While Zhang Yimou’s Hero is number one at the American box office, Li Yongyan of Asia Times explains how the movie distorts Chinese history to present a “politically correct” conclusion. Many American reviewers who have given the movie high marks for choreography and cinematography have largely missed its political overtones, which were loudly debated on Internet chat rooms when the movie was released in China two years ago. The movie won the approval of the government, as the premiere was held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and the movie was China’s official Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film in 2003. Zhang Yimou recently directed the China section of the closing ceremony at the Athens Olympics.
Li writes how Zhang twists the legend of the hero/assassin who risks his life to take out the brutal Emperor: “Instead of an explosive ending in which the assassination attempt is thwarted either by a dogged detective or a vigilant emperor, Zhang has the hero give up at the last second… The emperor then launches into a lecture on the importance of his life to mankind, ‘If you kill me now, all the remnants of those warlords will come back again to fight each other. Who will suffer the most then? The multitude of people. So you see, I killed to stop killing. I burned to bring order. I conquered to unify the country.’ Now the hero gets religion: he who kills the most people is the biggest pacifist. The king who grabs the largest piece of land does it for perpetual peace and lasting unity. Thus convinced, the assassin withdraws his sword from under Qin’s chin, and, like his fallen comrades, allows his own life to be sacrificed on the sacred alter of ‘higher interests’. Director Zhang provides a revisionist reworking of history that is an insult to the collective intelligence of historians. Now we know that according to Zhang, one of the most blood-thirsty emperors in China’s history was the biggest hero of them all. ”
A New Republic review also critiqued the film’s ideology: “With its distinctly pro-government message, Hero unleashed a firestorm of debate among Asian critics and in Internet chat rooms upon its release two years ago. While pro-government media hailed the movie as a worthy exponent of Chinese cinema, critics blasted its whitewashing of Qin’s legacy–not to mention its disturbing parallels with today’s China… In an interview with Time Asia upon the film’s completion, Zhang himself all but acknowledged its compromised nature, conceding, ‘I’ve made adjustments to accommodate the spirit of the times.'”
One telling story about the making of the movie: At a press conference during its release, star Tony Leung told reporters, “I agree with the message of peace and human kindness in the film. For example, during the June 4 incident, I didn’t join in any demonstrations, because what the Chinese government did was right – to maintain stability, which was good for everybody.” He later retracted his comments after being criticized by human rights activists and others.