The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Hero (China/Hong Kong 2002) – Narrative analysis

Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 September 2008

(These notes were written for a student event on Film Narrative. Hero was the case study film. The students had seen the whole film, so there are major SPOILERS here – you have been warned!)

Everyone is familiar with the conventions of the Hollywood film narrative. This isn’t a reason not to study Hollywood – or to take the conventions for granted. Hollywood, as befits the dominant institution in cinema across the world, is highly dynamic and constantly evolving in terms of film narrative. However, it is often difficult to analyse the films you know best. It helps to have some ‘distance’ from the films we study and one way to do this is to study some films that are ‘not Hollywood’ in order to make comparisons. Often by ‘comparing and contrasting’ similar films from different systems we notice much more about them than if we looked at only one system.

Maggie Cheung as .. in the red sequence

Maggie Cheung as Flying Snow in the red sequence

Hero is a film that is recognisable as a traditional Chinese genre, first from literature and then from cinema. The wu xia pian or ‘martial chivalry film’ has gone through several cycles of popularity in the cinemas of the ‘three Chinas’ (‘mainland China’, Hong Kong and Taiwan) since the early 1950s. The genre has been affected by events outside China, not least the worldwide success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (US/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong 2000). The director of Crouching Tiger was Ang Lee, a Chinese-American who made the film as a tribute to the films he had enjoyed as a child in Taiwan.

Hero could not have been made on the scale (i.e. with the budget) that is apparent on screen without the success of Crouching Tiger. Although Hero has a Chinese director, Zhang Yimou, he is known in the West for his ‘art films’, most of which have been melodramas – not ‘action films’ in the Western sense. The four big stars of Hero are divided into two who are widely known for ‘non-action’ roles in Hong Kong Cinema (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) and two genuine martial arts stars who have moved from Hong Kong to Hollywood (Jet Li and Donnie Yen). Because of these ‘global considerations’ and the backgrounds of the individuals concerned, Hero could not be a straight ‘martial chivalry’ picture – and this means it will have found different audiences, who will have ‘read’ the film in different ways.

Narrative Structure
Hero uses the narrative device known as a ‘flashback’. The film starts in the present (a ‘present’ 2,200 years ago) and then Nameless begins to tell his story, allowing narrative time to be ‘re-wound’. But there is a twist since it becomes apparent that Nameless may not be a reliable narrator. He is prompted by the King to remember things differently, so that we experience some of the same events twice with different outcomes as the stories are re-told. Towards the end of the film, the narrative returns to the present and in this final sequence we experience events in parallel – what is happening to Nameless in the palace and what is happening to Broken Sword and Flying Snow in the mountains.

This kind of narrative structure is not unique, although it is unusual. It fits a genre set in a ‘pre-industrial society’ where there are no cameras or audio recorders, no ‘evidence’ of what happened. It is part of an ‘oral tradition’ where people tell stories and within a wu xia it works because one aspect of a duel between warriors is ‘sizing up’ an opponent. Defeating an enemy is not all about action. It also involves psychology and out-thinking an enemy. Interestingly, one of the most famous films that used a similar structure was Rashômon (Japan 1950) – a film which director Zhang has referred to as an influence. Rashômon is set in 12th century Japan where a man is murdered and his wife raped. The accused is allowed to tell his story, which is very different from the wife’s. Then he changes his story and a witness gives a fourth version. The film raises the question “what is truth”. In Hero we get at least three different narrators. Nameless begins the story, but is then interrupted by the King and later by Broken Sword, both of whom recount their own experiences which Nameless would not necessarily know.

The different versions of events in Hero refer to an assassination plot (and a great romance) but the film does seem to end with a ‘resolution’. Nameless dies a hero’s death and Flying Snow dies with Broken Sword dead in her arms. China is eventually unified. But is this the end of the ‘story’? Because of the history of the writer-director and the nature of the wu xia genre, what do we take away from the story? Are we confident that the second version of events is more truthful than the first?

Questions of colour, cinematography etc.
The writer-director of Hero, Zhang Yimou, trained as a cinematographer in the Beijing Film School and emerged in the early 1980s as one of the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers. Several of the filmmakers from this period became famous around the world as their films received screenings overseas and won prizes at festivals. In the late 1980s China emerged from a long period of isolation from the rest of the world and many of the films seen in the West were interpreted as saying something about the history of China under Mao Zedong in the 1950s to 1970s – not directly, but by means of metaphor.

Zhang Yimou began as a cinematographer and then moved on to become a director. He quickly established a reputation as a director with enormous visual flair and in particular, the use of colour. At the beginning of his directing career he made three ‘period melodramas’, Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Ju Dou was set in a dye-works and you can probably work out from the other two titles that ‘red’ figures strongly in these films. All the films are very carefully ‘composed’ and controlled, so that each image is almost like an art photograph. At the centre of each image is a very beautiful woman, played in each case by Gong Li. In his last few films, Zhang has used his new protégé, Zhang Ziyi, who in Hero plays Moon.

A cinematographer who rivals Zhang Yimou for visual style in East Asian cinema is Chris Doyle. Although Australian by birth, Doyle settled in Hong Kong to learn his trade and became associated with the films of Wong Kar-Wai. Through this connection, he, like Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, gained a profile in the West. Doyle has been a very ‘experimental’ cinematographer pushing forward the boundaries of what can be achieved on film. The combination of Zhang and Doyle was bound to be special in some way. Complementing the two is Tan Dun, the composer of the score for Crouching Tiger, but generally not a prolific composer for cinema, being known in China and internationally for his symphonic work for the concert hall. The score uses traditional instruments and chants, but is also carefully mixed with sound effects, e.g. in the fight between Nameless and Sky, the sound of rain, the clatter of the blind musician’s stick, the clash of metal when sword meets spear etc.

Colour
Zhang Yimou’s previous work is relevant to an understanding of Hero, simply because it sets up an expectation that the colours in the films design will in some way have a political message. There are five sequences where a colour either predominates are is made ‘significant’ in a scene:

  • The King of Qin’s palace is grey/black, enlivened only by splashes of red. This forms the beginning and the end of the story and the overall feel of this sequence extends into the first fight between Nameless and Sky;
  • Red dominates the first version of the story by Nameless in which he describes the calligraphy school, the attack by the Qin army, the stabbing of Broken Sword and the subsequent fight between Flying Snow and Moon;
  • Blue becomes the colour for the second version of the story;
  • Green is the colour for the story that Nameless doesn’t necessarily know since it covers the first meeting of Broken Sword and Flying Snow and also the failed assassination attempt;
  • White is the final colour, dominating the deaths of Flying Snow and Broken Sword and alternating with the black sequences back in the palace.
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the green sequence.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the green sequence.

What meanings might we give to each of these uses of colour? Zhang Ziyi only appears in the scenes away from the palace so she doesn’t appear in the ‘black’ scenes. In an interview she gave this response to a question about the other four colours:

. . . Hero uses the four colours, Red, Green, Blue and White, to tie in four different segments of the story. On the other hand, each of them also contains a different story. Green is the representation of reminiscing, blue is the struggle among the three of them [Nameless, Broken Sword and Flying Moon]. The layout is unique; it’s unlike traditional wu xia films. It has quite a bit of artistic love story. In addition, Hero is not a typical wuxia movie – its main theme is in no way the same as the past wuxia films, which are mostly about the seeking of vengeance or vying for the ultimate martial arts manual that leads to endless fights and killings. It is about the love and compassion of the heroes of the world, their magnanimity, and has a kind of international spirit. The costumes in Hero are also very special: one character, one design, and there are four different colours. I feel that it’s something very modern, in as much as being avant-garde. (www.wu-jing.org/News/M01/2002-01-Zhang-Ziyi-Hero.php)

And here is Zhang Yimou in another interview with IndieWire magazine:

IW: How did you come up with the color changes in the film: red, white, blue and green?
ZY: Hero is not a traditional martial arts movie. It’s very structurally presented. I like Rashômon, and thought I could use different colors to represent different parts in the movie.
IW: Why those particular colors, red, white and blue?
ZY: There’s no particular meaning to each color. I just needed the colors to represent . . .
IW: Points of view.
ZY: Yes, yes. Each color represents a different period and different [way of telling the] story . . . (www.indiewire.com/people/people_040827hero.html)

Zhang suggests that there is no relationship between the particular colour and what happens in the sequence. Perhaps we should be suspicious of any director who makes this kind of statement (he could be ‘playing’ with the interviewer, or perhaps he was just bored). Even if Zhang did not consciously choose a colour, we as the audience will respond to colours differently. Red is most often associated with ‘passion’ and ‘danger’. This is true in every society – red is the colour of blood. It has a further meaning in China where it could be a reference to the victory of communism. Blue is often a cold colour associated with water, whereas green is often associated with calm. White is slightly problematic since in some cultures it relates to purity and in others to death. White is the colour of mourning clothes in many parts of Asia.

If you want some more ideas about what the possible meanings of the colours might be, a detailed discussion is available on this website: www.spcnet.tv/movie/hero/movie_hero.shtml This review raises many interesting points about the mise en scène of Hero. Author R. Hu suggests that it bears all the signs of Zhang Yimou’s approach to mise en scène: “the use of water, blood red colours, pigments, drapes/fabric, aerial shots and box-like architectures”.

The palace of Qin is a good example of the ‘enclosing architecture’ (Zhang has said that he chose black to represent the Qin Dynasty), as is the interior of the calligraphy school. Contrast this with the ‘open’ exteriors, in particular the lake and the desert. Hu’s review is very long and detailed and it is only possible to highlight some of the points here, but you might like to consider:

The King of Qin’s version of the story which is shown in blue and has a strong circular motif (think of the circle of library scrolls within which Nameless performs the trick with the cup). This is repeated but with a subtly altered mise en scène in the white sequences. The circle represents the king’s view of strength and unity and blue is suggested as the colour of imagination (this is how the king would like the story to have unfolded?).

A great deal seems to hang on the ‘excess’ of water and the contrasting drought in the desert scenes. How many times does water seem to be important? When Broken Sword first meets Flying Snow it is by a waterfall, when Nameless fights Sky it is teeming with rain. When are the other times that water is featured?

“Although much is said about the various colour themes in this film, yet many do not similarly acknowledge the distinct construction of the mise en scène belonging to the various colour schemes. From the box-like enclosure of the Black/Grey sequences, we move into the disjunctive and disunited labyrinth of the Red sequence that contrasts with the perfect unity of the Blue sequence, the fluidity of the Green sequence and the vast expansions of drought and negative space of the desert scenes in the White sequence. The final moments of the film brings the viewers back full circle into the coffin-like confinement of the Black/Grey sequence which begins the film. Yet interestingly, the final shot of the movie is that of the Great Wall of China which though is a wall meant to exclude and confine, yet nevertheless expands into the distance so far, its end is that of which cannot be perceivable by the naked eye.”

Narrative resolution
The reactions of audiences towards the film in the West (it is more difficult to assess what they might be in China) often contrast what they perceive as a technically brilliant film with a rather disturbing political message. The ‘hero’ is a man who sacrifices himself to allow the King of Qin to unify the warring states and establish the Chinese Empire. This does not go down well in the West and many commentators have criticised Zhang Yimou who in the past has been both praised and damned for the assumed political messages of his films (equally, but in the opposite way, in Beijing and Washington). Much of the debate hinges on the final text that appears on the screen. In the Miramax version in the West it says ‘Our Land’, but Chinese scholars have suggested that the Chinese script actually means ‘under heaven’ or ‘the world’. Is the act of sacrifice that Nameless makes for ‘Chinese’ people or for all people?

It might be helpful to consider the importance of all the emphasis on the calligraphy and the symbol of the sword in the film. This importance comes from Broken Sword. Who is the real ‘hero’ of the film? Is it Nameless who certainly seems to be the main protagonist? Is it the King of Qin who creates the Empire of China? Or is it Broken Sword, from whom the whole idea of sacrificing oneself for the ‘greater good’ comes? It might be worth exploring what you think is the purpose of the love story between Broken Sword and Flying Snow and how this relates to the resolution of the film’s narrative.

Genre
If we want to understand the complexity and depth of the filmic narrative, it is essential that we know something about the genre elements in the film and what these might mean in terms of the expectations of the audience.

Hero has been described as a ‘wu xia pian’. Mandarin and English are different kinds of language and therefore translations are open to interpretations. We will work with a translation that suggests ‘martial arts chivalry film’. Such films are not well-known in the West with only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang’s follow-up film to Hero, House of Flying Daggers (2004) getting any kind of wide release. Western audiences are aware, however, of more contemporary martial arts films from Hong Kong, such as those of Bruce Lee in the 1970s and Jackie Chan in more recent times. Also, many audiences are familiar with the choreography of martial arts as it has been imported into Hollywood action films – everything from The Matrix trilogy to the Charlie’s Angels films.

Wu xia is a distinct genre and the martial arts ‘action’ is located in a period setting and in the context of specific conflicts related to the honor codes of the warriors. This means that:

  • the films are rooted in the specific cultural context of pre-modern China;

however

  • the repertoire of these films will share certain elements with similar genres in other cultures, e.g. the chanbara or ‘swordfight’ film from Japan and the ‘swashbuckler’/musketeers/knights tales from Europe and America. There could also be links to westerns and gangster films – those in which a notion of honour, loyalty and responsibility are important.

The important cultural roots in China mean that the actions of ‘warriors’ in wu xia are linked to forms of philosophy and traditions of training which involve apprentices and masters (so that in Hero, Broken Sword is attempting to master calligraphy and marry it to his swordfighting skills and Moon is his apprentice/page etc.). Warriors recognise each other according to the ‘schools’ which have trained them and will often remark on the quality of skills demonstrated. Other elements include:

  • ‘super powers’ – warriors are able to leap high and long and to hang in the air, their swordplay is more accurate and swifter than seems possible and they can defeat whole armies of lesser warriors;
  • related to these super powers, wu xia may also involve other fantasy elements including witchcraft, ghosts, out of body experiences etc.
  • the contests between warriors often take place in a specific location, away from the fictional world of mere mortals – often in a world of mountains, rivers, lakes and forests (jiang hu)
  • jiang hu is often in a state of ‘chaos’, caused by wars or corrupt officials who have recruited warriors to do evil things – the good warriors therefore have a mission to restore the balance in jiang hu and the ‘real world’
  • the mission may focus on some form of lost sacred object, often a scroll, a sword etc.
  • narratives will often focus on a hero with a mission who has to overcome some form of disability (thus blind or one-armed swordsmen are not uncommon);
  • families or ‘surrogate’ relationships are important, so that the son or daughter of a warrior may follow a parent into training;
  • the tradition of female warriors is not new and can be traced back to 1920s cinema in China (see Reynaud 2003). The modern female warrior possibly dates from an important Taiwanese film directed by King Hu, A Touch of Zen (1971).

Looking through this list of elements it is clear that Hero does use several elements from the repertoire.

  • male and female warriors (Nameless, Sky, Broken Sword and the King), Flying Snow and Moon, all except the King with ‘super’ powers;
  • there is a sense of jiang hu in the location of significant duels at the lake and in the forest etc.;
  • there is a sense of ‘chaos’ – arguably created by the King’s initial actions and then the hatred and revenge engendered in Nameless and Flying Snow in particular;
  • the focus on calligraphy is strong and Broken Sword’s mission to bring swordsmanship and brushwork together is a driving force in the narrative.

However, as the filmmakers have indicated, Hero is not a ‘pure’ or traditional wu xia. There are other elements that are important. The romance between Broken Sword and Flying Snow is essential to an understanding of the narrative. The questioning of the love of one for the other, the ‘tests’ of love, the anger and jealousy at suspected betrayal etc. are all elements from the love story. (Even if the jealousy was not ‘true’, it still features as an element.) These elements don’t invalidate an approach to the film as wu xia, instead they make it a richer and more complex text because they are essential in any reading of the narrative.

References and Further Reading
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (1997, 5th edition) Film Art, London and New York: McGraw Hill
Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2002, 3rd ed) The Media Student’s Book, London: Routledge
Nick Lacey (1998) Image and Representation, London: Macmillan
Nick Lacey (2000) Narrative and Genre, London: Macmillan
Sharon Lin Tay (2004) Review in Sight & Sound, October

The explication of basic concepts in genre offered in this pack is extended in the resources pack on Key Concepts: Genre published by BFI Education Projects and itp publications in 2001.

Websites
http://www.heroic-cinema.com/eric/xia.html
http://members.tripod.com/~journeyeast/wuxia_pian.html (David Bordwell)
http://www.kungfucinema.com
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuxia
http://www.spcnet.tv/movie/hero/movie_hero.shtml
http://www.monkeypeaches.com/hero/interview01.html
http://www.wu-jing.org/News/M01/2002-01-Zhang-Ziyi-Hero.php
http://www.indiewire.com/people/people_040827hero.html
http://www.cinedrama.de/LFNY/lfny1.htm
http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/26/sexual_politics_chinese_martial_arts.html (Reynaud)

Essay or discussion questions on Hero

1. How is the art of calligraphy represented in the film? Which of the characters is most associated with calligraphy and what is it that they do?

2. What is the role of the character Moon in the film’s narrative? What does she do and how significant is her role?

3. How strong is the love between Flying Snow and Broken Sword – how is this love represented?

4. How would you describe the ‘quest’ or ‘mission’ that drives the narrative of Hero?

5. List the main sequences in Hero according to the dominant colours (of costume, decor etc.). How would you explain the difference between the red, blue and green sequences?

6. How many of the ‘genre elements’ of wu xia have you seen being used in Hollywood films? Select one or two examples and explain how the same elements might be shared by Chinese cinema and Hollywood – and how they might be used differently.

7. How would you describe the King of Qin? Is he a sympathetic character or is he a villain? What kinds of evidence do you take into account in your decision?

8. There are several fight scenes in the film. How does the director attempt to make each fight different so that we don’t become bored?

9. How is sound used in the film? Are there moments you remember when a particular sound or passage of music is essential to understanding what is happening? Or does sound always simply support the image?

10. Why do you think water plays such an important part in several of the fight scenes?

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8 Responses to “Hero (China/Hong Kong 2002) – Narrative analysis”

  1. Oh, it is disheartening to see “No comments” on such a fine article. This is the type of article that separates it from fanboys. Great work.

    But, I somehow feel that the warmth and intrigue in Ju Dou and RTRL is missing and watching this movie is a very cerebral experience that stops at the retina.

  2. Sanjit Som said

    A very good story, well cliamtic distribution and acting in the film. Really it’s a good cinema for ever.

  3. joe bloe said

    There is a disturbing element to the story of this film that goes beyond the translation of the term “Our Land.” Personally, I believe this film not to suggest that the world belongs to China or any blatantly race superiority suggestions.

    I believe that the underlying moral suggestion to this film is that a Totalitarian Dictatorship is more important than any one person or small countries interests. Under the guise of “Unification,” the endless slaughter of anyone who disputes the tyranny of the New World Order is justified as long as it serves the goal of the New World Order even if its just one of many endless corrupt dictatorships we’ve seen on planet Earth.

    Adolf Hitler began his conquests under the guise of “Unification” of the Germanic states and then finally spun out of control leveling most of Europe waging a senseless war on both fronts only to be finally destroyed by the same violence he instigated.

    This film suggests that anyone who questions the authority of those who wish to “rule the world,” should abstain from such thoughts and actions and to place your own personal ambitions aside for the greater good of the new unified New World Order.

    The Chinese film tradition of Wu Xia Pian suggests that like “Star Wars,” the elite Jedi warrior class, are the elite force that balances corrupt politicians. Their untouchable combat skills and moral authority creates balance and makes the proper “corrections” to ensure society can live corruption free.

    In this film, Broken Sword decides that perhaps by sparing the evil Emperor, he can be changed and rethink his violent ways by teaching him empathy.

    However the final text reveals that the Emperor goes on to realize his vision of a unified and conquered China.

    Is it possible that the film can convince victims of the Tianamen Massacre that their friends and family died for the greater good of a Totalitarian dictatorship that enslaves it’s people to factories to manufacture the consumer junk for the Western world?

    This film is blatant New World Order propaganda and it’s packaged in a slick art house cinema, big budget production in order to try and pawn itself off as entertainment.

    • venicelion said

      Everyone who reads a film creates their own meanings. In most cases there will be some kind of ‘preferred reading’ – i.e. the reading that most readers might be expected to recognise. You can then agree with that reading or ‘negotiate’ your own position or indeed create your own ‘oppositional’ reading. In Hero, Zhang Yimou announces that he is inspired by Rashomon and thus attempts to present the narrative from different perspectives, creating the possibility of more different readings and questioning what a preferred reading might be.

      I guess that yours is an oppositional reading because of your own ideological position. That’s fair enough. Presumably you recognise that most of Hollywood works in precisely the same way as Hero? All historical films are open to be read as metaphors for contemporary social/cultural/political issues. On the other hand, I doubt that any of the victims of Tiananmen could be persuaded by ‘propaganda’ – but some of them might enjoy the spectacle. It would be a shame if your interpretation of the film prevented you from enjoying its undoubted artistry.

    • Tom said

      @Joe Bloe you’re a funny guy. :)

      • matrice said

        Basically, what Guy said, with an additional point about the attitude to take when considering anything in an historical context. If you want to have realism and historical accuracy, then you should try to be mature enough for it, and not take everything a person living half a millennia before Christ, that never experienced long lasting peace, could do, as a direct attack to your value system (democracy, the concept of human rights or anything ever remotely so egalitarian were long from being invented, it was either powerful people wanting to conquer new territories or poor people being enrolled in an invading army, to be slaughtered on the front, or attacked by an invading army, to be slaughtered in their fields).

        I try to imagine some of the commentators reading the original version of the Odyssey, and I can’t picture them reaching the end without an aneurysm. If we want realism, even in a poetic context (the “violence like a dance” in this film’s aesthetic), then the ability to face alternative points of view and moral system and ideas without going “gaaah… wrong, wrong, wroooong!” would be required. It’s not as if it’s a new idea, therefore… “cartoon morality”… well, I would think that someone living in a period of almost a century of practically uninterrupted war would know a little thing or two about pragmatism and what would be “naive” or “simplistic” or not. I don’t think one would have to be a genius to point out that, maybe, in that context and at that time, this was simply as good as you could get. It didn’t exactly seem as if they had any better alternative, other that to plunge the world back into chaos again, and if the choice was between a few belligerent rulers battling it out at the expense of the general populace, or one of them finally prevailing and unifying everything, finally granting the peasants some peace and the chance to die of natural causes, the latter would indeed be welcome. The time period in question simply makes it impossible to make a Nazi analogy, or even a modern-China one, for that matter, sorry. They were “all” autocrats, and wanting to unify the territory for the sake of lasting peace actually does make the actual Emperor somewhat morally superior, about as good as you could find (he could have been power hungry and xenophobic… the lack of such traits makes any comparison with Nazism moot, as well as pathetic). This is how it is portrayed in the film, the characterisation is not up to the one watching.

        An important point, is that he was not endorsing a tyrant over peaceful rulers: everyone, including his own king, was an autocrat striving to expand his territories. There was simply no “else” clause. It was not a conqueror going for world domination upsetting the status quo, simply a situation of endless conflict, and the possibility that a leader a little stronger than the other autocrats would be able to unify the nation, end the parochial nonsense, and lead their country into a more cosmopolitan era. No, as we didn’t see a bloodthirsty dictator, but a warrior, a conqueror, a military chief like there were many in ancient times (Scipio and Hannibal, etc.), that could also see the value of the enemy, as demonstrated in the talk with the One Without Name.

        The concept of war of conquest was certainly not unique, nor was he particularly ruthless or psychopathic compared to any other rules. Was the concept of “war of conquest” totally foreign until the big bad king came around? Well, it’s not as if the other three were trained warriors because they felt like it and weapons were developed to pass the time… the Warring States period went from 480 BCE to 221 BCE… this means entire generations living without ever knowing peace -the final choice between a selfish, phyrric victory that would have benefited no one and would have merely plunged the world back into chaos, and the possibility to build a pacific future, was frankly a no-brainer.

        It probably needs to be seen in context. Historical context. Before judging a film, it would probably be best to be well acquainted with the history and culture of the period that was described. It is quite easy to notice, from the tone of the comment, that you probably don’t know much about the Warring States period. It’s not as if there was a peace/invasion dichotomy, the context was one of constant battle and bloodshed that seemed without end, and in that situation the unification of the country under the same batten was seen as the only feasible way to achieve peace – certainly better than the alternative, constant bloodshed in meaningless territorial disputes-, a sort of Pax Romana, a single reign rather than many reigns periodically battling it out. From the point of view of the people, little changed, you were a peasant under a king or under another, and with all probability would welcome the cessation of constant conflict. The government model was, in any case, that of an absolute monarchy – it’s not as if the modern concept of “state” was actually there, nor anything resembling a “democratic” government or any egalitarian principle – and the aspects of warfare were those, it’s not as if one ruler was particularly brutal with respect to all the others.

        [ed: This is the just the first part of a comment that is really an essay. 'matrice', if you want to add further comments that's fine, but you have to do it in manageable chunks, not all at once.]

  4. Guy Axtell said

    Although I would agree there are good reasons to be critical of political messages one might get from this film, one point that some of the political comments above might be overlooking is that the political ‘message’ of Hero (if there is a coherent one) is very, very traditional, not new. In Sunzi’s Art of War a recurring theme is that there is no benefit to a country in protracted war. Get it done quickly and restore peace quickly: thus you avoid tiring your own troops and miring the country in further suffering. So isn’t the message of those characters in Hero who decide not to assassinate the King that the assassination would only create further suffering? And isn’t this quite consistent with following the ancient martial advise of the Art of War in this respect?

    As a second point, this film is interesting from a ethics standpoint as an ‘inverse’ utilitarian dilemma–not the usual Western one of ‘Should I kill one to improve the lot of many?’ but rather its natural counterpart, ‘Should I spare one who I have good (retributive) reasons to kill, if this will lessen (shorten) the suffering of many?’ This is also something like the dilemma for Ang in the Last Airbender series, isn’t it, when he finally has the chance to kill the one he’s been seeking revenge upon, but then rethinks the wisdom of it?

    Guy Axtell, Philosophy, Radford U.

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