Letter to the Editors

Emily Sun

I am writing in reference to the article “Hero Rescues Us from this Summer’s Mediocre Movies” by Jeff Sheng in the Arts & Features section of last week’s Maroon News. Like the majority of reviewers in the national press, including The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine, Sheng has high praise for this epic action film directed by Zhang Yimou, previously known primarily for his low-budget art-house productions. Sheng echoes a widespread critical consensus when he writes of the film’s “original storytelling, its cinematography, set design, brilliant acting and great directing.” Indeed, Hero is a technically virtuosic film, one that revels in its own formal excellence. However, what I’d like to bring to the attention of readers of The Maroon News is the troubling political subtext of this film, one that has gone almost entirely unnoticed by the American press. The story takes place in the Warring States Period in China (3rd century B.C.E.), when the king of one state was aggressively undertaking his conquest of the neighboring territories. This king would eventually succeed in his bloody efforts and establish himself as the Emperor Qin, the first ruler of a unified China and the leader who commanded the building of the Great Wall, designed to protect the newly expanded kingdom from outsiders. What Hero narrates is one episode in the sustained resistance against the territorial ambitions of the Qin king, resistance manifested here in the form of attempts on the life of the conquering monarch by skilled fighters from another warring state. And what the film goes on to narrate and ultimately valorize is the dissolution of this resistance as the fighters renounce their efforts to assassinate the king in the name of the “peace and stability” that the fulfillment of his conquest would bring about. The film makes martyrs of these assassins, who are monumentalized for giving up their resistance, for “sacrificing” their lives to make an emperor of the king whom they once opposed. If this implied message of “letting the conqueror have his way” doesn’t sound problematic enough, let me make an analogy with another contemporary cinematic epic, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Imagine if that epic cycle were to culminate with the voluntary renunciation by Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas, et al. of their efforts under the pretext that Sauron’s victory would at last bring about “peace and order” in Middle-Earth. Imagine, furthermore, that they would be celebrated as heroes for their sacrificial acquiescence. I hope I make my point clear.What makes Hero even more unsettling, however, is the parallels it invites with concrete contemporary events in Chinese politics. The central reference point for resistance efforts in recent Chinese history is undeniably the Tiananmen Protests in the spring of 1989, which began with student demands for a more democratic government, then developed into a broader opposition movement that included other strata of society, and which was finally violently suppressed by the government on June 4, 1989. Estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands as to how many innocent demonstrators died that day, and the Chinese government continues to dispute and downplay in its official record a massacre that millions around the world saw televised on CNN. In the 15 years since June 4, 1989, China has grown economically and politically to become the primary Asian superpower and is poised to become a force equaled to the United States and the European Union. It would seem to be no coincidence that Yimou chose an episode on the verge of ancient China’s rise to imperial glory for the subject matter of his film. His film tells a story of failed resistance, and it vindicates this failure, apologizes for the quashing of dissent, in the name of “peace” and stability, doing so in a way that resonates with how many people in our current moment – both inside and outside of China – have accepted and legitimized the totalitarian suppression of plurality as necessary and inevitable for wealth, power, and expansion.Hero was first released in China two years ago, making its way to the Greater China region of Hong Kong and Taiwan, then other Asian countries shortly afterwards. Prominent film critics and segments of the viewing public in Hong Kong and Taiwan saw it as an allegorical vindication of the Tiananmen Massacre and called for a boycott of the film. Unfortunately, audiences refused to see Hero as anything more than an “action flick,” and it went on to set box-office records in China and other Asian countries – as it continues to do so two years later in the U.S. The success of this film made possible for Zhang the funding of another epic action film, The House of Flying Daggers, which will soon be released in the U.S. It is ironic that an artist who began his career over 20 years ago as a critic of the Chinese government has become so palatable to that government, so favored, in fact, that he has been appointed the official impresario of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. In this last respect, his career – not to speak of striking elements of his visual aesthetic – bears uncanny likeness to that of Leni Riefenstahl, the documentary filmmaker whom Hitler commissioned to stage and film the 1936 Berlin Olympics and whose works, The Triumph of the Will and Olympia, have come to provide film scholars with definitions of fascist visual iconography.The success of Hero dismays me. It does so not just as a work of historical revisionism pertaining to Chinese history, but it does so just as any artistic work – be it made in Nazi Germany or even in America today – that collaborates with the forgetting of injustice, with the suppression of difference, with the devaluation of human life and, conversely, with the vindication of unquestionable authority. As a high school senior graduating in June 1989, I watched images on television of students just a few years older than myself converging on Tiananmen Square for the cause of demanding a more equal, just, and open society. I saw on June 4th those students and other citizens of Beijing dispersing frantically before oncoming tanks and gunfire, and, like millions around the world, I saw the image of the single man facing a tank without backing away. What I saw that day filled me with revulsion, with nausea, with sorrow, and with anger. Last Saturday, I saw an image of the actor Jet Li on the set of a majestic square, facing a slew of arrows as his character voluntarily and sacrificially accepts being executed for the sake of “peace” and stability. What I saw that day filled me with revulsion, with nausea, with sorrow, and with anger. Let me conclude by saying it plainly: the director of Hero is not a hero. He is a coward. Spread the word.

-Emily Sun, Assistant Professor of English