Fascinating Fascism

hero Ying xiong
China 2002
Director Zhang Yimou Screenplay Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou Director of Photography Christopher Doyle Editors Angie Lam, Ru Zhai Production Design Hou Tingxiao, Yi Zhenzhou Action Director Tony Ching Siu Tung Costume Designer Emi Wada Music Tan Dun.
With Jet Li Nameless Tony Leung Chiu-wai Broken Sword Maggie Cheung Man Yuk Flying Snow Donnie Yen Sky Zhang Ziyi Moon Chen Dao Ming the Emperor.
Produced by Zhang Yimou, Bill Kong Production Companies Beijing New Picture Film Co., Elite Group Enterprises Runtime 99 minutes.

Qin in the 220s BC. Shi Huang of Qin (real name: Ying Zheng) has just become the emperor of all the seven kingdoms that fought for control over the heartland of future China. He welcomes former customs officer Nameless, officially declared a hero after his killing of three much-feared warriors who has conspired for year to kill the emperor: Sky, Flying Snow and Broken Sword. At the start, Nameless is placed at a hundred paces from the emperor for security reasons, then granted to move forward to twenty paces and, finally, to ten paces distance from as his story of how he tricked and defeated the three would-be assassins enfolds.

After hearing Nameless’ story and inspecting the conspirators’ weapons, the skeptical emperor has a different version, one that reveals Nameless an accomplice to the assassins, planning to get within ten paces in order to carry out his murder. The hero reception has therefore been arranged as a set-up. However, the emperor is puzzled. Why Nameless has not carried out his plan?

Nameless confirms his part in the conspiracy, and how the others, as the emperor indicated, sacrificed their lives for the plan to be accomplished. But then he goes on to reveal how Broken Sword convinced him and the other two co-conspirators of the necessity for peace under one emperor after years of war. Sky died in a staged battle with Nameless to ensure that there would be witnesses to Nameless’ seemingly heroic fight in defense of the emperor. Broken Sword initially fights with his lover, Flying Snow, over this sudden change of heart, letting her kill him in the struggle. Heartbroken, Flying Snow embraces her dead lover and ends her own life.

Finishing the story, Nameless listens to the emperor’s plans for founding a great nation of that could prosper in peace. Then he suddenly attacks and holds aS437-13 knife to the emperor’s throat. Explaining the sacrifice he is about to make in honor of the promise he made to Broken Sword and to the idea of one kingdom, he then goes outside the palace to stoically face the soldiers. The emperor hesitates but finally orders the Nameless to be executed and given a hero’s funeral.

NOTE: Each flashback episode is color-coded in production design and costumes to symbolically represent youth and its heated passions (green), deceit (red), truths (black and white) etcetera.

There is a strange affection among Western critics for films from totalitarian states in the so-called Third World. Festival awards, praise from established critics, extensive media coverage and celebratory reviews has elevated directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Zhang Yimou to the status of important auteurs. But are they really the poetically subtle, humanistic and censorship-challenging artists that many Western critics take them to be?

In the previous issue (2003:2), Charlotte Sjöholm raised this question about the Iranian cinema in her review of Richard Tapper’s book on the subject. She noted, for example, the very different and hostile reactions to Kiarostami’s films from Iranian exiles and the neglect of analyzing the cultural framework that produces films assumed a priori by Western critical reception to be aesthetically daring and politically progressive. A recent case at the cinemas is Zhang Yimou’s most recent film, Hero.

Chen Kaige (The Yellow Earth/Huang tu di, 1984; Farewell My Concubine/Ba wang jie bi, 1993) and Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite/Lan fensheng, 1993; Springtime in a Small Town/Xiao cheng zhi chun, 2002), two other well-known names in the Chinese fifth generation of filmmakers, have also got one or two prizes at international film festivals, but Zhang Yimou towers above them. His films has received over twenty important festival prizes, three times has his work been nominated for an Academy Award (Ju dou, 1989; Raise the Red Lantern/Dahong denglong gaogao gua, 1991; Hero) and all of them got distribution in Europe and North America. Furthermore, his background – or, rather, his biographical legend (a media projection based on a few interviews, some research and a lots of rumors and gossip) – has propelled him into auteurist stardom like no other Chinese director.


Already the feature debut Red Sorghum (Hong gaoliang, 1987) secured Yimou’s uniju_douque position in his home country as well as abroad. He won a number of awards, for example the Golden Bear in Berlin and all three national film awards that year. In an essay on Ju dou –”To Live and Dye in China”, published in the latest issue of Cineaction (# 60, 2003) – Vincent Brook writes about how Yimou even before his debut was given an auteur status that surpassed the directors he then worked for as a Director of Photography: Zheng Junzhao (The One and the Eight/Yi ge he ba ge, 1983) and Chen Kaige (The Yellow Earth; The Big Parade/Da yue bing, 1986). In Chinese press he was described as the foremost talent in of his generation in often ecstatic praises repeated in Western media Zhang was, then, canonized early on.

Red Sorghum confirms Zhang’s talent for making strikingly beautiful and picture postcard-polished images that he in his later career would use in conventional narratives, instantly accessible for an international audience. His style is classical, even conservative, in contrast to directors such as Chen Kaige, whose films had more daring formal qualities in the early days – since then Chen has also turned to a more conventional narrative form. Furthermore, Red Sorghum and Zhang’s narratives after that are safely staged in a pre-revolutionary era depicted in such a romantic fashion that even the depiction of the harsh, feudal working conditions in Ju Dou or the cynical gangster world in Shanghai Triad (Yao a yao, yao dao waipo qiao, 1995) looks like exotic sight-seeings in a fairy-tale world.

The films by Zhang that touches on post-revolutionary and contemporary China, for example The Story of Qui Ju (Qui Ju da guan si, 1992) or Happy Times (Xingfu shiguang, 2001), are all well-adjusted to the Party line. Modern China is depicted as a society in dynamic social, political and economic development. We find ourselves constantly in the wealthy Eastern part of China. Nowhere do we see any signs of the ethnical, political and religious oppression of everyday real life. If there is criticism – like the satire on bureaucracy in The Story of Qui Ju – it is ever so mild and apologizing, focusing on personal matters, not social issues, stressing individual problems, not structural ones.

Still, there is a wide-spread notion of Zhang as some sort of dissident artist in constant battle with the censorship authorities. That notion is based on the persecution of him during the Cultural Revolution due to his social background as the son of a Kuomintang officer. As a teenager he was ordered to undergo ideological training at a collective farm and a textile plant. For a long time he was refused admission to the on-and-off closed film school in Beijing and was forced to learn the craft by himself with a camera he bought for money from his blood donations.

Even after his international success there were some problems. From time to time he has been prohibited to leave the country, for instance to go to the Oscar night when Ju duo was nominated. Also, his To Live (Huo zhe, 1994) is still not released in the Chinese market. Just before the shooting of Shanghai Triad, Zhang was forced to write a humiliating letter of self-criticism, which was published in Western press.

Still, he only had mild skirmishes with the authorities when compared to his colleagues. Both Ju dou and Raise the Red Lantern were released in China shortly after the politically correct production of The Story of Quin Ju, and he quarrel between Zhang and the censors did not seem to have anything to do with the political content of the film but was a bureaucratic punishment because he sent the film to Cannes before he secured the official stamp of approval, then starting negotiations on his own with foreign financiers for the production of Shanghai Triad.

Whatever the reasons for his troubles with the national censorship board, it is apparent that Zhang Yimou, throughout his career as a director, has been ideologically flexible and eager to be on good terms with the political commissars of film production. He has not left the country, despite the opportunities to do so, or refused to make any films on terms dictated by government officials. He has willingly put himself in the service of the Communist regime to become one of China’s most important cultural export products.


In his latest film, Hero, he goes all the way to not only make an apologetic film for the current dictatorship but adapts a fascist dramaturgy and aesthetics to do so. I am not referring to the fascist mythology Pauline Kael attacks when reviewing Dirty Harry (1971). Rather, I want to address to the historical ideology that founded corporative states ruled by almighty leaders such as Italy under Benito Mussolini and Germany under Adolf Hitler.

As in Fascism, there is a nation waiting to be born under a great leader at the center of the narrative in Hero. Shi Huang of Qin (259-210 BC), China’s first emperor of the Qin dynasty, has in the West been regarded as the archetypal tyrant. Under his regime, dissidents and learned men were murdered, all the books were burnt to erase previous history and he created a strong and centralized regime with an extensive military presence and intelligence all over the country to ensure his complete control.

At the same time he removed the agrarian aristocracy. He standardized the written language and measures, built roads and canals and the Great Wall. Consequently, he has been portrayed in much more positive manner by later rulers of China. Mao Zedong looked up to him as a good example, and under Mao’s last years as dictator in the early 1970s several celebratory bestsellers were written about Shi Huang of Quin.

These books cultivated a mythology of a nation unified, strong and wealthy under the guidance of an enlightened ruler with a divine plan, fighting constant threats from “foreign” forces of evil. Inner threats are, of course, all kind of dissidents, from a political opposition to ethnic groups seeking independence – often portrayed in secret collaboration with the “foreign” forces. A revisionist take on the real history of bloody civil wars and uprisings.

Hero is set at the time of Shi Huang of Quin’s final victory in 221 BC. Like other admiring portraits of dictators, his merciless war, which claimed many victims among soldiers and civilians alike, is at first misinterpreted as the work of a murderous psychopath. But when the master plan for the Great Nation is revealed – in this case, to a worthy warrior and opponent – the war is redefined in redeeming and even heroic terms. This narrative strategy is a tradition from historical books as well as popular culture about imperial warrior kings and other tyrants, for instance in films like UFA’s series of films about Fridericus Rex (Friedrich the Great) and the Stalinist epics on Peter the Great. Both were used to trigger chauvinist emotions and legitimize present dictators.

S437-22The conspirators in Hero are initially among the ignorant who cannot fathom the grand design of the emperor’s master plan. In an implied parallel to the warlords competing with the emperor, they have no concept of China and only act out of personal interest. Their leader, Broken Sword, is the first one with an ability to see history in a wider perspective and consequently understands the true meaning of the emperor’s words about “one kingdom” and the necessity for making the ultimate sacrifice – to give one’s life – to this idea. In accordance with the romantic tradition of totalitarian regimes, the conspirators are in not demonized as petty villains but romanticized as pure-hearted but foolishly proud, temperamental and misguided. They are the king’s worthy opponents, who, when they eventually see the light, will redeem themselves by taking their lives in the interest of the Great Nation.

This scenario fits perfectly with Fascism’s ideological notion of the nation as a historical unified entity, an organic state in constant struggle with others for domination. As an organic entity, the Fascist nation demanded – as did most Communist ones – that its subjects accepted their “natural” positions in the hierarchy of the state. At the top: the charismatic Leader, who embodies the Nation, its ideas and destiny. All other interests are subordinated, such as conflicts between classes, ethnical groups and religious communities.

These are precisely the conflicts threatening China today as it is S1539-15ruled by an old power elite within a Communist Party literally dying of old age. There is much tension between the fairly rich Eastern China and the significantly poorer Western part. Turks, Kirgiz, Mongols and Tibetans are but a few of the many ethnic groups seeking independence. Falun Gong and the Islam are among the religions targeted by the government.

Meanwhile, the modernization, better education and influx of foreign influences add fuel to the criticism of the regime. So there is a real need for waving the flag, reminding everyone about the national mythology called China and legitimize – both at home and abroad – the order of the day. And nobody does it better than Zhang Yimou. In Hero, he has made a striking propaganda stunt for the dictatorship. Like his colleagues in Nazi Germany, he reduces his characters to historical functions as ornamental features in the mythological architecture of the Nation. The conspirators against the emperor lack individual names – most prominently in the case of the protagonist Nameless, the ultimate cog in the wheels of history.

As characters in their own right, they are blurred to an even greater extent than the super heroes of American comic book adaptations. In the sparse dialogue it is suggested that they are from a region where the emperor’s troops has treated the civilians especially harsh, but the film never elaborates on the subject with images from destroyed villages or massacres on civilians. The emperor’s war crimes are clinically absent, thus diminishing the assassins to a group of bitter loners divided by petty rivalry and jealousy. Their only claim to fame is based on the fact that they are masters of martial arts.

This narrative strategy makes it a lot easier for the audience to accept them as disposable pawns in the Great Leader’s master plan. Once they realize their historical mistake, they eventually fulfil their destinies in glorified acts of suicide, romantically framed in picturesque landscapes. Incidentally, these scenes also functions as propaganda for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, framing the event in a myth of glorious self-sacrifice in the interest of the nation – one of a kind not seen since Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938). No wonder that Zhang Yimou was the one who got the honorary assignment to direct the official film for China’s victorious application for the games.

The Critics’ Fascination

It is, of course, disturbing to find a Fascist film at the cinema in 2003. Actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai even gave his open support to the massacre at the Tiananmen Square in 1989 as necessary in order to keep national stability. Worse is the almost unreserved praise from the critics. Now, in May, the film only plays in a few countries after its much-debated screening at the Berlinale (see the festival report in Film International 2003:2). I have therefore chosen to focusS18-17 on the reception in the Scandinavian media. Considering the canonization of Zhang Yimou, mentioned above, there are reasons to believe that other critics will follow if not Chinese dissidents and/or intellectual celebrities with an international status start a debate about the film (this journal is, unfortunately, small enough to ignore).

The Swedish ads for the film feature an abundance of review quotes on the visual beauty: “beautiful and spectacular” (Filmkrönikan), “a glorious feast for the eye” (Dagens Nyheter), “dazzling beautiful images” (Aftonbladet), shockingly beautiful” (Svenska Dagbladet), “grand, visually impressive, historical epic” (Sydsvenska Dagbladet). In the Danish and Norwegian press, it is more of the same. In the reviews there is praise for the obvious – but apparently for the Western critics’ exotically fascinating – symbolic use of color, the action scenes with Chinese martial arts performed and the overly melodramatic acting.

Color symbolism in sets and costume has been a regular feature in film at least since Hollywood in its Golden Age, although it is rarely mentioned in the reviews. When it comes to Hero, it is suddenly taken as a unique expressive device unseen until the coming of Zhang Yimou, the great auteur. The same goes for the martial arts scenes directed by Tony Ching Siu Tung. Compared to his previous work in A Terra-Cotta Warrior (Qin yong, 1989), Mad Monk (Chai gong, 1993) and Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau, 2001), it looks heavy-handed, hampered by the staging as tableaux vivants and the conventional cinematography. This can, of course, be blamed on the fact that Hero is Yimou’s first feature in the genre. He is a newcomer to the wuxia, while performing the task of making a national epic.

The other titles mentioned in the paragraph above have all had a limited distribution in the West. For a long time, Hong Kong and Asian action cinema was seen as lowbrow entertainment. That is, before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Hardly surprising then that most critics writing about Hero are ignorant of the wuxia genre tradition. The only other film referred to in nearly all reviews is – surprise, surprise – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A few critics (Dagens Nyheter, Ekstra-Bladet, Jyllands-Posten) mentions Akira Kurosawa’s historical war- and samurai films, a rather odd reference considering the director’s criticism of the Japanese fascist and militarist traditions.

A few reviews tries to make a case of Hero as ambivalent and open-ended, but there is little to support this in the film. For one, it ends in an embrace of the emperor’s narrative as the ultimate truth, confirmed by Nameless. Symbolically, this is expressed in the film’s concluding scenes, where the king’s positive black color (signifying order and life) is contrasted to the negative white color (chaos and death) of the conspirators. The dialectic logic of this thesis versus antithesis leads to the synthesis of the self-sacrifice of the conspirators’ death in order for the emperor to found the nation of China, his very own manifest destiny.

emperor_and_the_assassinA film that the critics take great care to avoid in this context is Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (Jing ke ci Qin wang, 1999). Chen’s film depicts Shi Huang of Quin as a corrupted and paranoid tyrant, far removed from his demi-god status in Hero. It is a psychologically subtle film with far more fine-tuned acting, in stark contrast to the ham performances and melodramatic kitsch that so many reviewers saw as deep and meaningful in Hero. As indicated above, the staging of Hero follows the formal strategies of Fascist aesthetics, glorifying emotionally high-strung and irrational romanticism in fairy-tale tableaux vivants over intellectual reason in a critical approach to the subject.

Like the protagonists of Nazi films, the heroes of Hero never reflects on their actions. Their heroic deeds, ending in their ultimate sacrifice, comes from an irrational insight about the will and the needs of the Nation embodied by the Great Leader. This is negotiated by conspiracy leader Broken Sword using the magic words of “one kingdom” – spoken with operatic emphasis on every letter and followed by an epic silence every time to really underline the mythical resonance.

Final words

In his 1989 book Mystifying Movies, David Bordwell challenged what he called Interpretation Inc, a speaking-in-tongues-industry of theories within cinema studies. Now it seems to be the time to challenge the peculiarities of reviewers in mass media. Here, one can still find conservative auteurism, highbrow cultural hierarchies and an idiosyncratic canonization of “geniuses” creating “masterpieces”. These ideals – nourished by both critics and scholars – have had a  conformist stronghold in film criticism, as can be seen in the running-in-packs-positive reception of Hero in Scandinavian media.

© Michael Tapper, 2003. Film International, vol. 1, no. 3, 2003 (#3), pp. 48-51.

*  Further reading: writer-filmmaker Evans Chan contributed the essay ’Zhang Yimou’s Hero and the Temptations of Fascism’  in Film International, vol. 2, no. 2 (#8), pp. 14—23.

See also:
WHEN THE CULTURAL PAGES OF DAGENS NYHETER TOOK SIDES WITH A DICTATORSHIP, my lost-and-found diary about the absurd debate in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter that followed on my publication of the essay. Originally published at the journal’s web site: filmint.nu. It includes my two replies in the debate. One reply was printed, one was banned.