Monday, September 06, 2004

Heroes need not be Nameless

Hero, Zhang Yimou's epic martial arts movie, has finally been released in the U.S. The movie was released in China two years ago and nominated for an Academy Award but theatrical distribution was held up due to funding difficulties at Miramax/Disney.

Having seen the movie yesterday, I can understand the disappointment of Chinese audiences with the film. Although a huge commercial success in China, Hero was not held in high esteem among fans of Zhang Yimou's previous work.

Zhang Yimou's early movies shifted between historical dramas (Raise the Red Lantern, To Live) and stories of ordinary triumphs/tribulations in Chinese society (Not One Less, Happy Times).

In Hero, we find Zhang Yimou deeply in the debt of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--so deeply in debt that he borrows the previous film's flying warriors, above-the-treetops battle, and two leading actresses. But the film's plot, largely propagandist in nature, fails to achieve the sublime depths of Crouching Tiger. Nameless (Jet Li) sacrifices himself for the destiny of the Qin Emperor, a notorious tyrant. In the film, this makes him a "Hero."

Brian Marple writes about the underlying subtext:

"The historical Emperor Qin was known for his cruelty. The movie does refer to his practice of slaughtering entire villages. It is silent about the tortures he employed, the draconian legal code that involved the cutting off of limbs, his burning of books and suppression of schools of thought, or such incidents as the burying alive of hundreds of scholars who had objected to his rule.

The reason for the differences between the historical Emperor Qin and the movie’s retelling may be found in the needs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)...

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party has used China’s state controlled media to make the claim that the Communist Party exists for the sake of a great and unified China. Love of China and love of the Party are conflated, and love of China is taught to be of supreme importance.

This propaganda campaign has been an extraordinary success. The generation of 1989 peacefully asked for democracy; today’s young Chinese riot in the streets following the United States’ accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The claims made for democracy appear to have been buried, their place taken by a virulent form of patriotism.

Zhang’s movie fits the CCP script very neatly. It appropriates China’s history, its founding moment, the unification by the Emperor Qin, and uses that history to teach the very same lessons that CCP has taught: the need to give up individual claims (what we today call rights) for the sake of a great and powerful China under the rule of a strong leader (the CCP)...

Zhang Yimou’s early films were not patriotic epics... Many of them were banned in China...

The release of Hero was announced at a press conference held at the Great Hall of the People, something unheard of. The involvement of the Chinese government allowed Zhang to raise the unprecedented sum of $30 million US he needed to make the movie..."
I would be wary of the state which asks you to take its arrows and offers nothing in return.


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