The Prince Charles Cinema in London is about to re-screen Yimou Zhang’s legendary Hero on 35mm print on 9 April and 19 April 2023. Great minds think alike and here is reason why.
On 26th November 2022, the 35mm print of Hero was shown at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield. It was a part of the BFI and Showroom Cinema Young Programmer Takeover Screening, programmed by Captain (Xiaolian Qiu), a member of the UK-China Film Collab’s Future Talent Programme (2021-2022). The event was costumed with an intro by Captain and the Q&A section with martial art film specialist Dr Wayne Wong, Lecturer in East Asian Study at The University of Sheffield.
It was a busy screening with local audiences across age groups. They were all passionate about the event, especially about the Q&A section. The event only had about 20 minutes for the Q&A, so there must have been a lot of questions remaining. As a footnote to what Dr Wong shared, and also as a response to what the audience was generally curious about the film, Captain wrote the following insightful article.
The word “knight” in the title is a little pun I played. It should mean “Xia” (侠；俠). As multiple researchers emphasised, it is hard to translate “Xia” into English since there is no parallel cultural concept of Xia in the English language world. I, therefore, based on the highest intersection between these two terms in each cultural context, following the route chosen by martial art film scholars similar to Dr Stephen Teo and Dr James Liu, who used the term “knight-errant”, use “knight” to represent “Xia”.
The images of Xia are more connected to the fictional characters appearing in literature and films. Loosely compared, they are Robin Hoods who don’t necessarily rob the upper class; they are white knights without the noble title granted by their monarch. They don’t even have to be a man, like a commoner Princess Éowyn from the Lord of the Rings. They are normally depicted as a group of characters who possess super-power-like martial art skills and high moral standards. They Are the symbol of honesty, honours, and humanity. They are also the symbol of freedom, which represents by their lifestyle of “living in Jianghu”: a lifestyle generally detached from the political environment.
Conflict with the widely accepted images, political interests seem rather vital to the knights in Hero. However, in recorded history, there was a group of knights who served the ruling class and the aristocracy for their political interests. Their “golden age”, the Warring State Period in Chinese history, is also when Hero set in.
Zhang never admitted that Hero intends to re-bring the facts that knights are not always living in Jianghu. Instead, he mentioned that the stories of widely accepted, fictional knights are what he wanted to make a film for. So, the historical coherence might be a coincidence. What can be confirmed is that Zhang intended to build his knights driven by “the greater beliefs and ideals”, which follow what he considered “the underlying philosophical and moral values of the Chinese traditional culture”.
The problematic equation notwithstanding, it is hard not to believe that, in Hero, greater beliefs and ideals are replaceable to political pursuit. It composes two underlying logics of the film. First, the political pursuit drives all the behaviours of the knights, even all the characters. It probably explains why the narratives driven by non-political interests must not be the final truth. The narratives regarding individual interests and personal affairs, like the story about love and betrayal, and the story about the sense of belonging to home and country —— together forms the stories in red, green and blue —— will be far less important to be the pure white truth of the narratives.
Colours, as one of the most iconic symbols of the film, divided the story structure into the adjunct four. When analysing the film language of Hero, red tends to be the symbol of love, rage and desire; blue indicates determination (of killing the King of Qin) and calmness following it; green shows up the least amount of time while explaining the sense of belonging of home and the country. Additionally, just like what Dr Wong brought up during the Q&A, they could also be referred to as physical and natural elements: red as blood; blue as water; green as nature; white, from the perspectives of Chinese traditions, as the colour of funeral, representing death, which probably already identifies the tragical ending of the knights.
Yimou Zhang himself, however, didn’t specifically explain why using the colours while casually mentioning that it was inspired by how people variously react to colours in daily life. As he replied in an interview, “people tend to include colours when they tried to recall something. Sometimes we hear people say that ‘I met someone in red clothes’, but the companion may deny, ‘Oh no, that person was wearing yellow clothes. It was the other one you were thinking of.’ That’s how colours shaped their memory.”
I’m not sure if this response persuaded anyone 20 years ago, it certainly doesn’t persuade me in 2022. But I can also accept the possibilities that the colours probably mean nothing but only a freestyle artistic expression of the director.
Back to the story. When political interests replaced the highest personal pursuit, as knights, as warriors, the approach to achieve is nonetheless killing. Nameless (Jet Li) aims to kill the King of Qin for the sake of his own country. The three knights, Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Sky (Donnie Yen), all attempted to kill the tyrant trying to protect their countries before the appearance of Nameless. Even though in the story in white, Nameless and Broken Sword, two absolute “opinion leaders” in the film, tend to achieve a certain kind of “not to kill”, the underlying reason —— for the sake of “Tianxia” —— is still politically centred.
It, therefore, explains why I am more convinced by the idea that the colour white represents death. On the one hand, what represents the individual wills will be buried by the great ideals. On the other hand, the knights are all ready to be sacrificed for political interests. In this case, even if there were no final sacrificial suicides for the idea of Tianxia, the destinies of the knights are, regardless, death. Hero, to me, filmed the approaches of how tragical heroism is formed by nationalist ideals.
Tianxia only makes another romantic mask for the nationalist ideal, which wrote down the final ending for all the characters. The idea of Tianxia, which was translated as “our land” in English subtitles, has been widely explained as “all under heaven” by film researchers. I disagree with replacing Tianxia with “all under heaven” since the latter only emphasises the spatial concept of the word. When analysing and criticising the idea of Tianxia, researchers rarely brought up the historical context of the assassination of the King of Qin, the historical story Hero based.
Before the year the prototype of Nameless, the assassinator Jingke, attempted to kill the King of Qin, the Qin state had already conquered four of seven major states in the late Warring States Period. Yan state, the country chiefly planned the assassination of the King of Qin, even though has been considered the last vital enemy to the unification war, was still uncompetitive to the Qin state. The final triumph of Qin had been an already written ending the history. The endless war had already ruined the lives of ordinary people in that period, especially the citizens of the defeated countries. Therefore, a strong pursuit of peace among ordinary people is imaginable.
In Hero, the demand for peace is first brought by Broken Sword, who, compared with other knights in the film, is the closest absolute victim of the war. He clearly states his meaning of Tianxia —— although a pure utilitarian proposition —— in his defence of why the king can not be killed. He said, “compared to Tianxia, the revenge on one country doesn’t matter”. From this perspective, Tianxia is not only a spatial concept but also a symbol of people’s will for peace. The meaning of Tianxia here is closer to “all the people” in John Lennon’s song Imagine, which is more likely to be another phrase normally combined with Tianxia in Chinese, Cangsheng (苍生；蒼生), or another combined word Tianxiaren (天下人).
Hero only uses the word Tianxia, instead of following the actual meaning made by Broken Sword, to create spaces for further interpretations progressively made by the King. The king interprets it as “peaceful”. But unfortunately, the best he can achieve is “war-less”. The slight but essential differences between them depend on the approach to achieving them. The former, coherent with Broken Sword’s idea, is not to kill. The latter, coherent with the king’s original will, is to unify all warring states.
It eventually created a to-be-or-not-to-be dilemma for the king and completed the final tragical ending for him as well. Unlike some reviews criticising the pretentious purpose of romantically depicting the King of Qin, I support how Hero illustrates the character. The disagreement with his political ideals and his militaristic tyranny notwithstanding, in Hero, from the begging till the end, the king’s character maintained his dignity and wisdom. His sin of being criticised is how Hero supported his problematic political ideal and the fact that he is the final winner, instead of the character himself. So if we can treat the character equally, we might be able to admit that same with other knights who tragically died for greater political ideals, the king is just another piece in the game named Tianxia.
No matter how tragic the destiny of the characters is, compared with the actual history of the assassination of the King of Qin, the film has already softened the tone of the narratives. It poetically re-interprets history, detaching it from the brutal historical facts. Similar to what Dr Wong explained during the Q&A, the King of Qin was almost a Hitler-like character who believed in merciless legislation and martial tyranny. In terms of the story of Nameless, whose historical prototype, Jingke, was not as perfect as how the film illustrated. He was a skilful assassin but, from what I understood, was also a figure lack of determination and honour. The film also conceals the historical facts that one person and another have to commit suicide only for persuading and reassuring Jingke to execute the assassination plan. According to Strategies of the Warring States (战国策；戰國策), their tragedies were briefly recorded as one plain phrase, “so he suicide” (遂自刎).
Lan, F. (2008). Zhang Yimou’s ‘Hero’: Reclaiming the Martial Arts Film for ‘All under Heaven’. Modern Chinese literature and culture. 20(1), pp.1–43.
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Rawnsley, G.D. and Rawnsley, M.-Y.T. (2010). Global Chinese cinema: the culture and politics of Hero. London: Routledge.
Shu, K. (2002). “Shen me shi hou wo neng yi bing jian zou tian xia! Na shi shen me jin tou!”. Lifeweek. [online]. Available at: http://old.lifeweek.com.cn//2002/1223/4005.shtml.
Teo, S. (2009). Chinese martial arts cinema: the wuxia tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.