It has long been thought in Hollywood that you can persuade an American to do just about anything but pay money to watch a subtitled foreign movie. This confidence in Homo americanus’s xenophobia and illiteracy can now, I think, be abandoned for good: on the weekend of August 29, Zhang Yimou’s two-year-old Chinese film Hero enjoyed the largest late-August opening in the history of the North American box office, pulling in a gross of $18 million from 2,031 screens.
Western fans of Asian cinema might regard this as great news — but for what it signifies in itself, Hero might fairly be considered a little more troubling. Its propagandistic overtones have been overlooked by most reviewers (with the unsurprisingly keen-eyed exception of the American Conservative’s Steve Sailer). There is an even bigger elephant-in-the-chicken-coop here than the crypto-Christian subtext of The Lord of the Rings.
The movie is about a moral crisis encountered by four brilliant assassins as they plot to do away with the shrewd, paranoid King of Ch’in, who is in the process of ending the Warring States period (475 BC-221 BC) and transforming himself into Shih Huang-ti, the First Emperor of a unified China. To make this man a major character in a Chinese movie is to tread on, shall we say, geologically hyperactive ground.
Hero would have you believe that the secret to Shih Huang-ti’s success in overcoming neighboring states was a corps of ruthless, talented bowmen. In truth, the key to his unification of China was a revolution in morality. Confucianism, hitherto the unrivaled animating ideology of China, had encouraged a feudal style of government based on personal, reciprocal obligations. The need to govern through such vital linkages limited the size of any political entity sharply, just as it did in medieval Europe before the emergence of the nation-state. Confucianism, then and now, has been an anti-radical strain in the Chinese soul. Shih Huang-ti, influenced by the anti-Confucian Legalist philosophers, poured a dissolving acid on the old framework of relationships and ritual.
He built the first Chinese mandarin state, a powerful and meritocratic instrument capable of seducing the loyalties of talented men regardless of the station they had been born into. He disarmed and terrorized the populace, cultivated Soviet-style informants in town and countryside, exterminated Confucian intellectuals as a class, diverted staggering amounts of labor to personal obsessions and monuments, and tried to burn every existing book in his empire with the exception of a few practical instructional tracts. Chinese Confucians later regarded these as among the “ten crimes of Ch’in” which led to the dynasty’s precipitate downfall. But the official view of Communist China is the view expressed by the “Broken Sword” character in Zhang Yimou’s movie — the view that Chinese unity cannot be purchased at too great a price. (That the turmoil which followed on Shih Huang-ti’s death was far more sanguinary than the relatively stable disharmony of the Warring States is, apparently, a mere trifle.) Zhang depicts the model tyrant of Asian history as profoundly alert, and even rather matey, once you approach within ten paces of him.
Hero is a beautiful movie, but I began to feel after a while that its Rashomonic reiterations of love and death were a rather shallow stunt, and when the political angle suddenly hovered into open view about two-thirds of the way through, I felt the sting of a schoolmaster’s wearisome lesson being plunged into the narrative structure with a thumbtack. It’s the same kind of clumsy Commie distractedness that was more noticeable in the Italian hit Il Postino. But for most Western viewers, the plot turn is too heavily encoded in Hero to create any quarrel: we are too busy just trying to make sense of the plot.
In the past Zhang has had trouble with the Chinese authorities, most specifically about his period dramas. In the post-Dengian era, any sort of looking backward by a filmmaker was mildly chancy; Deng was, historiographically, a sort of Whig on amphetamines who wanted to push the country forward aggressively in the natural, “progressive” direction. (He changed the literal course of Chinese history when he decided that Mao had been wrong about the relevant definition of “progress.”) Hero, which was underwritten to the tune of $30 million without initial hope of a Western release, suggests that a new intellectual tone may have taken root in the upper echelons.
As Sailer says, it is not exactly encouraging — especially for the Taiwanese — that the resulting product is something Chairman Mao would have relished. It was the First Emperor’s academicidal example that permitted the historical desecrations of the Cultural Revolution; it was the fetish for “unity” that poured out rivers of blood in Tiananmen Square. Nobody should celebrate a brilliant artist’s co-option to such a cause. Fortunately there is almost room to believe that Zhang is being ironic about the delirious nationalistic tone struck here — that the movie’s postmodern structure is itself a coded message within a coded message, a sly auteurial suggestion that one not take anything in Hero at face value.