copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

Hero: China’s response to
Hollywood globalization

by Jenny Kwok Wah Lau

The 2002 film Hero, directed by the internationally renowned director Zhang Yimou, stormed through China with massive media coverage, vehement critical debates and audience response — both in print media and Internet. In the end, its box office receipts of 2.5 billion yuan out of 9 billion total revenue for all films in that year made it the top grossing film in the entire history of Chinese cinema up to that point. The coming of Hero signified the final institutionalization of a new era in Chinese filmmaking, one that single-mindedly pushes for market success. Thus, we need to ask what conditions in Chinese cinema affected the emergence of films such as Hero and what does that film's success mean for Chinese films' future?

To answer these questions we must begin from when the changes first started. Since the 1980s China has actively re-organized its film industry from a socialist to a semi-capitalist market system. 1982 marked the beginning of “outside” investment in film production. This so-called “outside” refers to sources extraneous to the China Film Bureau, such as private entities from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and some Western companies, which were allowed to participate in this once completely-enclosed filmmaking circle. In 1989 China abandoned the Film Bureau's monopoly of film distribution and allowed the establishment of private distribution companies. The next ten years were a period of consolidation. By the end of the 90s all three phases of filmmaking — production, distribution, and exhibition — had very much opened to private investment. This process also partly prefigured China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was considered vital for China’s participation in world capitalism. After years of fierce negotiation, especially with the United States, whose approval or veto was decisive in the whole process, in December, 2001 China entered the WTO.

China’s strong desire to get into the WTO was not unaccompanied by skeptics within China itself, including from the film community, which was facing economic hard times. In fact, while the 90s saw the consolidation of a capitalist filmmaking system, they also saw a massive and debilitating slide in the size of the movie-going audience. Box office receipts declined from 1991's 23.6 billion yuan (1 U$ appr. = 7.8 yuan) to 2001's 8.4 billion yuan, a more than threefold drop in ten years. Furthermore, only 35% of the revenue during that time came from China-made films, the remaining 65% derived from Hollywood or other imported films. Meanwhile, film production also dropped throughout the 90s, from 167 films in 1992 to 80 films in 2001.[1][open notes in new window]

Some film scholars in China blamed the drop in numbers on the shift to a capitalist system, and they doubted whether China could adapt to the pressure of the open market.[2] No doubt, system change did affect film production. For example, the more open system brought in popular films from other cinemas, such as from Hong Kong and Hollywood, which proved highly competitive in the local market. It also generated a large DVD market, part of which relied on piracy practices that seriously hurt the film industry. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that some of the pain that the Chinese film industry suffered during those years was partly self-inflicted by internal censorship.

Many of the best “artisan/cultural” films made during that period — such as, Judou (1990, Zhang Yimou), Farewell My Concubine (1993, Chan Kaige), Blue Kite (1994, Tian Zhanzhan), and To Live (1994, Zhang, Yimou) — were initially banned in China. Similarly, many of the 6th generation new wave films — such as Beijing Bastards, (1994, Zhang Yuan), Postman (Ho Jianjun, 1995), Pickpocket (or Xiao Wu by Jia Zhangke, 1997, director of The World, 2004), and East Palace, West Palace (Zhang Yuan, 1997) — were potentially attractive to the new urban masses but not screened. Most of these directors suffered interference from the government and some were even banned from making films for a period of time.[3]

Instead of supporting these films, made in the tradition of artisan filmmaking, the government encouraged a new type of film called the “new mainstream,” through expeditious granting of shooting and screening permits. These films were mostly Hollywood imitations financed by private investments. By the late nineties, 70% of China’s production consisted of “new mainstream” films — such as Part A, Part B (Jiafang Yifang), Be There or Be Square (Bujian Busan) , and Shower (Xi Zao). These films were called the new mainstream as opposed to the “old mainstream” because the latter were “mainstream” by government design, intended as “educational” or “culturally or politically uplifting.” As the government strongly supported them, the films were guaranteed wide distribution. However, even though screened throughout China, the films had a disproportionately small viewership, mostly due to their traditional form and didactic content.[4] Examples include Jiao Yulu (Our Party’s Good Cadre, 1990, dir. Wang Jixin) and The Opium War (1997, dir. Xie Jin). In contrast, the “new mainstream” became the “real mainstream” in terms of popularity.

Thus, from the early 90s one can identify three major types of cinema in China: the artisan/cultural films, usually banned; the state-sponsored films (old mainstream), usually not popular; and the new mainstream entertainment, commercial and stylistically imitating Hollywood.

Hollywood and China

While China was struggling to change, Hollywood, which was only on the periphery of Chinese cinema before the mid 90s, had already secured its global dominance. Toby Miller’s well-researched Global Hollywood describes the situation in detail. In 1980 30% of Hollywood film revenue was generated through export, but by 2000, 50% of Hollywood’s total income came from overseas.[5] Just a single film, Titanic in 1998, generated 1.8 billion dollars through global distribution. Currently, Hollywood films occupy 70-80% of the European market, over 80% of the Central and North American market, and 45-50 % of the Japanese market.[6] But within the United States foreign films constitute only about 3% of the total domestic market.

This imbalance has been repeated in U.S.-China cinema trade since the first Hollywood film The Fugitive was launched in China’s mainstream cinema in 1993.[7] During the next few years a number of Hollywood bestsellers were imported, including True Lies, Forrest Gump, and The Lion King. Between 1995 and 2001 China imported 134 Hollywood films, 61 of which were so called “profit share” deals, with guaranteed showings in major cinema chains in China. But during the same period, U.S. mainstream distributors distributed zero mainland-China-made films.

First attempt to fight back

Hollywood blockbusters had a mixed effect in China. On the one hand, Chinese audiences' declining interest in cinema since the 90s was revitalized through highstyle Hollywood productions. On the other hand, Hollywood films threatened China’s own filmmaking because of the trade imbalance. In face of the Hollywood onslaught, China made several attempts to remain competitive. In 1995 a number of directors were successful in making “semi-entertainment” (versus artisan) films to counter Hollywood’s attraction. A number of quality films were made including In the Heat of the Sun (dir. Jian Wen, 1995), which capitalized on the historical background of the Cultural Revolution; Red Cherry (Hong Ying Tao dir. Ye Ying, 1995) which used the Second World War as its epic backdrop; and the gangster thriller Shanghai Triad, (dir. Zhang Yimou, 1995), which represented a genre first re-imported from Hong Kong in the 80s. Another group of films that scored some success in combating Hollywood was the “little tramp” realist social comedy, most notably by two directors — Feng Xiaogang (Be There or Be Square, 1999), and Huang Jianxin (Signal Left Turn Right, 1996).[8] The former director mixed Chinese urban stories with Hollywood gimmicks while the latter was more sophisticated in style and insightful in critiquing social problems. Some of their films sold well and were able to offer momentary resistance to the Hollywood influence.

But 1998 marked a gigantic and unexpected challenge. It was “the year of the Titanic." The film set a historical record by grossing 3.2 billion yuan, which amounted to an astounding 20% of the total gross for all films that year. Titanic created a shockwave among Chinese filmmakers, critics and scholars. A year later, industry filmmakers and scholars met to discuss yet again new survival strategies to confront the Hollywood invasion.

But 1999 brought another crucial round of U.S.-China trade negotiation. Particularly important for China, this was the last meeting before the United States would take an affirmative stand on China’s membership in the WTO. In order to please the United States, China agreed to (1) allow 50 instead of 10 foreign films to be imported and screened on a “shared profit” basis each year (it should be noted that China only made about 100-120 films a year); and (2) to allow foreign investors to own up to 40% of cinema investments in China. The effectiveness of Hollywood’s entry to the Chinese market by diplomatic means is a story with long historical antecedents, as have been thoroughly discussed by Harvard historian John Trumpbour in his recent book Selling Hollywood to the World. In his description, Hollywood and the State Department have a relationship similar to that between client and agent, whose alliance can be traced back more than three quarter of a century.[9]

Second attempt

While the Chinese government was incapable, or unwilling, to combat the state-corporation alliance on a policy level, the filmmaking community tried to resist by rejuvenating its morale. In November 1999, a national conference was called in Beijing in which a large number of 6th generation films were screened, including works banned in the past by such directors as Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and others. The meeting confirmed those previously slighted accomplishments of the 6th generation directors and acknowledged the many international awards they had gained throughout the years. Yet underneath the morale boosting lay the anxious realization that entertainment films might maintain an irresistible dominance. Chinese filmmakers, for the entire 90s and early 2000s, were caught between conflicting models of cinema: entertainment versus cultural filmmaking and audience-centered versus art-centered production.

The challenges were daunting. In order to sell well, it seemed that filmmakers had to pander to the uncritical or even vulgar mass taste. Those directors who refused to be “secularized” or “vulgarized” and continued to make traditionally valued artisan films usually ended up failing in the domestic market, albeit winning awards in the international scene. Some examples are: On the Beat (1995, or Police Story, dir. Ning Ying, screened in the Toronto International Film festival and other film festivals); Suzhou River (1999, dir. Lou Ye, Tiger Award, Rotterdam); Devils on the Doorstep (2000, dir. Jiang Wen, Grand Jury Award, Cannes Film Festival); and The Missing Gun (2002 dir. Lu Chuan, screened in Venice, Sundance, and other film festivals).

In addition to economic concerns, the directors' desire to regain the domestic market had a nationalistic impetus. Zhang Yimou — the most internationally acclaimed Chinese filmmaker, who had collected numerous international awards after shooting Yellow Earth — spoke about his own frustration. He indicated that small budget artisan films were good for him. But gaining international recognition through festivals did not help much in rescuing Chinese films from market decline. Nor did it move Chinese cinema into the center of world attention. He said,

“I am now more interested in finding a way to make Chinese films significant to a world wide audience.” [10]

Zhang’s statement summarized the issues succinctly as Chinese directors saw it. First, the Chinese domestic market must be re-controlled by Chinese films. Second, world recognition of Chinese cinema should go further than the small circle of international festivals. The central question which has puzzled Zhang and many Chinese artisan filmmakers is “how can a culturally refined Chinese film serve as mass entertainment, both for the Chinese and the international audience?” In other words, can Chinese filmmakers develop a “cultured blockbuster?” If so, what is a Chinese cultured blockbuster? How can a film be both Chinese (not simply having a Chinese story but more importantly carrying Chinese aesthetics and values) and a blockbuster?

While Chinese filmmakers like Zhang were pondering such questions, a film directed by Taiwan director Ang Lee in the year 2000 exploded into the West and suddenly changed the entire scene. The colossal success of the martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) in the West was completely unexpected and maddening. It was unexpected since it did not sell well in the “capital of martial arts” namely, Hong Kong and China. East Asian audiences found the performance less than impressive, especially the Cantonese-accented Mandarin spoken by its lead actor and actress — Chow and Yeoh. Also, East Asian viewers judged the story too slow and boring, and the special effects too familiar. The overall sales in East Asia were so bad that its major investors, Hsu Li-Kong (Taiwan) and Bill Kong (Hong Kong), had no hope for the North American market and sold the film to Sony Pictures Classics at a flat rate of less than the film’s production fee — $15 million U.S. Unfortunately, and therefore maddening to the investors, the filmmakers did not get a penny of the completely unexpected $128 million sales in the U.S. or of its $213 million sales in worldwide distribution![11]

Crouching Tiger showed it was possible to have a Chinese blockbuster in the West. But still un-accomplished was the making of a film attractive to the Chinese (or East Asian) audience. Zhang's goal was to make a culturally specific and technically sophisticated film that would appeal to both East and West.

In this light, we can see the film Hero as an experiment in Zhang’s global/local strategy, a search for a model for a Chinese blockbuster. Understanding that martial arts are an unequivocal expression of Chinese tradition with an undeniable international currency, Zhang deliberately constructed the film’s blockbuster elements. First, Hero had an all-star crew and cast. The leading actors and actresses were native and international super stars — Jet Li, Tony Leung (Best actor award, Cannes Film Festival, 2000), Maggie Cheung (Best Actress award, Berlin Film Festival, 1991, Best Actress Award, Cannes Film Festival, 2004), and Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger).

In addition to the internationally recognized director himself, Hero had

Right from the beginning Zhang made it clear that “Hero is a commercial action film” made with an eye on the global market. As he explained,

“the budget of the film is so high (30 million U.S. dollars — biggest budget for a single Chinese film up to date) that focusing on the domestic market is not enough”[12].

From a Hollywood point of view Hero did indeed achieve very high production values, particularly the spectacular action scenes with CGI special effects. It sold very well in most parts of East Asia (except Hong Kong) and was the all time bestseller in China (grossing 2.5 billion yuan out of 9 billion total revenue for all films in that year). Its box office record in the United States and worldwide, although only half that of Crouching Tiger, was still impressive. Critically, the film had good reviews in the West.

From a commercial point of view Hero achieved its blockbuster goal. But to the credit of the filmmaker Zhang, Hero did not just provide spectacle but also stands as a very “cultured” Chinese film. Not only did it explore a Chinese story with a martial arts theme but it expounds on Chinese thought and aesthetics. Unfortunately, critics, including Chinese critics, seem to have ignored this major accomplishment of the film.

Hero is culturally sophisticated exactly because of the many different levels of "Chineseness"[13] and Chinese arts that it invokes. Curiously, this very "Chinese connection" has caused strong reaction, both positive and negative, from audiences in China and Hong Kong. Despite the film's box office record, many Chinese critics were negative, or even angry about its political ideology. For most Chinese viewers, the emperor in the film is without a doubt the First Emperor of China, (Qin Shi Huangdi, around 200 BC), notorious for extreme brutality in his attempt to unify and control the country. But the film seems to point to him as the "hero" — in the plotline, all his would be "assassins," whom most Chinese believe were the real heroes in history, were killed or resigned themselves to execution. The film's surprising ending seems a defense of the emperor's excessive militarism under the pretense of uniting China.

The script's complacency towards a brutal dictatorial leader created much disturbance among critics, especially since the Chinese government, under the then Prime Minister Jiang Zemin, had given its support to the film project. In particular, the Prime Minister contributed to the film's production process by lending the People's Liberation Army, helicopters, and other resources; and later, he fomented its publicity by premiering the film in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and personally attending the screening. Some critics, who remembered what happened in 1989 during the Tian’anmen Square Incident, believed Jiang sponsored the film as a way to justify his use of force in suppressing the student movement.[14]

The film had a narrative discourse of devaluating human life for the sake of so-called peace and unity; such a theme was equally disturbing to the audience in Hong Kong, who definitely had reasons to worry about dictatorship after 1997.

In his thought-provoking study of Zhang’s films, Hong Kong filmmaker Evans Chan sees Hero as a product of Socialist-party-controlled “art” which, by supporting an historic brutal dictator, expresses a strong fascist ideology similar to the work of Leni Riefenstahl.[15] This ideological reading of the film raises an important question concerning the relation between art and politics in general and Hero and its political context in particular. In the rest of the article I will point out a number of major cultural elements which critics have not paid sufficient attention to. The cinematic presentation of these cultural elements distinguishes Hero from every other film of the same genre. I will also discuss how one may approach ideological objections to the film from a perspective which takes into consideration lessons learned from reading in the history of film/media.

Hero's cinematic art

Hero is a martial arts poem painted in color. Similar to Eisenstein’s theory of color, Hero connects color with sound, emotion, and meaning. Hero plays out its art in lush tones and textures. One can even say that the camera and color not only tell the story, they are the story. The different color schemes — black, red, golden yellow, blue, white, green, and black again —themselves comprise the stories. Black was the color of the Qin dynasty (the dynasty of the First Emperor of China, to whom the film alludes). In the film black surfaces shine. Black as the solemn and stately color marks the beginning of the story, in which heroes meet, big things happen, epics begin. Saturated red is Zhang’s color for intense passion and jealousy (a negative form of passion), as one can also see in his films Red Sorghum, Judou, Raise the Red Lanterns, and even in his realist film Story of Qiu Ju. In Hero love demands loyalty, blood, and life. The use of golden yellow, which Hero's cinematographer Chris Doyle compared to Van Gogh in his shooting diary, is full of life. It is ephemeral. Nothing can describe better the fight/dance of the two beautiful women (Flying Snow and Moon), who amidst the golden dancing leaves and barren empty branches, fight and kill for the love of one man. After that, the translucent green curtains of the palace illuminate the heroism of Flying Snow and Broken Sword as they try to kill the emperor and fail.

The poetry is composed of ravishing images:

“clouds rushing over low mountains; a sword point that in slow motion slices through drops of water; lovers curled into each other, sleep under red silk; a sword fight in a grove of golden leaves that turn red, plum, and magenta and fall like fat confetti; soldiers squatting in a circle; a gray landscape of dunes daubed with a fighter's turquoise gown, fighters fly-fighting as if in a ballet, dipping into a lake calm like a mirror.”[17]

The unforgettable scene of the fight over the lake actually visualizes the classic literary description of the delicacy of a movement of a "dragon fly (lightly) dipping over the water." The film's congealment of powerful images, mood, and energy reaches the level of the sublime, surpassing any cinematic presentation of martial arts made before. Hero is a superb example of cinema being an art form by itself while expressing the sublimity of another art.[18]

Hero as discourse on art

While most critics, Chinese and Western, have focused on the film's narrative and characters, they miss Hero’s unusual discourse on the art of martial arts itself. As the first martial arts film made by a major art film director from mainland China, Hero surprisingly uses martial arts in a way that transcends action. Most martial arts films mainly draw viewers' attention to the "acrobatics" or "the skill of fighting." This stylistic focus, made familiar to the West by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, has attracted two major types of academic studies of the genre. Thus we find an analysis of the aesthetics of movement, as found in Aaron Anderson’s and David Bordwell's theories of kinesthetics[19], and the study of the body, as in Chris Berry's work on Bruce Lee's body and Lo, Kwai-Cheung’s study on martial arts masculinity.[20] But these studies, useful as they are, do not touch deeply enough on what is central to Hero. This film portrays martial arts not simply as bodily movements with force to subdue but as an expression of the human spirit.

In this vein, Hero begins with a discourse on martial arts as an art form, comparable to the four forms of high (versus popular) art most respected within the Chinese tradition — music, chess, calligraphy, and painting. This is a radical point for Zhang to make since up to this point traditional Chinese culture in general and socialist Chinese cinema had not considered martial arts as a form of high art.[21] In some ways, Zhang’s insight here, parallels some French artists’ vision for cinema during the early 1900s when most writers did not find cinema comparable to any form of high art. The artists argued rigorously with their contemporaries, both through critical writings and filmmaking, that cinema, however different from traditional arts, could be the seventh art.

Hero's discourse on martial arts begins in the first battle scene occurring between Nameless (Jet Li) and Sky (Donnie Yen) in a chess-house. The scene opens with a close-up shot of a quintessential Chinese game, called "Go" in the West. The first two-shot of the fighters in which they meet and face each other is framed with a chess board in the foreground, Nameless in the mid-ground and Sky in the background. Also present is a blind musician playing a "Zheng," a Chinese musical instrument similar to a lap harp. The fight scene is intercut with images of unfinished chess games, the musician, and close-up shots of his instrument. These Eisenstein-like montages clearly mark the connection between martial arts, music, and chess. In the fight's final round, Nameless invites the departing old man to play his music one more time. Nameless says, "Swords and harps are two different instruments. But their (art) principle is the same. They both reach for the 'supreme (ultimate) state,'" a state of human perfection.

The ultimate state is also a state of purity. This first fight takes place after a rainstorm, and the water motif recurs throughout the film. The scene's first shot shows a white chess piece in crystal clear water, and the rest of the scene features many close-ups of water droplets: dripping from the roof, splashing around the fighting/flying bodies, and swirling around the blades in slow motion. Water cleans and purifies. The editing and the unusual non-diegetic sound all accompany the light and shadow created by a fantastic dance between fighters and camera. These are moments of attraction, to use Tom Gunning's sense of "attraction," but the narration (versus narrative) does not stop.[22]

It takes just as much mental concentration and discipline to do martial arts as it does to practice other arts. (Later we hear Broken Sword speaks of "good martial arts as good calligraphy.") That precision with which the blade slices through water droplets is the same precision that we see later when the sword pierces through the center of an oncoming arrow. Again, the art here does not just reside in the movement of the human body but in the elegant control of the sword. In a state of perfection, the sword cuts with absolute clarity. Here one can make a connection with the popular culture connotation of the sword as a symbol of moral power. The image of the perfection of the sword might suggest the perfection of the human spirit.[23]

The art of martial arts also has parallels with the art of music. As the blind man teaches the young fighters, "music, when it reaches its state of perfection, is "soundless." In the first fight scene the strings of the Zheng break at the musical climax, rendering it "soundless." Nameless and Sky, both experts in motion, remain motionless for seemingly hours. The perfect fight happens, but in their mind. This spiritual dimension of martial arts and its comparison with music, calligraphy, and chess is a repeated theme throughout the film.

Later in the story, after Broken Sword achieves this higher form of martial arts, he is reluctant to fight again. As he explains to Flying Snow, calligraphy and martial arts have the same principle. Broken Sword now realizes that calligraphy is the art of the brush as martial arts is the art of the sword. Since his blade is in his mind, he needs only to practice calligraphy and there is no reason to participate in fighting physically any more. Similarly, at the end of the film Nameless, who finally realizes this art of non-action, gives up his chance to kill the emperor.

Narrative and characters

Some critics see a similarity between the narratives of Hero and the Japanese classic Rashomon. Upon close inspection, however, one can observe certain narrative strategies and foci that mark stark differences between the two. Even though both films' narration relies on a sequence of flashbacks, the two have a very different central dramatic tension. Rashomon posits the question of truth, i.e. whether one flashback gives a more truthful recounting of past events than another, whether human beings can tell the truth, or whether “truth” is possible at all. Hero's narrative tension, however, does not lie in the issue of “truth.” Less than half way through the film, the emperor recognizes, and Nameless admits, that the original story is actually a lie. The emperor firmly pronounces Nameless' murderous intention, and his recognition of that intent drastically changes the film's dramatic direction. This plot point reroutes the initial narrative questions of, “Can Nameless kill the emperor? If yes, how will he do so?” to a new set of inquiries: “Now that the emperor knows Nameless’ real intention, what is going to happen? Will the emperor order Nameless’ execution? Can Nameless save himself? Or, is he doomed?”

This restructuring is almost Hitchcockian, in that the key narrative propellant, the protagonist or the main quest of the protagonist (e.g. to assassinate), is terminated or aborted in the middle of the story. One good historical example of this is in Psycho, when after the death of the main protagonist, Marion Crane, the narrative takes a sharp turn and her quest — running away with stolen money, (which the audience was led to believe was the main story up until this point) — is finished off in the midst of the film.

Spirit of “Xia” (knights-errant)
and "Yee" (justice)

Because of this narrative rupture, the film opens up the possibility of a very different focus.[24] Soon after the emperor’s pronouncement, we see a second “flashback.” It is in fact not a flashback but the imagination of the emperor — now trying to ascertain how Nameless met and plotted with Flying Snow and Broken Sword to kill him (blue sequence in the film). Thus, a new dialogue begins that focuses not on the “story” per se, as all the flashbacks/stories are largely similar from this point on, but rather on the spirit/character of the “xia” (knights-errant, cavaliers) — Sky, Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Nameless. The term “xia” has long been applied to persons who roamed around the country and used force to right wrongs. Such fictional characters existed since the early history of Chinese literature and constituted a genre called "wu-xia" (armed knight-errant). Wu-xia genre films, which are loosely classified as martial arts films in the West, became dominant in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 60s. Unfortunately, many critics do not grasp that the spirit of “xia” is the genre's central issue. Most reviewers, when criticizing Hero's narrative, do not seem to recognize the film's use of a folkloric genre structure. Consequently, they analyze the film as though it were a plot-based, character-driven, modern drama.[25]

It is worth looking closely at the way the emperor learned to distrust Nameless’ story. Nameless took advantage of the rift between lovers, Broken Sword and Flying Sword. But the emperor's subsequent reasoning is based on his understanding of the spirit and temperament of Flying Snow and Broken Sword. The emperor remembers that he has met Broken Sword and Flying Snow before and that he can see “[they are] chivalrous, honest, and not narrow minded,” i.e. they are people of great virtue and full of self control. They are loyal to each other and will not get jealous over small matters. Thus, it is the very spirit of the two as knights-errant, not the rationale of Nameless’ narrative — its cause and effect structure — that renders Nameless' story illogical.

While the emperor may be confident of having mapped out Nameless’ plot, the latter has yet an astonishing story to tell. The third flashback is a “real” flashback, in which Nameless recounts his meeting with Flying Snow and Broken Sword (most of the white sequence). But within this flashback sequence, another flashback is inserted (green sequence). It is the flashback of Broken Sword, who recalls how he and Flying Snow attempted to assassinate the emperor three years prior. But during that encounter Broken Sword suddenly realizes that for the sake of “Tian xia” (the world) he should spare the emperor’s life. His failure to kill the emperor even when he had the opportunity angered Flying Snow. In this meeting with Nameless, Broken Sword tries to dissuade Flying Snow. But again Flying Snow is furious. She almost kills him in front of Nameless. Throughout these four flashbacks, a clearer picture of Flying Snow and Broken Sword begins to emerge. Broken Sword is most skillful in his martial arts. But through his practice in calligraphy he realizes that the highest state of swordsmanship lies not in fighting a war but in stopping a war. He is unwilling to kill the emperor, whom he believes has the power to bring peace. For that reason Broken Sword changes his goal. He now longs for a peaceful place called home, where “there is no sword or skill. There is only a man and a woman.” He longs for the day when Flying Snow can take him home.

Flying Snow, on the other hand, believes she must fulfill her duty to seek revenge for her father, who was killed by the emperor’s army. For that cause she is perfectly willing to die. In Nameless’ version of the story, when she and Broken Sword are on their way to a duel with Nameless in front of the emperor’s army, just to pretend they are enemies, she deliberately stabs Broken Sword. In her doing so, Broken Sword is spared, and she duels with Nameless all by herself. Throughout the film we can see that Flying Snow is a woman of great courage and deep love. She honors her commitment and is not afraid to sacrifice for her cause. She demonstrates a consistent strong "xia" spirit. In the end, she does exactly what she promises: “We (Broken Sword and Flying Snow) will not separate, our swords will not part, if we die we die together.”

Tension between “Wen” (skill of words)
and “Wu” (skill of fighting)

Even though Broken Sword and Flying Snow are great lovers, Broken Sword has a different temperament. He is capable of changing his goal and responding to a different “calling.” Here is where the film creates a problem, at least for most of its East Asian audience, because the basic character of a "xia" does not always conform to (Confucian) society. According to "xia" code of ethics, peace does not necessarily have the highest value. Justice does. Peace without justice only indicates weak complacency. Broken Sword’s change from sword to brush (calligraphy) is a shift from “wu” (skill of fighting) to “wen” (skill of words), which indeed signifies what was described by sinologist David Nivison as a shift from “protest against (Confucian) conventions” to “conventions against protest.”[26] To depict such a change in character indeed subverts the genre. In the end, Broken Sword accepts the consequence of his decision — the piercing sword of Flying Snow.

The spirit of Nameless is presented in a direct and different way. His undeniable virtuoso swordsmanship is seen throughout the fights he engages in. One also hears about (versus sees) his ten year devotion to perfect his martial arts. Showing his capability as a man of strategy, he designs a clever plot to assassinate the emperor. He has the trust of Sky, another hero, who gives his life so that Nameless can carry out his plan. In the end Nameless also spares the emperor and accepts the result of what he does. The emperor executes him but also honors him with an unusual funeral. Thus, the character of Nameless also poses a genre problem similar to that posed by Broken Sword. His change of mind resides outside the "xia" tradition.

The prolonged dialogue between Nameless and the emperor also takes up ideas of heroism and peace. Dramatic tension re-surfaces every time that the kneeling Nameless calmly converses with the mighty and yet equally calm emperor. The viewer feels a strong sense of unease with a constant suspicion that something is going to happen, but like a ticking bomb, one does not know when it will explode. The danger embedded in the scene, which one knows but cannot see, is largely created through mise-en-scene. Rows of candles sit between Nameless and the emperor and usually occupy from one third to half the screen space. As the dialogue approaches its end, more and more of the action and reaction shots between the two characters are framed with almost two third of the space filled with the candles. Sometimes there is a windy draft, which one cannot see but can sense through the movement of the flames, creating a sense of unpredictability. One cannot know whether or which candles will be blown out. At one point the emperor even points out to Nameless that his “killing spirit” has caused the candle flames to waver.

Hero's narrative is composed of four flashback sequences, with the end of each sequence cutting back to the main plot, namely, the conversation between Nameless and the emperor. But instead of seeing the repeated scenes of the two characters simply as transitions from one flashback to another, even amidst the tension "to kill or not to kill," the viewer finds in these repeated scenes an ongoing verbal dialogue, about "xia" and its heroic spirit and their connection with "tian xia" (world) and peace. The flashbacks are all literally tinted, presented in different color sequences, just as the lie, the imagination, and the remembrances are based on perspectives that are “tinted” and not objective. In the end, the idea of the "xia" spirit itself also is not objective and perhaps questionable. Thus, if one recalls the prologue — “there are heroes on both sides” — the "xia" can be considered heroes even within the confines of their own subjectivities and worldviews. A postscript, which explains how this emperor eventually unified China, implies that he too is a hero of his time.

The problem of history

Hero's political problem lies in its ending. Since the parallel between the film's emperor and the historical First Emperor is too obvious to ignore, viewers must evaluate how acceptable they find the film’s subversive re-reading of history. One can address that question through a number of traditions. First, the film belongs to the martial arts genre. Hero is not a documentary or even a docu-drama, but literally a fantasy film in which people can fly and arrows can be shot hundreds of miles. Its genre type puts it into a category different from say, Leni Reifanstahl’s infamous documentary Triumph of the Will.[27] In considering Hero as fiction, historical accuracy is not necessary. The “real” Emperor’s motive for uniting China is quite irrelevant to the motive of the fantasy emperor in the film. Historical dramas have long used drama in a way deemed "inaccurate," and the audience need not burden Zhang with such a responsibility for accuracy. Under these standards even Shakespeare’s Macbeth proves problematic. (According to one scholar, Shakespeare villainized the Scottish king Macbeth who was in fact a benevolent leader.[28]) In the case of a fiction film's depicting the First Emperor, it should pose even less of a problem given that the historical figure is two thousand years old and history has already given its verdict. Thus, as long as Zhang’s story is not taught as history, the task of “keeping a straight record” should not be the goal of this film. Furthermore, concern over level of accuracy here may differ if one were dramatizing a contemporary event, which because of the lack of time and distance, might more likely create misinformation and ethical confusion. Even Triumph of the Will, which was banned in some places after World War II, was deemed “safe” to watch a few decades later, when enough time-distance had been gained and the reality of the War had been culturally explored.

However, the more serious problem lies not in the film’s historical inaccuracies but in its contradictory internal narrative logic. But the contradiction, I would argue, is not a matter of Zhang's political complicity with socialist authorities. For it would be hard to imagine that the Chinese government needs a film to defend its semi-dictatorial practices. Otherwise, one would have to wonder why another film about the same First Emperor in which the dictator was portrayed negatively, The Emperor and the Assassin by Chen Kaige (1998), did not suffer censorship.

Rather, I would suggest that the political questions surrounding Hero be considered from a global/local context. This approach is appropriate given that the filmmakers (producers and director included) made their intention very clear — to make a global hit.[29] On the one hand, locally speaking, traditional Chinese teaching believes that true bravery lies not in one's willingness to fight but in one's willingness to stop fighting. The film carries out this sense of the perfect (ultimate) action realized through non-action; the major characters make a transition from "wu" to "wen," sword to pen, consistent with a message of non-violence. On the other hand, this message conflicts with the film’s defense of an Emperor constantly engaged in warfare and bloodshed. To argue that security and national unity take preference over individual life sounds feudal if not imperial to an audience with modern liberal attitudes. Even though “peace,” a notion that resonates within contemporary international discourse, is mentioned a number of times, a peace that builds on killing is not convincing and contradicts any notion of non-violence. As a film which attempts to break the national barrier and represent the emerging sense of China's internationality Hero is caught in the contradictions between narrow nationalism (security and unity) and self-conscious cosmopolitanism (world peace — "Tian xia" peace). This confusion, perhaps, can also be seen as a reflection of China's own situation since the country is still in the process of balancing its semi-dictatorial feudalism with modern global internationalism. The film's narrative contradiction reveals China's deeper problems as it attempts to formulate its own philosophy as a new global citizen.

The problem of a blockbuster

No doubt, Hero succeeds in combining art and commerce; avoiding crowd pleasing superficial gimmicks and orientalist cheap sell. It presents Chinese culture with style and dignity. But still, one should question the very concept of a "blockbuster," a formulaic and rigid way of filmmaking, which limits forms and content. A blockbuster, by definition, has to dominate. As the history of Hollywood tells us, constantly pursuing it will create a mono-cinema culture. As I am writing this essay, Zhang Yimou has already made another film with a similar style — House of Flying Daggers. Even though that film's aesthetic is enchanting in a number of scenes and it sold well in China, its overall accomplishment, in my judgment, is not as profound as that of Zhang's first martial arts film. Recently, Zhang has returned to artisan practice and completed another small budget film Qianli Zou Danji (2005), which premiered in Japan in February, 2005, and was shown in the 2005 Hawaiian International Film Festival. At a time when globalization seems to drive global uniformity, what Chinese cinema needs is not world domination but ways to protect its diverse local expressivity.


Part of this paper was presented in the Berkeley Film Seminar, 2005. The author would like to thank the faculty and the graduate students whose insightful questions and comments have helped her clarify some of the issues here.

1. Data from Huang, Shixian (Senior professor in the Beijing Film Academy) in “Post- WTO Period and A Consideration of the Future of Chinese Cinema” Lecture in San Francisco State University, Spring, 2003.

2. Ibid

3. For example, Zhang Yimou was given a five year ban after To Live, (which was not enforced), Zhang Yuan was put under house arrest after East Palace West Palace, 1997 and could not attend the Cannes Film Festival which honored his film that year. Also read Stone, Alan A. “Zhang Yimou’s Long Road Home” in Boston Review. October/November, 2001.

4. The “audience” here refers to those who paid for their own tickets. For films of this category the government would give out free tickets to the general population, such as entire schools or factories to boost viewership.

5. See Toby Miller et al. Global Hollywood 2. BFI Publishing, 2005.

6. Data according to the United Nation Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report (HDR), July, 1999.

7. There had been cultural exchange including screening of Hollywood films since the early 80s. But there were no large scale commercial launchings of any particular films.

8. In 1985 Huang Jianxin was already well recognized in the U.S. through his film Black Cannon Incident.

9. See John Trumpbour. Selling Hollwyood to the World. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

10. Huang Shixian (Senior professor in the Beijing Film Academy) in “Post-WTO Period and A Consideration of the Future of Chinese Cinema” lecture in San Francisco State University, Spring, 2003. (author’s paraphrase)

11. 3/10/05. Data from

12. Interview “Zhang Yimou: Chinese Do Not Always Have a Taste for Foreign Films.” (in Chinese) Sing Tao Daily (Los Angeles), April 9, 2002.

13. I am quite aware of the danger of essentializing Chineseness here. Chinese scholars, such as Rey Chow has commented on this issue in many of her writings, including the article “On Chinese as a Theoretical Problem” in Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory: Re-imagining a Field. ed. Chow, Rey. Duke University Press, 2000)

14. “Headline News on New China Website Criticizing Zhang and Jiang” in

15. “Zhang Yimou’s Hero — The Temptations of Fascism.” Evans Chan. Film International no. 8 (March 2004).

16. Chris Doyle. “A Fantastic Fable” in American Cinematographer vol. 84, no. 9 (Sept. 2003) p.35.

17. A vivid and concise description by Richard Corliss in TIME Asia Magazine, Dec. 23, 2002

18. The closest examples that come to mind would be A Touch of Zen, 1972 and Raining in the Mountain, 1979 by King Hu. Yet, even though the former won a "Special Technical Award" for "Superior Technique" in the Cannes Film Festival, (thus becoming the first Chinese film to win an award in the West) its visual aesthetic is relatively simple in comparison.

19. Read Aaron Anderson. “Kinesthesia in Martial Arts Films” Jump Cut no. 42 (Dec. 1998) p. 1-22 and “Violent Dances in Martial Arts Films” Jump Cut no. 44 (Fall, 2001). Also read David Bordwell. Planet Hong Kong.

20. Lo, Kwai-Cheung. “Muscles and Subjectivity: A Short History of the Masculine Body in Hong Kong Popular Culture.” Camera Obscura 39 (1996). 105-25. Chris Berry. “Bruce Lee’s Body, or, Chinese Masculinity in a Transnational Frame.” presentation in Berkeley Film Seminar series, April 29, 2004.

21. This is a particularly interesting point given that the rest of the world has almost equated “Chinese” cinema with martial arts cinema. Obviously, this is due to the audience’s mixing up of the cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China. Traditional or Confucian Chinese, beginning as early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), emphasize wen (skill in words/literature) and slight the practice of wu (skill to fight.) Thus, although martial arts have been a popular art in different periods of Chinese history they were never considered a high art. In fact, martial arts were strongly discouraged or even banned in some dynasties, such as the Ming and Ching. During those periods martial arts practitioners had to hide their practices. This tradition continued in a tacit way in mainland Chinese cinema since the communist took over. In this regard mainland Chinese cinema has been different from say, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, which do make connections between arts and martial arts.

22. Tom Gunning’s notion of “the cinema of attraction,” which denotes a cinema not interested in narrative, was later used in the study of the musical genre. The song and dance sequences in a musical can be seen as moments of “attraction” in which narrative is suspended. This notion is also used in Bordwell’s study of Kung Fu films in which he took the fight scenes as similar to the dance scenes. They are the moments of “attraction” in which narrative is suspended. But neither of these studies addresses the notion of narration at these moments.

23. For further understanding read The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master. By Takuan Soho (1573-1645), translated by William Scott Wilson. Tokyo, New York & San Francisco: Kodansha International Ltd. 1986. There is commonality between Japanese and traditional Chinese thinking in this aspect of Martial arts as discussed in page 79-82.

24. To translate “xia” as the knight-errant is only an approximation of the rich meaning of the term. “Xia” can refer to nobility or commoners. The term does not carry the implied relation to royalty as in the West.

25. See “Hero” by Zhang Jia-xuan in Film Quarterly Vol. 58, Issue 4, page 47-52. This critic, for example, faulted the assassins for not having a political plan for how the society should be ruled if they succeeded in their assassination. This is almost like faulting the John Wayne character for leaving the community, whose enemies he just shot dead, and riding into the sunset. Again, Chinese scholar Zhang, Xudong claimed that the film was popular in the U.S. because of its post 9/11 “anti- terrorist content.” See his article “Watching Hero in New York” (in Chinese) in Wenhua Bao. Jan. 17, 2003.

26. See David Nivison, “Protest Against Conventions and Conventions of Protest” in The Confucian Persuasion. By Arthur Wright. Stanford University Press, 1960.

27. This comparison was made in Evans Chan’s aforementioned article.

28. National Public Radio. All Things Considered, February 8, 2005. Melissa Block talks with John Beatty, who teaches a course on Shakespeare's Macbeth at Brooklyn College, about the Scottish king's image. Macbeth is portrayed in Shakespeare's play as bloodthirsty, but Beatty says in actuality he was a respected king.

29. Interview “Zhang Yimou: Chinese Do Not Always Have a Taste for Foreign Films.” (in Chinese) Sing Tao Daily (Los Angeles), April 9, 2002.

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