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Revisiting Zhang Yimou’s ‘Hero’: Let’s Laugh At Ourselves, For Once

Does Zhang Yimou's 'Hero' make or break stereotypes? The World of Chinese revisits the film with a fresh, new perspective.

12·03·2012

When Zhang Yimou first presented “Hero” to audiences outside of mainland China, he received an outpouring of critical response claiming that it was a boldly-faced justification for maintaining social harmony through brutal tyranny. While these ideological arguments are salient to a greater political discourse of film in China, I find them irrelevant to the discussion of artistic merits.

Considered one of the greatest names within the 5th generation of Chinese film makers, Zhang Yimou’s works are usually associated with a focus on the quotidian lives of people, a rejection of traditional methods of social realism. Yet, while “Hero” is far from postmodern film, it carries some distinct postmodern elements. It is true that Zhang’s “Hero” tells a tall tale: a nameless assassin (Jet Li) is given the chance to prove his worth to the first emperor of China by presenting him with the weapons of the emperor’s disemboweled enemies (a husband-wife duo played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung; and a lone spearman played by Donnie Yen). The emperor, who fears for his own life, keeps all subjects beyond a hundred paces from his position. Each weapon presented allows the nameless assassin to advance forward. The emperor, suspicious of the nameless assassin’s motives, doubts his recounting of events. As a result, three different narrative visions of how these weapons came into Nameless’ possession are presented to the audience. Each narrative vision accounts for a different unfolding of events, each according to Nameless, the emperor, and reality. Ultimately, it is revealed that Nameless has been granted these weapons by their respective owners, in order to get close enough to the emperor to kill him with his special skill, the ability to instantly kill, with surgical precision, inside ten paces.

This is where critics drive home their point: the emperor, knowing this, allows assassin to kill him. However, Nameless chooses not to,  and in acknowledgement that the emperor has achieved unification and peace, stays his blade. It is revealed that Sword (Leung) had spoken to Nameless, asking him to spare the emperor for this reason. Shortly after, Nameless is killed by the palace guard and the emperor honors him with a hero’s burial. Realizing that Nameless has failed to kill the emperor, Snow (Cheung) and Sword fight and die by their own blades.

Zhang’s narrative visions are a central element of “Hero,” and play a pivotal role in explaining why Zhang may or may not be justified in his portrayal of a brutal and ruthless ruler. Each vision differs in its account of events. Nameless’ account, ultimately revealed as a lie, tells the story of betrayal between friends and lovers: by taking advantage of the growing rift between Sword and Snow, he is able to separate and kill them, individually. The emperor refuses to believe this story, instead, giving his own interpretation of how their weapons ended in Nameless’ possession. In his supposed account, Nameless, instead, takes advantage of Sword and Snow’s undying love to separate and kill them. It is revealed, however, that neither is dead, and that Nameless, Snow and Sword are cooperating in order to kill the emperor.

These narrative visions are a critical piece of Zhang’s thesis, that our own prejudices and cultural narratives can cause us to interpret the world around us according to our own biases. Ultimately, the lens of our own subjective experiences colors not only the way we receive answers, but the way we ask questions. Jean Francois Lyotard defines the postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Postmodern film is generally characterized by a breakdown of traditional linear movement of time, use of mixed styles of cinematography and media, as well as an attempt to dissolve the concept of the ‘master narrative’ within a flush of subjective experiences.

Certainly, “Hero” carries many of these elements: the elimination of the linear chronological narrative through use of subjective perspectives, as well as the element of doubt. Whether Nameless or the emperor understand the reality of their predicament is irrelevant; the space between their mutual suspicions is formed by their own subjectivity—their mutual mistrust and judgment. For Nameless, the emperor is an adversary and target; for the emperor, Nameless is more dangerous the closer he gets. The irony is that at his closest physical location to the emperor—the most opportune moment to conduct the assassination—Nameless decides not to kill. If this is how “Hero”should be understood, then Zhang has won the argument and western critics have missed the point, altogether. Our visions of ‘master narratives’ are nothing more than culturally-adapted archetypes: Zhang is one step ahead of us, because we cannot see that our own biases urge us to view “Hero” as a bifurcated choice between tyranny and anarchy. The irony is that as we cry for Nameless and gnash our teeth at the emperor in realization that he must kill the assassin out of adherence to the social code, we refuse to realize that we are, ourselves, bound to our own culturally-significant codes of honor and conduct.

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