Another Leni Riefenstahl Moment
I was repelled by the obvious political message of Hero, though like everybody else I did admire the color scheme. Though the movie overtly deals with the First Emperor, the ruthless king of Chin who reunited the Empire at the end of the Warring States period, it isn’t much of a stretch to understand the film at as a piece of revisionism about the Tiananmen Square massacre. What seems to be going on is this: A Chinese intellectual makes his peace with the powers that be by directing a movie about a group of transcendently skillful warriors who seek to assassinate a tyrant but eventually decide that the project of Chinese unification justifies his monumental crimes. Tellingly, two of the warriors are writers and in the movie’s finale, the hero, whose name is Nameless, willingly submits to execution in an immense public square. Zhang Yimou does portray the protesting swordsmen as honorable people, but he is just as insistent that they all must die to atone for their rebellion. Zhang gets off easier. He just has to make a movie.
I understand that for American audiences and reviewers who aren’t aware of Chinese history and politics, a movie like Hero will mostly register as an action flick. For a Chinese audience, it’s so tendentious it’s almost honest.