Zhang Yimou’s Controversial Epic

by Guan-Soon Khoo Volume 11, Issue 5 / May 2007 12 minutes (2898 words)


Midway through the composition of this essay, I came across Jenny Kwok’s well-researched writings on the genesis and phenomenon of Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2004). In particular, her insight into the Chinese folkloric “wu xia” or chivalrous-swordsman fiction presents a fertile angle for criticism of this genre within the poetic (as opposed to sensationalistic) aspect of Hero??’s martial arts choreography, framing and editing. Often, Zhang favors close-ups or a series of closer shots of the physical action instead of wide angles –used to show off physics-defying acrobatic firsts– because the martial arts function to a greater degree as metaphors. Nonetheless, an examination of this particular genre is beyond the scope of my essay, so Kwok’s analysis of ??Hero from the “wu xia” angle will more than suffice for now. This essay also forgoes comments on the all-star cast and the Hong Kong actors’ infrequent but detectable slips in their Mandarin accent. Another rain check goes to a critique of the imperfect CG special effects displayed in the Zhao-siege long shots, as compared to say a costlier Ridley Scott Hollywood epic. Furthermore, due to the dualist nature of the filmmakers’ intentions –of a blockbuster for the world and a culture-conscious film– ??Hero??’s technical merit, both in its narrative structure and metaphorical showmanship, elevates it to a contemporary masterpiece, not a timeless work of art. Observations of this dualism is again credited to Jenny Kwok’s writings from her paper “Hero: China’s response to Hollywood globalization.”


Zhang Yimou’s first film of the martial arts genre is an imaginative and expressive interpretation of China’s ancient history; a Chinese poem in the way Beowulf is a medieval poem. Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) also comes to mind. Zhang accomplishes a majestic work of fiction through highly-stylized cinematic technique and a narrative that is, in Gregory Currie’s sense, variously interpretable. [1] Once its color-coded sequences and unreliable narration are unraveled, Hero stands as a visionary work of formal beauty and of Chinese pride. Consequently, the film has sparked controversy amongst Chinese audiences and American commentators who made such unreflective remarks about the film’s ideology as “redolent of fascinatin’ fascism” (Hoberman). Therefore, two issues must be addressed: does Hero condone tyranny by “revising” China’s history, and is it possible to critically evaluate this film within the landscape of Western political correctness? I intend to answer no, on both counts.

First, I shall clarify my suggestion of poetry. The immediacy of Hero??’s cinematic storytelling does not produce the epic scope of the Anglo-Saxon poem I have invoked – especially at under 120 minutes for the US release. Further, the medium of pictorial cinema, though it continues to accrue scholarly recognition for literature-like qualities, is far from acceptance as canonical fiction. I, on the other hand, consider such films as Ozu’s ??Late Spring (1949) worthy of the most prestigious libraries. Nevertheless, I stand by my simile as both mentioned works are heroic narratives. [2]

Jenny Kwok declares, “Hero is a martial arts poem painted in color” (Kwok). Indeed, the Technicolor-proficient Zhang creates his lyrical text by using color expressively; saturated colors, particularly reds as seen in Ju Dou (1990), are often a basic component of his mise en scène. With Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle and the use of digital special effects, Zhang structures the distinct episodes from the screenplay, which evolves from unreliable to reliable narration, using discrete color schemes. A brightly illustrated New York Times online article by Robert Mackey inaccurately characterized the film’s structure as “one story by different perceptions,” probably with Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) in mind, but he did identify the colors that shape the major segments: Red, Blue, White and Green. [3] Red suggests deception and compulsion. Blue, rationalization and intellect. White, purity. Green, enlightenment and wisdom. Whatever combination of flavours the audience picks up on, including other ones like black & yellow, the filmmakers’ intention remains constant: contrast. The colors in Hero are primarily a construct to better storytelling and “not symbolic” (Mackey) as Zhang & Doyle rightly insisted.

Another distinctive cinematic component of Hero is its use of theatrical sound. Tan Dun’s evocative strings and forceful drums may be integral to the film’s tone, but the operatic vocals heard in the martial arts action sequences capture the poetry of our deeply conflicted characters. Recalling Ge You’s shadow-opera vocal performance in To Live (1994) –a ??Dr Zhivago??-like epic made by the pre-blockbuster Zhang Yimou– a similar type of “expressive singing” overlays the scenes where Nameless mentally does battle with Sky to a harp and in Broken Sword’s ritualistic encounter with Nameless on water. Without such non-diegetic accompaniments, our self-sacrificing character archetypes –the indomitable and determined warriors (Sky & Nameless), the enlightened swordsman (Broken Sword), and his devoted disciple (Moon)– would not have the appeal it does to audience empathy. This use of sound is cinematic shorthand for the deep emotions internal to the samurai warrior-like characters who seldom afford themselves the self-acknowledgement of frailty. Within ??Hero??’s poetic text lies the filmmakers’ decidedly Eastern ideology.

The film strikes a somber tone from the very start with the distant poundings of deep drums. Bookended with its nationalistic declaration for a unified China, the formalism of Hero??’s color cinematography and its recurring overlay of operatic vocals make for a fictional narrative of assertive power. After the climax involving the demise of a major character –its central conflict– the film’s resolution shows a triumphant government whose enemies are destroyed; the subsequent onscreen fonts read “Our Land,” proclaiming the Emperor’s grand political success. Since we assume that the fictional Emperor refers to the actual first emperor of China, a nationalistic note is struck upon his triumph. Historically, however, the first emperor was a tyrant remembered for the mass-destruction, by burning, of Chinese literature and for mass-executions of his citizens. Therefore, by putting the audience in a position to empathize with the film’s teary-eyed Emperor whose ruthlessness prevails, ??Hero endorses the Emperor’s “sacrifice of individuals for the greater good.” [4] By deduction, Hero justifies the authoritarianism of Chinese regimes. It is particularly pejorative for some Chinese audiences, who remembers the opening bookend stating “in any war there are heroes on both sides,” to see the words “Our Land” hung like a victory flag over the backdrop of the Great Wall. For these contemporary Mainland viewers, a disquieting acceptance of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989 comes to mind. This is the source of ??Hero??’s controversy.

The debate over the morality of Hero??’s message assumes the wrong hero. Consistent with its numerously interpretable color-coded cinematography and production design is the film’s ambiguity about who deserves the title of hero. Here, I agree with Zhang Jia-Xuan’s contention that its ideology is susceptible to misinterpretation because “[a]mbiguity makes the meaning of the film difficult to perceive.” [5] Who is the subject of ??Hero? Based on Zhang’s essay, I shall quickly rule out Sky (Donnie Yuen) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) as characters of secondary importance. The Emperor character, often framed as a diminutive object in his cavernous throne room, is not a hero because he is neither virtuous nor noble; having rationalized the assassins’ ultimate goal of transcending violence –the sword– he nonetheless annihilates his liberal assailant. On the other hand, the stoical Nameless (Jet Li), often photographed in head-on close-ups during dialogue exchanges –which facilitates intimate proxemics– comes across under such scrutiny as, unequivocally, a machine-like rationalist who makes a largely inconsequential self-sacrifice; though he transcends the world of swordsmanship by sparing the Emperor, he remains a cipher in the context of the film’s nationalistic cause. Finally, Broken Sword, having attained political enlightenment, retreats into a monk-like austerity, which is metaphorically Buddhist; he embraces humanism “in the interest of all people under heaven” (Zhang Jia-xuan 50) and, therefore, allows a tyrant to prevail. So what if the opening intertitles state, “there are heroes on both sides”? Hero has no genuine hero!

Has our Chinese filmmaker forsaken his history and turned to “transform wish-fulfilling national fantasies into conventional truth”? [6] Does Coppola’s The Godfather condone violent crime and the various forms of its organization? [7] No, and no. The salient feature of the former is not historical, but cultural, just as Coppola’s masterpiece is a family saga not an endorsement of mafia-hood. Hero is a showcase of the Chinese way, or what Jenny Kwok carefully dubs “Chineseness.” [8] Taken as an overall work, Hero displays the Confucian values of the wisdom of the elder –personified by the old master of the Zhao arts school who defies death by arrows– and the priority of the state over the individual. The latter belief, with its emphasis on family over self and the community over the individual, stems from the classical Confucian philosophy: the self “is the sum of its relationships” (Tu Wei-ming). This philosophy assumes that no man is an island, and, therefore, a human being is defined by his ties to other human beings. The following instances are depictions of the cultural influence of Confucian teachings: the self-sacrifice of Nameless & Broken Sword for “Our Land,” Nameless’s selfless commitment to martial arts, the devotion of the disciple Moon, and Broken Sword’s devotion to the arts of the sword and the brush. Hero is a cultural exposition of the Chinese as a race of people.

There are other, usually negative, interpretations of Hero that overlook the culture angle. Evans Chan’s scathing analysis appears credible within the assumption that Zhang intends to “reinvent the founding myth of China” (Evan Chang); Chan’s cautionary essay makes interesting points that bolster individualism and are vigilant against fascism and romanticized self-sacrifice. However, there is neither substantial textual material nor inferential evidence in the narrative to support this thesis, of a reappraisal of “the place of Qin Shihuang (First Emperor of Qin) in Chinese history,” (Evan Chang) as central to Hero. The film is far from being character-driven. The depicted Emperor is an archetypal paranoid monarch whose range of emotions is severely limited; his apparent moral dilemma in executing Nameless is a simplistic “should I or should I not” hesitation that lasts the period of a few hundred steps down the palace. In fact, all the major characters are depicted in this limited fashion to serve Zhang’s overarching goal: the depiction of a collective Chinese character. This attribute shares common ground with his other culture-conscious, artisan films, especially To Live.

Zhang Yimou is acclaimed internationally for his art-house fictions with rich historical backdrops. Popular American film critic Roger Ebert described him as “the sometimes great Chinese director” in a review of Zhang’s urban comedy Happy Times (2002). From Red Sorghum (1987) to The Road Home (1999), Zhang’s forte is the period drama depicting Chinese tragedies, personal and societal, up to the late 60s period, as seen in the final segment of To Live. His art films also carry an implied cultural validity because many were banned from exhibition in his native country. In the case of Hero, as his core audience would attest to, Zhang’s tone has changed and become barely recognizable. His sensitivity to intimate character conflicts, particularly those portrayed by Gong Li, is absent and in its place finds a sheen of national pride. Therefore, Hero must be analyzed, as Jenny Kwok did, on the filmmakers’ intentions in its production and distribution phase.

After the box-office success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) in America –$128 Million in US gross and $85 Million internationally [9]– a new model for the Chinese-made blockbuster became an opportunity for Zhang; “Zhang’s goal was to make a culturally specific and technically sophisticated film that would appeal to both East and West” (Jenny Kwok). Therefore, Hero was intended as the opening salvo (and as good business) for the new Chinese blockbuster film aimed at the Hollywood Goliath. And it is my contention that the bookended theme and English translation of “Our Land” is the broad stroke on a canvas constructed to appeal to a viable America-centric market audience; as a former liberal arts underclassmen in Pennsylvania, I assert that an American film audience can be better hooked by a rousing fiction about imperialistic might than a morality play about foreign culture. The salient feature of Hero, however, is its concise depiction of deep-rooted Chinese thinking and way of life that has existed for thousands of years. Besides the showcase of Confucianism, the film is also constitutive of Buddhist values and the stratagems of Sun Tzu: Broken Sword transcends his worldly engagements upon prolonged meditative exercises whereas the Emperor’s verbal stand-off with Nameless emphasizes “the importance of gaining a psychological advantage over one’s enemies by knowing them and anticipating their actions” (Pauline Chen). This may explain the film’s far superior box-office performance internationally at $124 million versus $54 million in US Gross. [10] Therefore, the film cannot be sufficiently assessed within the boundaries of political correctness and Western views regarding civil liberties; despite its commercial blockbuster status, the film’s story was not intended to abide entirely by these contemporary non-Eastern values, which emphasize individualism.

I recall the mixed feelings in my guts upon seeing “Our Land” on the big screen before the end credits. It is a compromise that must be recognized and discussed. Therefore, Hero??’s controversy or potential for debate is positive only in the light of active audience engagement in its ideology, which appeared to happen upon the film’s release. In conclusion, the film’s theme of “Our Land” –or the less nationalistic-sounding “Between heaven and earth” or “All under heaven” depending on your choice of interpretation– is the result of a commercial strategy to package the film for its foreign viewers, namely the Western audience. This distortion of history corresponds to Zhang’s artistic license; in an interview, he speaks proudly of promoting China-made films and worries that “[Chinese directors] will not be the focus of attention” internationally (Tan Ye). So, the question of whether ??Hero condones tyranny can only be answered by a discussion about its intended audience. Upon placating these sentiments, the audience can appreciate the film’s discerning representation of Chinese culture. Still, remembering the cold and exacting language onscreen, I don’t think I’ll stop having those mixed feeling upon viewings to come.


I shall make related but abbreviated comments concerning Kurosawa’s Rashomon. This film shares only one thing with Hero: that in the realm of human recollection in fictional worlds, there is always some common shred of truth found in the “subjective” views of different characters. When comparing the “red” story with the other segments, especially the final reliable one, Broken Sword’s passion for the high art of calligraphy is pervasive. Both films, upon reflection, are the difference between an emphasis on imaginings of a single event (Hero) and the relativism of subjective perspectives of a single event (Rashomon). Furthermore, the plot in Rashomon is dependent upon the varied viewpoints (and fallible memories) of eye-witnesses to an event, whereas Hero shows its major characters’ imagination of their opposing or complementary accounts about past events. In the end, the latter has a definitive version of its fictional history. Hero has a single implied author, whereas Rashomon may have about 3 or 4.


1 See Gregory Currie, Arts and Minds. New York: Oxford UP, 2004, p23 or the section on interpretation in his 1995 book Image and Mind.

2 Though the heroic mood in Hero, as I shall elaborate, is ironic.

3 See Robert Mackey, “Cracking The Color Code of ‘Hero’,” New York Times, August 12th 2004: p2.10 for text content, although a variation of this article that initially caught my attention was a New York Times on the Web slideshow accessed online on August 16th 2004.

4 See Pauline Chen, “Film Review: ‘Hero’,” Cineaste Vol. 30 Issue 1 Winter 2004: p40-42 for a summary of negative comments from other film critics.

5 See Zhang Jia-xuan, “Reviews: ‘Hero’,” Film Quarterly Vol. 58 No. 4 Summer 2005: p52 for his arguments in favor of the film’s ambiguity.

6 See Alan A. Stone, “Where Have All the Heroes Gone?,” Psychiatric Times, Vol. 22 Issue 1 Jan 2005: p13, 4pgs for a cursory film review.

7 M. S. Smith, Culturespace, April 1st , 2005, May 2nd 2007, deserved equal credit for this analogy, made independently.

8 See Jenny Kwok’s paper and her endnotes.

9 Box office data The Numbers, May 2nd 2007.

10 Box office data The Numbers, May 2nd 2007.


Chan, Evans. “Zhang Yimou’s Hero –The Temptations of Fascism,” Film International, No. 8, March 2004, August 31st 2004.

Chen, Pauline. “Film Review: ‘Hero’,” Cineaste Vol. 30 Issue 1 Winter 2004: p40-42

Currie, Gregory. Image and Mind. New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Currie, Gregory. Arts and Minds. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.

Hoberman, Jim. “Man With No Name Tells a Story of Heroics, Color Coordination,” The Village Voice, August 23rd 2004, May 2nd 2007.

Kwok, Jenny. “Hero: China’s response to Hollywood globalization,” Jump Cut, No. 49 spring 2007, April 27th 2007.

Mackey, Robert Mackey. “Cracking The Color Code of ‘Hero’,” New York Times, August 12th 2004: p2.10

Smith, M.S. Culturespace, April 1st , 2005, May 2nd 2007.

Stone, Alan A. “Where Have All the Heroes Gone?,” Psychiatric Times, Vol. 22 Issue 1 Jan 2005: p13 (4pgs).

Wei-ming, Tu. “Core Values in Confucian Thought,” Trinity University Website, May 2nd 2007.

Ye, Tan. “From the Fifth to the Sixth Generation: An Interview with Zhang Yimou,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 53 No. 2 Winter 1999-2000: p2-13.

Zhang, Jia-xuan. “Reviews: ‘Hero’,” Film Quarterly Vol. 58 No. 4 Summer 2005: p 47-52.


Guan-Soon teaches communication studies and film at Roanoke College in Virginia, USA. He is an enthusiast of the close-up and the auteurist cinema of David Lynch, Lee Chang-dong, and Wong Kar-wai. His current research focuses on the social and psychological effects of film drama and self-reflection.

Volume 11, Issue 5 / May 2007 Film Reviews   action film   chinese cinema   political cinema   zhang yimou