him. Confronted by a master assassin in his own court, the defiant king gives Nameless a sword to finish the job. Nameless, however, pulls back at the last moment--and tells the king that he is being spared so that he may continue his mission of uniting the land and securing lasting peace. As dictated by law, Nameless is executed, but given a hero's burial for his selfless act. The movie ends with a shot of the Great Wall (one of the real Emperor Qin's accomplishments) and on the solemn words of a closing title card: "Our Land."

That climax may well be one of the great sucker-punch endings in recent years. What had seemed a traditional, if artsy, martial arts epic is transformed into pernicious propaganda with that closing act of submission. By having its protagonist sacrifice his life for the imperial cause, the film endorses a philosophy of individual subservience to the state. Hero's portrayal of the king as a reluctant autocrat is particularly repugnant. When Nameless explains why he decides to let him live, the king is visibly moved, grateful that somebody finally understands that all he wants is peace. In a breathtaking monologue, he bemoans the endless criticism and misunderstanding of his rule, which he claims is truly dedicated to the higher cause of an end to all war. Never mind that such a vision of eternal harmony involves martial conquest--depicted here in the Qin army's attack on a neighboring, unarmed city--and the homogenization of the land's language and culture.

With its distinctly pro-government message, Hero unleashed a firestorm of debate among Asian critics and in Internet chat rooms upon its release two years ago. While pro-government media hailed the movie as a worthy exponent of Chinese cinema, critics blasted its whitewashing of Qin's legacy--not to mention its disturbing parallels with today's China. "Not only has Zhang compromised the spirit of the chivalric hero, he seems to have compromised his own integrity as well," read a review from the Taipei Times. The Straits Times, a Singapore-based regional newspaper, called the movie a "cheerleading anthem" for a resurgent China. In an interview with Time Asia upon the film's completion, Zhang himself all but acknowledged its compromised nature, conceding, "I've made adjustments to accommodate the spirit of the times."

Unfortunately, Zhang's imposed complaisance has been of little interest to American critics. While a couple of reviewers have taken the movie to task for its dubious ideology--The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter and The Village Voice's J. Hoberman--most have given the movie a free pass. Swept up by its virtuoso look and blinding star power, many critics have praised the film as a deserving addition to Zhang's canon, with nary a word about its politics. Those that raise the point do so almost apologetically, burying the lede under panting raves about the movie's stylish wonders. Salon's Charles Taylor even goes so far as to call criticisms of the film's subtext offensive to Zhang, the dissident martyr. Hero's boosters have been left contorting themselves into knots devising subversive--and unconvincing--readings of the movie's allegorical undertones.

Authoritarianism needs no apology, but who can be surprised at Hollywood embracing communist propaganda?

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 7, 2004 3:26 PM

I'm glad somebody said it. When I went to see it, I was waiting to hear a voice-over,'I'm Jiang Zemin, Chairman of the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China and I approved this message.'

It was the anti-Orwell.

Posted by: Bart at September 7, 2004 3:51 PM

It's no Excalibur.

Posted by: J.H. at September 7, 2004 4:55 PM

Not so much Communist as Traditional Chinese Legalist -- nothing and/or nobody, not even an Emperor, can ever be allowed to buck The System.

Given its boost into China's core political philosophy by First Emperor Chin Shih Huang Ti, former "King of Qin" who "brought peace to the land" by conquering the Seven Warring States and unifying China, built the Great Wall, and destroyed all records and the scholars who wrote them (in a predecessor of another First Emperor's Cultural Revolution) so that all history would begin with Himself.

Yet under Legalism, even the First Emperor is nothing more than a puppet of The System. The System is Forever over All-Under-Heaven.

Posted by: Ken at September 7, 2004 5:01 PM

We saw it the other night. Very artfully done, and holds your attention, but the review is spot-on. Its logic would equally justify a modern Chinese effort to take over the world.

Posted by: pj at September 7, 2004 9:03 PM

Communist, Traditional Chinese Legalist, or whatever, it is still an attempt to justify wanton brutality and autocracy in the name of the 'Nation.'

Zhang appears to be a butched-up Leni Riefenstahl.

Posted by: Bart at September 8, 2004 8:22 AM

>Very artfully done, and holds your attention,
>but the review is spot-on. Its logic would
>equally justify a modern Chinese effort to take
>over the world.

And why should Barbarians and Foreign Devils not be forced to take their rightful place under the feet of the Son of Heaven? Such is the Mandate of Heaven...

Posted by: Ken at September 8, 2004 2:52 PM