Ranked #1 at the box office for two consecutive weeks and earning enough to become the fourth largest grossing foreign film ever, Zhang Yimou's Hero confirms that western audiences don’t mind watching a movie entirely in Mandarin Chinese -- if the film promises astonishing feats of action, compelling narrative, and the visual finesse of such worldwide blockbusters as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With its original release in 2002 and its nomination for an Academy award for best foreign film that same year, Hero was already a monumental box office smash in Asia and is considered by some critics to be the best martial arts film of all time.
While Hero is undoubtedly a well-made, if not brilliant, exhibit of Asian action cinema, perhaps even poetically transcending its genre (as Robert Ebert suggests), it is also an example of how leftist propaganda can be used to excuse and even venerate genocidal and totalitarian political systems. Indeed, underlying Hero’s graceful cinematography, its visually stunning martial arts sequences, and the ostensible nobility and mystical wisdom of the characters, there is a clear attempt to sanction and promote China’s communist tyranny.
The film begins as a fantastical folk tale about revenge and then progresses by combining fantasy and history to tell the story of the unification of China. In this context, Hero presents what it sees as an evolution of Chinese society from war and conflict to a more utopian vision of equality and common good. Although complex in form, the narrative itself also mirrors this evolutionary structure by presenting the conflict between two characters, a “Nameless” hero (Jet Li), who craves justice for his murdered family and his decimated homeland, and a Chinese King (Chen Dao Ming), who is directly responsible for these murders in his pursuit of national unity. What follows is an attempt to resolve this cycle of killing and revenge.
The film’s conflict, therefore, is initially rooted in the conventional struggle between corrupt imperialism and the individual who wishes not only to avenge himself, but also to free his fellow countrymen from an unjust tyranny. Pivoted between the demands of these two sides, Hero takes an unexpected turn for Western audiences who typically expect the hero to either triumph over an unjust, powerful force or to succumb nobly. In this movie, heroic action is definitely not of the western variety, for the individual, along with his rights and claims, is secondary to the collective mentality of communistic ideology.
The hero finds that he cannot kill the King, for he has realized that the King’s aim to give one common language and culture to all through force is actually more important than his own desire for justice or revenge. Although the nameless hero spares the King’s life, he himself is not so fortunate. The King’s minions and scribes crowd round the King and in a collective voice chant, “Majesty, execute him, execute him,” over and over again. The King is hesitant to kill him because the hero has acknowledged the legitimacy of the King’s imperial aim. But the collective voice of the thousand plus nameless, faceless minions is persistent in its demand, arguing that to ensure unity the hero must be killed.
With this, the previous conflict between empire and individual is actually superceded by another type of rule, which combines tyranny with the emergent “will” of the people, but this will is by no means democratic. Hero presents a very different collective will, which is at heart opposed to the values of individualism and liberty. Even the King’s individual wish to spare the hero must be abdicated. In this, the King is left with no real personal authority; the crowd demands that the individual be sacrificed and the deed is carried out.
It is perhaps a bitter irony that the hero, like those who chant for his murder, has no name, for he has no other ultimate purpose than to submit himself to the authority of the state. In fact, at the very end of the film, the voiceover tells us that the very title “Hero” is bestowed upon him only because of his great sacrifice to the state.
In other words, the hero is valued precisely because he has no name and allows not only his identity, but his own life, to be eradicated by the totalist entity to which all submit – even the King. Thus, there is no legitimate individual claim for justice. The hero’s actions are heroic only because they symbolize the necessary subordination of individual will to a collective impulse to purge all difference and dissent, a wish to wipe the slate clean so as to achieve a more enlightened collective existence. This is simply the mirror image of the real-life experiment of social engineering that was viciously pursued in Mao’s China, which witnessed terror, purges, gulags, forced famine, and countless unspeakable murderous acts that resulted in the deaths of some sixty million human beings.
It is a telling sign of our culture that a movie that has garnered tremendous acclaim by audiences and critics alike, and figures #1 at the box office, is completely ignored for what it is: a tribute to an ideology that spawned the 20th century’s greatest mass murderers who hated the very concept of the individual and erected genocidal structures to negate its fruition in history. The failure of critics in the mainstream media to label, let alone even recognize, the dark message of this film reflects how the Left has succeeded in shaping the parameters of our contemporary dialogue.
Although it postures as such, Hero is not a fairytale-like legend of China’s struggle for unification; rather, it is a blatant endeavor to synthesize China’s ancient history with the ideological underpinnings of Eastern communism. The film ends with what are meant to be uplifting words of resolution and synthesis: “Our country.” But to those who understand the nightmarish consequences of such an ideology, these words can only instill terror, for on them are piled the millions of human corpses that Hero would have us forget.