Warning: this post contains possible spoilers concerning the outcome of treaty negotiations between Indonesia and Australia.
I just watched on DVD and really enjoyed Zhang Yimou’s (or Jet Li’s or even Quentin Tarantino’s, depending) martial arts epic Hero. I loved its otherworldly landscapes, slightly overcooked colour schemes, gobsmacking fight sequences, and Zhang Ziyi. I totally dug the scene in the Go temple where Jet Li and Donnie Yen whomp each other inside their respective heads (where it’s still raining atmospherically), and all the connections between calligraphy and swordplay. That was cool. But of course there’s a but.
I’m a pretty dopey movie-watcher: I usually suspend disbelief before I’ve sat down, and never guess whodunit or see the twist coming, and always miss undertones and nods to other movies—unless they’re completely obvious, like with this movie and Rashômon, which I mention not to look clever but only to avoid looking like a complete moron—but the politics of Hero unsettled even me, a bit. You’ll remember that more or less everybody’s hell-bent on killing the Qin king for various atrocities until Broken Sword decides it’s better to let him live, because of two words. Broken Sword even persuades the nameless assassin (in the English version he’s actually named Nameless, somewhat post-modernly) to give up his brilliant and very effective and by that stage failsafe and in-the-bag attempt on the king’s life and sacrifice himself for these two words. They are clearly very important words, and we’re expected to believe in them, or at least understand why everybody in the movie believes in them.
The two words are tian xià, illustrated above, which the subtitles helpfully translate as “our land”. The idea is that the war between the various nearby kingdoms are doing untold damage and that only the king of Qin can unite them into a single manageable nation. This sounds a bit questionable to our modern ears, particularly knowing the way China feels about Taiwan, Tibet and so on. But it turns out to be a very ancient Chinese principle—predating China, in fact—and more accurately translates as “all under heaven”: the idea that everyone in the (known or relevant) world should be subject to one law and governed by one leader. This version doesn’t sound any less questionable, if you ask me.
The movie takes place towards the end of the Warring States Period, after the Qin kingdom had subjugated the Zhou (where all the assassins come from) but before it had seen to the rest of the great powers and unified China in 221 BC. The king is real: he is Qin Shi Huang, who as the movie says became the First Emperor of China and started work on the Great Wall. History doesn’t attest to any assassin named Nameless (duh) but the staggering Records of the Grand Historian tell the story of an assassination attempt by one Jing Ke, which contains some similarities. Jing Ke persuades a Qin general to give him his head so he can get close enough to whack the king; he has a red-hot go but the king jumps back, Jing Ke misses and the guards take care of the rest. This legend is told (with its own modifications) in 1999’s The Emperor and the Assassin. In one of the DVD’s special features, Zhang Yimou says that he consulted all of the existing sources but nothing really satisfied him, so he decided to write his own story.
Look, it’s very likely that the unification of China in 221 BC did save a lot of bloodshed, compared to letting the endless war between the states just trundle on; and that it gave the country a well-needed leg-up and allowed it thereafter to innovate and invent fireworks and spaghetti and all. Europe is now generally realising the benefits of some kind of coordination between nation-states, and all of us loony one-worlders would like to see everyone working together in harmony and at least some laws applying everywhere. But that’s not really what tian xià is about—it’s about empire. And the world’s going the opposite way nowadays, and disintegrating along various lines: look what happened to the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. It’s hard not to see the resumption of Hong Kong and Macau as going against the current, to say nothing of the ongoing difficulties with Taiwan (and even less about this thing with Tibet).
And so it’s also hard not to see the tian xià angle in Hero as at least a little bit political. Which would be fine—all movies are political, and we can’t object to them just because they go against the prevailing politics—if it weren’t for the tight control the Chinese government exerts over the arts. Even if this is Zhang Yimou’s own personal view, the thought that this is the film the government wants him to make, and that nobody’s allowed to make the opposite film, the other argument—that’s what’s troubling about it.
It doesn’t mean it’s a bad film—look at Battleship Potemkin—or that Zhang Yimou’s a bad guy. But it’s weird—some of his earlier films were banned, or mangled by censors, and he himself was banned from filmmaking for a period after To Live; subsequent films like Not One Less and The Road Home were criticised internationally as propaganda and—sure enough—shown by the Chinese government in its pledge drives. If Hero is propaganda, that’s only secondary; perhaps Zhang is just trying to make good movies in the circumstances. Alan Stone has a good discussion in the Boston Review, which is perhaps too thoughtful to be quotable.
We all have our euphemisms for empire, anyway. The security treaty we’re negotiating with Indonesia will include some sort of wording requiring us to respect Indonesia’s “territorial integrity”, which in case anyone was in any doubt Alexander Downer explains like this:
And Indonesians will be reinforced in their confidence in Australia knowing that Australia supports Indonesia’s territorial integrity and by that I mean we do not support secessionist movements in Indonesia.
Of course we ruined the last treaty by going to help in East Timor, but that won’t happen in Aceh or West Papua or any other place under heaven. Since it’s not a defence pact we probably won’t be called in to actually suppress any secessionist movements, but still. I hope acclaimed Indonesian directors are busily working on sumptuous epics to convince everybody that the Acehnese and West Papuans are better off as they are. Hell, I’m still waiting for Leichhardt Council’s film about the ill-fated Balmain secession, but Paddy McGuinness seems to have rolled over on that one, at least for now.
The other thing about Hero is that although it boasts a beautiful score by Dun Tan with haunting violin work by famed fiddler Itzhak Perlman, it completely ignores the dramatic possibilities of both David Bowie’s Heroes and Enrique Iglesias’s Hero. You wouldn’t catch a Western director passing up opportunities like those.