Zhang Yimou’s martial arts epic of two years ago, Hero, is finally getting its North American release. The movie is getting good reviews. But is anyone looking at its politics? North American audiences looking for kung-fu thrills may be walking into an elaborate justification for Tiananmen Square.
The North American release of Hero is a trimmed down version, losing at least 20 minutes from the original Chinese version, and it’s been poorly re-subtitled by the distributor. In spite of this, the reviews have all been glowing. It is a visually stunning movie. The highly stylized kung-fu choreography is enhanced by digital effects trickery to create many memorable set pieces. It’s definitely a movie worth looking at. But what’s it about? I saw one television critic who complained that the story was almost incomprehensible. I’ve seen the original full-length version on DVD (with better sub-titles) and I can assure you the story is murky even with all the parts present. The story is a series of Rashomon style flashbacks recounting the fates of the same characters over and over with important details changing as the truth become apparent. Each flashback brings us closer to understanding a cryptic statement written in perfect calligraphy by Tony Leung’s character, Broken Sword. He writes: All Under Heaven. In that statement lies the meaning of the movie and perhaps also a terrible political purpose.
Read no further if you do not want to know what “All Under Heaven” is finally revealed to mean at the end of the movie.
In the original sub-titling of the full length version, one that stayed closer to the original Chinese, a warrior called Broken Sword writes “All Under Heaven” in perfect calligraphy. He had previously sworn to kill the Emperor. The Emperor had been conducting a brutal campaign of conquest to unite the various parts of China under his single authority, and Broken Sword’s family have all been killed in this campaign. Broken Sword comes very close to succeeding in a dramatic one on one battle with the Emperor. But after deep contemplation of the arts of swordsmanship and calligraphy, however, he distils a philosophy he has arrived at in one simple phrase: “All Under Heaven.” He then gives up his mission to kill the Emperor. Another warrior, known only as Nameless and played by Jet Li, is also sworn to kill the Emperor for the same reasons. He comes within inches of killing the Emperor but when the Emperor himself sees the meaning of the phrase “All Under Heaven” and comprehends the true spirit of swordsmanship through the quality of Broken Sword’s calligraphy, Nameless gives up his mission and submits to the Emperor.
Confused? You should be. The link between swordsmanship and calligraphy takes years of Ch’an Buddhist training to understand. Just take that part as read. The essential question is, why does Nameless quit and refuse to revenge himself on this tyrant? Because the Emperor, while contemplating the phrase “All Under Heaven” as written in perfect calligraphy by Broken Sword comes to understand that the essence of swordsmanship is not to use the sword at all. It’s at this conclusion that the terrible political message behind this movie began to dawn on me.
Zhang Yimou’s movies have always had a political subtext. More importantly, they have always had a subtext that the Communist Party of China would not censor. Raise the Red Lantern, for instance, could be read as a Marxist critique of a patriarchal capitalist order. Red Sorghum is about collective workers fighting Japanese imperialism. The Road Home is an idyll of pastoral life under Mao but before the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four. Some films, such as Not One Less and Happy Times point the lens at poverty and inequality in modern China, but even these movies are careful not to lay blame with the Communist Party.
Hero, however, is probably the first Zhang Yimou film that could be read as an active endorsement of the Communist Party, rather than an attempt to just get round their censors.
EXTREME SPOILER ALERT
After Nameless realizes the meaning of “All Under Heaven” he also realizes that he must submit to execution by the Emperor. If China is to be united under one ruler, all of China under the one heavenly throne, then the Emperor is bound to execute him or anyone who will stop him. When Nameless sees that the Emperor comprehends the true essence of swordsmanship is not to fight, he is prepared to accept this death. He sacrifices himself so that the authority of the Emperor to unite China may be absolute. All of this could be read as just a load of pretentious art house plotting, but I find it hard to ignore the obvious comparison with Tiananmen Square. Only fifteen years ago, thousands died in a massacre so that the Communist Party could maintain its absolute rule. Is it possible that Zhang Yimou and his audience in China wouldn’t have that in their minds watching this film? Perhaps Zhang Yimou means to emphasise the responsibility of the Emperor who knows he must ultimately rule without the sword, but that’s a weak message after endorsing the bloody means by which he attains his throne. By that logic, Tiananmen Square was a necessity and the massacred were heroes, not for democratic expression, but for submission to the Party.
Ultimately, the sacrifice and death of Nameless is a frustrating disappointment, both ideologically and as a piece of filmmaking. Where a real hero would have rebelled, this one just caves in. Apparently tragedy under totalitarianism has no catharsis.