»  National Review Online

September 15th, 2004

  Zero for Hero

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How did I hate Hero, the newest box-office-bustin' Chinese sword'n'skyhook movie? Let me count the ways.

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•  I hated the endless swordfight scenes. To call them "swordfight scenes" is in fact a stretch, as they bear as much relation to actual swordfights as The Flintstones does to family life in the Upper Paleolithic. The swordspersons (two of them are female) fly through the air upside down, walk on water, and run up walls, mainly in slow motion (see below). I first saw a Chinese sword movie when they were all the rage in Hong Kong back in 1971. At that time I thought it was a tiresome fad that would soon disappear. No, it is still going strong, apparently having some deep appeal to the Chinese psyche. Not to me. (In fact, if this critic is as knowledgeable as he sounds, the genre goes all the way back to the beginnings of Chinese movie-making in the 1920s.)

•  I hated the heavy po-faced plonking humorlessness of it all. Even Hamlet has jokes, for goodness' sake (lots of them, actually). All these pursed lips, resolutely clenched jaws, and beetling brows are in direct line of descent from the fearless peasants being persecuted by cruel landlords back in the era of Maoist class-warfare flicks. There was an excuse for them then, when humor was a counter-revolutionary offense that could get you sent off to break rocks in Tibet for ten years, but there is none now.

•  I hated the extravagant sets and shooting locales. The built sets look like no buildings that ever existed anywhere, populated by myriads of people all moving and speaking in unison, in a way no human beings ever did except in the stands of a Pyongyang sports stadium. The exterior locales are all either "stark" and geologically freakish in a vegetation-free, Bryce Canyon sort of way, or else extravagantly pretty enough to be transposed directly to the lid of an old-fashioned box of chocolates.

•  I hated the look-at-this! coloring of far too many of the scenes. If you like your Chinese food smothered in MSG to pump up the flavors, you'll love what director Zhang Yimou does with color. OK, now we'll have a scene where everything is a different shade of blue. Got that? Now see what I can do with orange!

•  I hated the modernist-experimental layering of the narrative. "This is what happened …"  "Go on, you made that up: this is what really happened …"  "All right, I'll admit I was lying, but not like you said: this is what really happened …"  Call me a stick-in-the-mud old linear thinker if you like, but I prefer my narrative plain and simple: beginning, middle, end.

•  I hated the slow motion sequences, which actually seemed to predominate in Hero. (If you ran the entire movie at real-life speed, screen time would go down to about 25 minutes, I think. Perhaps this is some kind of dirty trick to save on film-crew wages.) I wouldn't go so far as to say there is no place at all for slo-mo in movies. I will say, though, that the technique was done to death back in the fifties, and is now about as effective and interesting as un-punctuated poetry or musique concrète. Hero contains no occurrences of two lovers slo-moing towards each other with outstretched arms through a field of buttercups; but it contains every other slo-mo cliché anyone ever thought of.

•  I hated the threadbare unoriginality of the underlying plot device. This goes as follows. Patriot A wishes to kill King B, the ruler of an aggressive neighbor realm. King B, however, is very wary of assassins, and so is reluctant to grant audiences, making it hard to get close to him. Patriot A approaches fellow patriot C, a sworn and known enemy of King B, and asks him to give his life for the cause. C gives his life. A then claims to have killed C, perhaps displaying his head as proof. Pleased at the death of his enemy C, the king invites A to an audience, whereupon A assassinates the king.

The original for this story is an actual historical incident. In 227 b.c., at the tail end of what Chinese people call the "Warring States" period of their history (traditionally dated from 481 B.C. to 221 B.C.), a man named Jing Ke from the kingdom of Yan actually did try to assassinate the king of Qin (a Chinese "q" is halfway between a "ch" and a "ts") by just this ruse. The story of his attempt and failure is known to every Chinese schoolchild, and was made into a movie five years ago. Hero is not about that actual event, it just recycles the idea, the 2,230-year-old plot device, as the basis for a fantasy-fiction.

•  I hated the swirling robes and draperies. Zhang Yimou thinks that large rippling sheets of silky fabric are just the coolest thing — especially in slow motion! Me, I just kept thinking of the kitschiest of all Olympic events, that women's rhythmic gymnastics snoozer done with long twirling ribbons. (Which event, in fact, is wildly popular in China — plainly another issue on which I am fundamentally out of sympathy with my country-in-law.)

•  I hated the bogus spirituality. Philosophical Taoism is not my cup of tea, for reasons I've explained at length elsewhere. What we have in Hero is a sort of vulgar Taoism, in about the same relation to the real thing as a Superman comic would be to the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Determined efforts to still the mind and apprehend the universal Way will lead (we are told) to supernatural powers, clairvoyance, and the complete mastery of both calligraphy and swordsmanship. I imagine they will lower your cholesterol, too. Be that as it may, what Taoism actually led to on the political level was despotic government under the horrid system called Legalism. The movie suggests this by showing the deep-Taoist hero voluntarily yielding up his life to the authority of the King of Qin, who was in fact a Legalist despot. The movie apparently approves the hero's course of action. Ugh.

•  I hated the Sino-fascist subtext. The hero of the title has been sent to assassinate that same King of Qin, who later went on to unify the Chinese culture zone under the awful, but mercifully short, Qin Dynasty. To get close to the King, the hero presents himself as having killed three of the king's most fearsome enemies. All this, like Jing Ke's actual assassination attempt, is taking place in the final years of the Warring States period, when the Chinese culture zone was divided into half a dozen separate nations in a condition of more or less incessant war with each other.

The assassin decides against killing the king, though, because he perceives that the king will unify tianxia — "all under Heaven," and he does not wish to prevent this unification from happening. This, so far as the movie is concerned, makes him a hero — the hero of the title. The king has to have him killed, of course (sorry!), but he dies in the cause of unifying the empire, ending the Warring States period and bringing peace and harmony to "all under Heaven."

It's interesting to speculate on whether any Chinese people in the late Warring States period did actually want unification. Since they left almost no records of their thoughts on the matter, we can only guess. Certainly the recurrent inter-state warfare must have become very tiresome by the middle third century b.c. It must have occurred to some reflective people that the unification of the culture zone under a single ruler would at least bring peace. To the peasant watching armies rampage back and forth across his fields, stealing his livestock, raping his women, and forcibly conscripting his sons, unification would have been a welcome prospect.

On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for a multi-state system. Intellectual life was very vigorous all through the Warring States period. For example, any Chinese philosopher you have heard of, unless you are a specialist, lived during that time. Technology also made great advances, as it usually does in war time: the complicated crossbows you see being fired in Hero are not anachronistic. (Though the writing brushes are.) Commerce between the states seems to have been vigorous even when they were at war: One mercantile plutocrat, Lü Buwei, was a key player in the Warring States endgame.

And of course, there was the great advantage that if you fell out of favor in one state, you could flee to safety in another; while in a centralized empire, as Gibbon points out with reference to Rome, there is no hiding place. Also, while recurrent war is an unpleasant thing, we should not over-estimate the danger to the average citizen at an average time. Population increased steadily all through the Warring States period, and the culture zone expanded, especially to the south. Note too that at least some of the warring states inspired great patriotism in their citizens, as the story of Jing Ke illustrates.

Which is better: a multi-state system, with its cultural vigor and variety, but occasional danger, or a unified empire, in which all is safe and well-regulated, but uniform and stultified? I suppose it is a matter of taste. The question is, at any rate, academic, and only abstractly related to the point that Hero, with thudding obviousness, is making, viz. that Taiwan ought to be brought back to the warm embrace of the Motherland a.s.a.p.

The subtitlers of Hero have translated tianxia as "our land," thus sparing American viewers the imperial flavor of the term. This is probably just as well. The movie is bombastic enough, without raising the hackles of us occidentals by suggesting that China has an imperial mission to conquer the world — a thing which no Chinese person believes anyway.

What a lot of Chinese people do believe is that the territories of the old Manchu empire, the one that fell in 1911, should be recovered, by force if necessary, and unified under a single government. This message of imperial restoration has become a key article of state propaganda, as the Chinese Communist Party tries desperately to clothe itself in some shreds of moral legitimacy, communism itself having long since blown away in the winds of modernization and economic restructuring. And the most pressing item on the imperial-restoration agenda is the "recovery" of Taiwan.

Practically all mainland Chinese regard this as a project of the utmost importance, and become hysterically angry if you question the rightness of it. The people of Taiwan have a different opinion, and the movie got a mixed reception from critics in the island nation, though it managed to break box-office records there none the less.

So don't be too distracted by the extravagant color and painstaking choreography: Hero is, though among other things, a Sino-fascist propaganda vehicle, an adoring paean to the Führerprinzip and the importance of recovering "lost" territories.

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It's a shame to sign off without saying anything at all positive about a movie, so here is one point in Hero's favor: I think Zhang Ziyi is a total babe.