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The Great Maul of China
September 11, 2004 — 11:59 pm

Take the narrative structure of Rashomon, the breathtaking action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the aesthetic grandeur of Ran, add a dash of the visual poetry of Peter Greenaway and Matthew Barney — that pretty much sums up most of Hero, currently the No. 1 movie in the country. Everything about this film is stunning. But perhaps most stunning of all is that it’s an apologia for imperialist China. Explictly so.

I’ve never been particularly interested in the moral criticism of art. If I’m engaged, I don’t much care about the message. But this film is a fictional retelling of events leading up to the first unification of China, and its message is essentially this: find the most ruthless, power-hungry dictator you can, and give him whatever he wants; this is ultimately the only way to create unity, peace and order.

As I walked out of the theater, comparisons to Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation kept running through my mind, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard any uproar about the obvious political content of this film before going to see it. But after getting home and heading to Rotten Tomatoes for some reviews, I found that these comparisons had already been made.

The Juicy Cerebellum:

The “moral” of the story is that the ends justify the means and, no matter how immoral the means, they’re worth the ends. If a ruthless tyrant can eventually bring peace by conquering empires and killing millions of innocent people, it is not to be frowned upon. There are heroes on both sides, the movie tells us. But, at the same time, it lets us know that the heroes on the “wrong” side are disposable.

This message would do Leni Riefenstahl, Josef Goebbels and Rupert Murdoch proud. It isn’t right to slaughter people for rejecting your beliefs, having different colored skin or living in a place that you decide you’d like to take control of. It isn’t right to pound countries and provinces into submission. Even so, in Hero, it’s heroic.

Despite its artistry, Hero left me feeling saddened and scared. Its message isn’t a good one for this time, or any other. The film has a glossy angelic surface, but a hideous beast has raped its soul.


Other reviews will surely gush about its fast-paced martial-arts action and lush, colorful photography, but the truly jaw-dropping thing about “Hero” is how it instantaneously turns from “Crouching Tiger II” to “Honey I Shot the Dissidents.”
[. . .]
[T]his question about how to respond to pro-fascist film has been around almost as long as film itself — we still debate the merits of the pro-slavery “Birth of a Nation” and the pro-Nazi “Triumph of the Will.” (I would even throw in the less overtly pro-Jim Crow “Gone with the Wind.”) And the answer is that films help shape our visual, psychological and intellectual instincts, and this is a film that teaches beauty, violence and authoritarianism at once. A beautiful film that exalts killing opponents of the state is a beautiful parchment on which is written, in the most elegant calligraphy, a manifesto for evil.

I’ve been a fan of Zhang Yimou‘s previous films, and I’ll probably like his future films. And I like this film too, very much. What a shame it’s evil. Some of his earlier films were banned in China, but the Chinese government has embraced Hero — a film tailor-made to defend them against charges of crushing human freedom.

I’m ordinarly loath to use religion as a tool to deconstruct art, but I’m reminded of a proverb commonly known among Mormons (from the now-deceased Heber J. Grant, seventh president of the church): “The more beautiful the music by which false doctrine is sung, the more dangerous it becomes.”

— Eric D. DixonComments (0)

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Eric D. Dixon

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