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Film Club: Hero (Zhang, 2002)

Hero (2002)
The December 2015 target for the Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club is Zhang Yimou’s 2002 martial arts film Hero.

It is often suggested that Hero‘s story structure shares common DNA with Kurosawa’s Rashomon and therefore belongs to the same group of films such as The Usual Suspects, Les Girls and Hoodwinked!, which we have discussed in the past months during our exploration of the themes present in Rashomon. How strong that connection is, is up for debate and discussion.

Hero came out at a time when highly stylised Chinese martial arts films were enjoying relatively huge commercial success around the world thanks to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004 and also directed by Zhang Yimou). In western reviews of these films the name of Akira Kurosawa was often mentioned, not so much in terms of content or even presentation, but more as some kind of a godfather of the genre. Our discussion this month could also look at this aspect of Kurosawa’s legacy, namely his position and influence within the Asian martial arts film history, or if indeed any such link really even exists.

The floor, as always, is yours. The film should be fairly easy to get hold of, and if you are new to the film club, a quick introduction to what we are doing can be found here.





I find films like Hero and the others of that genre beautiful to look at and empty in content. Anyone can borrow from the master.



I saw it when it was in the cinema, but I must admit that while certain images stay in my mind, i can’t remember too much of the plot, and it never crossed my mind at the time that it might have a connection with Rashomon. At the time, I thought it was a straight old fashioned twist plot, just a bit more sophisticated in that it made you reassess the entire plot.

Like Chomai, I find this particular genre a little shallow, even though I’m still a sucker for any big glossy martial arts film from Asia. I must admit though that I’ve found myself deeply disappointed by Zhang Yimou. I adore his early films – Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum are among my all time favourite films. But it seems to me that he has simply cashed in his reputation to make films which are little more than propaganda for a particular view of China. Its easy to criticise from a distance though, I just feel that its been all too easy for the current Chinese government to absorb and effectively buy off the artistic community. The government has found its easier to tame artists through flattery and money than through oppression (not that they avoid repression, as Ai Weiwei found out). So I can never watch films like Hero without feeling a sort of personal disappointment in the filmmaker, which isn’t really a good objective critical viewpoint. Mind you, it may well be that there are subtle depths to the film that I’ve simply missed (there is a scene in The House of Flying Daggers which I’m sure is an allegory of what happened in Tiananmen Square, although I think I’m probably the only person to think that).



I’ve just watched it, and I must admit my memory of it was quite false, I think it got mixed up with a few other films in my mind over the years, especially House of Flying Daggers.

I have to say my disappointment when I first saw it is confirmed. I find the politics of the film leaves a very bad taste in my mouth – the notion of authoritarianism as a ‘solution’ to war in particular, as well as, to put it mildly, a very simplistic view of the formation of China. I remember I was quite stunned when I first saw it, just thinking ‘I must have gotten something wrong, Zhang Yimou couldn’t possibly have just made a pure propaganda film for the Chinese Communist Party’. But I think he did (and his subsequent films haven’t strayed from this path). I find it quite hard to be open minded about other aspects of the film.

Aesthetically, it is lovely, although I think the use of CGI looks a bit primitive now. But I found the fighting scenes quite wearisome, I much prefer something a bit more… visceral. Sometimes this style can work (as it did for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but for me it didn’t work here.

Another issue – and this is entirely personal and maybe its ‘just me’, but I can never really figure out why Zhang Ziyi is in all these films. I think that in every film I’ve seen her, I find her to be the weak link. Given her enormous popularity I’m obviously in a small minority in this, I just don’t see her as a great actress or strong presence. I thought Maggie Cheung is vastly more charismatic and watchable in this film.

And as for the Rashomon connection – well, it is much more obvious for me on this second viewing. In fact, I couldn’t help noting quite a few nods to Kurosawa, especially Ran, in the way the scenes of the warriors on horseback were filmed. I find it hard to put my finger on what they are, but I do feel that there are structural elements that are similar, which makes me feel that Zhang did study Rashomon closely. However, I don’t think there is any thematic similarity – in the sense that the ‘alternative’ stories told at the beginning were nothing more than lies told by the Nameless Hero to get close to the emperor. There seems to be no element of ‘subjectivity’ in the various stories, they are all just deliberate lies, up until we find out the true story.


Vili Maunula

Sorry in advance, for this will be a bit long and quite rambling. I don’t really seem to be able to put my thoughts together about this film, which is actually one reason why I find the work so interesting. It’s slippery, like a bar of intellectual soap.

This was I think my first time watching Hero, but having read about it on numerous occasions in connection with Rashomon, I more or less knew what to expect in terms of content and visuals. I also pretty much got what I expected.

Now, I must say that I have never been a particular fan of the genre, at least as it was portrayed around the time of Hero‘s release. When I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the theatres, I thought that although it was pretty, the special effects were not particularly convincing and the characters flying around seemingly effortlessly were difficult to relate to. If they can defy gravity, what else can they do? When I cannot understand what is possible in the reality that the characters inhabit, it is difficult for me to understand what is at stake at any given point. This is a particularly big problem if I’m watching a film which is built on physical confrontations.

It was also largely how I felt while watching Hero.

While watching this unrealistically stylised choreography of the duels, I also couldn’t help thinking that those who insist that these films were influenced by Kurosawa don’t really know their Kurosawa. Like at all. Wasn’t it exactly this type of theatrical portrayal of violence that Kurosawa was in fact trying to do away with in films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, which both in their own ways strove radically towards realism, to display the cruelty of violence?

But then there is the Rashomon connection, and I suddenly find myself very interested, indeed.

Although I don’t really know much about Zhang’s politics or the circumstances in which the film was made, I must say that I am not entirely convinced about the typical reading of the film which asserts Hero to be a fairly straightforward propaganda piece for the Chinese status quo. To me, the film appears to have quite a bit more depth to it. But it’s difficult to put a finger on how, exactly.

When reflecting on the difference between my own response and that of most of the reviews and articles that I have read since, the major discrepancy appears to be with how we interpret the latter half of the film. While most writers hold the view which also Ugetsu here expressed, namely that there “seems to be no element of ‘subjectivity’ in the various stories, they are all just deliberate lies, up until we find out the true story”, I intuitively reject this view. Instead, I am very sceptical about the truth value of any of the events presented by the camera.

In fact, why exactly is it generally assumed that the final version of the story is the truth? We are of course specifically told by Nameless that he had lied before and that what he is now telling us is what actually happened. But as we remember from Rashomon, even when the woodcutter tells his second version of the story, insisting that he is now telling the truth, he is still lying about the dagger, and who knows what else.

Another reason why I think one tends to see the final version as the truth is that we tend to put disproportionate emphasis on new information, making the “final word” seem truer than anything that precedes it. This was rather famously played with by John Fowles in his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where at one point towards the end the narrator steps into his story and ponders which of the two endings that he has been considering he should offer us, the readers. In the end, he decides to give both, but laments: “That leaves me with only one problem: I cannot give both version at once, yet whichever is the second will seem, so strong is the tyranny of the last chapter, the final, the ‘real’ version.” Any work dealing with a Rashomon structure has to confront this problem.

Or it can use it to its advantage, as I believe to be the case here.

In each of the films that we have watched so far as part of our Rashomon season, a central question has been who is actually telling the story at any given point. In Rashomon, this is at times famously complicated, with some of the stories seemingly filtered through multiple narrators, and we don’t always know exactly whose point of view the camera represents. At the other end of the spectrum is The Usual Suspects, which is fairly straightforward in that we have a single narrator and a camera which is throughout the film in cahoots with him, blatantly lying to us just like the protagonist is lying to his in-story audience. Rashomon‘s camera doesn’t lie to us, only presents the truth as it has been narrated by the various witnesses.

To me it would seem that Hero is a mixture of these two approaches, but with a camera that at times attempts to rebel against the narrator. On the one hand, we have something like an elementary version of Rashomon‘s multiple points of view, with the multiple versions of the events originating with different characters. But unlike with Rashomon, Hero also appears to have an overall narrator, the one who tells us the “true story”. And while most commentators seem to take this to be the voice of the Nameless, I would argue that we are in fact hearing another voice, namely either that of the king or one sympathetic to him. He is, after all, the only one of the major characters who survives to tell the tale.

But what is important is that the king’s voice cannot be trusted, and neither is it meant to be. The whole film is one elaborate lie, very much like The Usual Suspects. And although it is subtler than in Singer’s film, we are supposed to pick up on this fact, thanks to the way things are put together.

When you start to think about the film from this perspective, as a story narrated by the king, some things that don’t necessarily otherwise make much sense start to do so.

Take for instance the way that the king is portrayed. Throughout Hero, even when we are supposedly seeing another person’s point of view, the king is portrayed in a manner favourable to him. Even when we hear that the king’s forces killed Nameless’s family, the king is not directly judged, and neither are we shown any actual bloodshed. The audience is at no point actually shown anything that would make us antagonistic towards the king, and this is strange considering the apparently strong feelings that those wanting to assassinate him have. Unless, of course, you keep in mind that it is the king who is manufacturing this story. Then it makes perfect sense.

At some points in the story, the film even goes as far to openly praise the king. He describes himself as misunderstood, and with the seemingly off-hand remark about the 20 different ways of writing the character for “sword”, the film makes a reasonable argument for the king’s plan to unite the country. At the very end even those who would seem to have the most reason to hate him are shown to be convinced of the need to spare him.

The king is also made into a sympathetic character. He is no fool. In, fact he is shown to be more clever than Nameless since he manages to deduct the assassin’s true intentions. When he later makes the decision to execute Nameless, he does so only because that is what is expected of him. It is a necessary sacrifice, although he knows that it is morally wrong, and the film makes sure that we know that he knows.

Approaching the entire film as the king’s fiction also explains the “blue sequence”, which is the king’s own interpretation of what happened between Nameless, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. This sequence is frankly ridiculous on multiple levels. For one, it features the most over-the-top action scenes, with the protagonists tumbling around on top of a lake. It is entirely unrealistic also in that based on the information that we have been given, it would seem impossible for the king to arrive to his conclusions, and to apparently be so right about most of them. In narrative terms, the section is also largely superfluous, since it would seem to add little, if anything, to the overall story.

But if you consider the entire film to be the king’s account of what happened between him and Nameless, this sequence makes perfect sense. For one, it describes the king to us. Of the various different accounts, this is the one which is built entirely around the concept of honour and sacrifice: Flying Snow and Broken Sword are ready to sacrifice themselves for a greater good, Flying Snow stabs Broken Sword to save him (Broken Sword had planned to do the same to Flying Snow), after she is dead, Broken Sword attacks Nameless out of honour, and they are evenly matched. The intention of this sequence is to tell more about the king than anything else. It sets forth the argument that the king himself is honourable, for only such a person would expect this type of a sequence of events.

As we already discussed, the sequence also shows how clever the king is. He gets it almost right. But the one thing that he apparently doesn’t get right is important: the reason why Broken Sword didn’t kill the king when he had the chance. Indeed, it is the most important thing of all, the very core message of the entire film.

This is a clever narrative tactic from the king’s part. If the film had no sequence in which the king gives his own (partially wrong) interpretation of events, it would be easier to make the argument that we are making, that it is the king who is narrating the entire story. But by including this sequence which is openly offered as the king’s interpretation, everything outside of that sequence becomes seemingly more neutral. And that is where the core message can be safely placed. It really is the oldest trick in the salesman’s book, a narrative sleight of hand.

The result is the perfect story for the king. Even the greatest assassins in the country, ones who could actually kill the king and would even have the moral right to do so, choose not to carry out the act. And if these exceptional, legendary and clearly very wise people decide that they should not do it, who can really think that they have the right to kill the king? Not you or me.

Is there better propaganda than that?

But this is of course more or less exactly why the film is often criticised: it is propaganda. Except, is it? Is what the film gives on the surface the same as what its real intentions are? Do we need to separate the content from the message?

There appear to be some cues which the film uses to indicate that we should not take the story on its face value.

Take for instance the film’s internal colour theory. We have three sections with a strong emphasis on a specific colour, and three which largely play with the colourless tones of black and white:

  • The scenes with Nameless and the king at the castle are devoid of colour, predominantly quite dark.
  • The confrontation between Nameless and Sky is narrated with similarly colourless presentation, but is distinguished from the first section by its specifically monochromatic visuals.
  • Red is the dominant colour of Nameless’s first version of how he defeated Broken Sword and Flying Snow.
  • The second version of the above, this time narrated by the king, has the dominant colour of blue.
  • The third version of the same events (now again narrated by Nameless) is colourless, or white.
  • Green becomes the colour of the story narrated by Broken Sword (through Nameless), recounting how they stormed the king’s castle and how he ended up not killing the king when he had the chance.
  • The film then returns to colourless (white) narration for the rest of the story, including both scenes at the court and the end of the third version of the Broken Sword and Flying Snow storyline.

Quite a bit has been written about the film’s use of colour. Some have argued it to be symbolic, others a mere stylistic device. What interests me personally is the contrast between the coloured and the colourless sequences, and in particular why the aesthetics of the white section spill into the palace scenes at the end.

At first I thought about the colours to represent moods, but while you can explain the red section (passion) and the blue section (grief), what are we to make about the monochromatic section, the green section and the white section? And why does the white section take over the ending?

Then I tried to find a correlation between the colours and the narrators. But whichever way you try to approach this concept, you again run into dead ends. If the red section is narrated by the Nameless, why aren’t other sections that he seemingly narrates also red? Also, early on in the film, the king refers to Broken Sword and Flying Snow storming his castle, and we get a very brief glimpse of this, and it is all green, just like the section later on which is seemingly narrated by Broken Sword. Why is this brief shot green, when the flashback is the king’s? And furthermore, why does the white section run so freely into the ending even if the narrator appears to change?

I also thought about a temporal division. But while the green, the monochrome and the colourless sections exist in different times, the red, the blue and (some of) the white sections are alternative versions of the same temporal domain. And once again, the white section spills into the ending.

So, what exactly is that white section doing there? Why do its aesthetics take over the ending?

I think this can be interpreted as the film communicating truth values to us. The camera first teaches us that alternative versions of the same events come in different colours, but at the end muddles this distinction by fusing together one of these alternative storylines and what we have assumed to be the objective reality depicting the meeting between Nameless and the king. While many appear to interpret this as proving the truthfulness of the white version of events, I take the opposite approach: the visual link does not make the white version true, but the ending fictional. The camera suggests that we should not believe anything that we have seen. It is like The Usual Suspects but taken one step further: here, even the interrogation is a lie, a fictional account.

This would serve to answer another question that I had about the film while watching it. Why is the Rashomon structure employed in Hero? This is an important question, especially since finding out what happened between Nameless, Broken Sword and Flying Snow is not interesting or important enough to really warrant this multiple perspective treatment. The film raises no real questions about the nature of Truth (Rashomon), doesn’t show us alternative viewpoints of the same exact events (Hoodwinked!), and neither is it interesting or crucial enough to become a thriller or mystery narrative where we as an audience have to figure out what actually happened (Gone Girl, many others). So, the structure appears wholly superfluous, yet another example of a “Rashomon like film” which doesn’t really do anything interesting with the narrative device.

Unless, of course, the structure is there not for the sake of the story but for the sake of us, the audience, and our approach to the film. It is there to make us think about the objectivity of truth and to question what we see. And once we have taken our first tentative steps by rejecting the red and the blue sections as fictional lies, it should be easier for us to commit completely and declare the whole film to be that.

The film encourages us to think about these things also with its title. Who exactly is supposed to be the “hero” of the film? I don’t believe there to be a definite answer to this. In many ways, it is exactly like the film’s colour theory, as any theory that you try to build up ends up structurally weak in one aspect or another. You start to question whether anyone really qualifies as a hero in this film. And that is precisely the point.

There are undoubtedly also other cues. The film ending with the shot of the king standing under the gigantic calligraphy banner for “sword” doesn’t communicate peaceful rule. The way the king’s soldiers are portrayed fully black makes them look evil, rather than sympathetic. The king’s domain in general is cold and desolate.

So, in a sense Hero is a propaganda film. It presents a story which defends the ways of a political structure. However, the way in which this story is presented is not straightforward. For the most part, the camera does not stand for the filmmaker’s point of view, but like in The Usual Suspects represents a fictional reality created by one character. But unlike with The Usual Suspects, there is also an external voice present, and although we can grasp only fleeting glimpses of it here and there, it should be enough to raise questions about the film’s status as straightforward propaganda.

In this sense, Hero has much in common with the works of many Japanese postwar directors who were working under the similarly restrictive censorship of the American Occupation. The most successful of them fought the censorship not by quixotically going against the rules that limited their artistic expression, but often by taking those rules too literally, all the way to their breaking point, creating films which on the surface conformed to the censorship requirements, but through the very act of playing along with the occupiers, and doing it “too well”, created a range of subversive meanings which domestic audiences could notice and understand.

And this is how I choose to approach Hero. I am well aware that much of the above goes against what has been written about the film, and some of it goes against what the director and his cinematographer have said in public, but I feel that my approach makes Hero a much more interesting, competent, understandable and important film than the usually accepted alternative.



Vili, those are fascinating ideas, and they deserve a lot of thought – I’m busy the next few days, but you definitely make me want to watch the film again in the light of your ideas. I’ll post more on it when I’ve done so.

As I said above, I felt deeply let down by the film in a political sense, and I really tried hard to see if I was misreading it, that there was some deeper level of meaning consistent with his earlier films. Your ideas are intriguing, but I’m not wholly convinced. But it does make sense in the light of one thing that puzzled me about the film – the very obvious plot holes. As an example, the notion that the unnamed hero could fake the other warriors deaths by missing vital organs has a very obvious flaw – what happens if the witnessing soldiers decide to take the bodies (or heads) with them as evidence of their deaths? Its such an obvious fatal flaw in the plan that I was wondering if the story was simply following a long established wuxia trope (in one of the very few examples of Won Kar-Wei showing a sense of humour, in 2046 the characters make fun of the logical inconsistencies in the cheap pulp wuxia books written by the protagonist). So it is possible that these illogicalities were added precisely to tell the audience they were watching a fantasy, not reality.

On a final slightly random point – the general Kurosawa influence. I was going to post that the highly aesthetic form of portraying fight sequences which became very popular after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was harking back to a silent era pre-Kurosawa tradition of very formal and dance like martial arts movies in the Japanese silent period, reflecting their origin in kabuki. However, in searching for a clip, I found that realistic sword fights do indeed go back to the silent period. But I think the general point still stands, that there has long been two distinct traditions in Asian action films – the formal and aesthetic, and the realistic. Kurosawa of course very much belonged to the second school, even if he did appreciate the beauty of a skilfully used sword.


Vili Maunula

To be honest, I haven’t entirely convinced myself. Then again, the typical straightforward reading of the film doesn’t quite convince me, either. It’s a slippery film. Those usually happen either through careful design or careless incompetence.

It’s nice that you brought up the possibility that the film is playing with wuxia tropes. Something that I have thought about, but decided not to explore in my post, is the idea that from the king’s point of view, the wuxia genre is a perfect vehicle for his message. As popular and lightweight entertainment, it appeals to any commoner. Propaganda is best served this way.

I was then wondering if, under the surface, the film is in fact playing with some of the genre conventions by exaggerating and/or visibly ignoring them. But as I don’t know much about the genre, I’m just not really able to make this argument.

I found that realistic sword fights do indeed go back to the silent period

But is that really an example of realistic sword fighting? While it certainly isn’t the kind of ballet that Hero presents us with, it still looks highly choreographed and stylised to me.

Not that Kurosawa’s weren’t carefully planned. In fact, the duels in Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro are pretty much all highly stylised and have become something of a blueprint for a lot of genre filmmaking since. But there is a difference, I feel, in that with Kurosawa the choreography is mostly in how the fight is shown, not in how it happens. The fights are shorter, more intense, more raw. The artistry is the camera’s.

Kurosawa’s script for Fencing Master deals with this exact topic. It’s worth checking out, although I think only the 1962 remake is available, and even that one not so widely.




Then again, the typical straightforward reading of the film doesn’t quite convince me, either. It’s a slippery film.

‘slippery’ is certainly a word for it. I’d have been far more dismissive of the film if it hadn’t been for Zheng’s reputation and the subtlety of his earlier films. I’m sure there is something deeper within the choice of colours and tones as you mention – perhaps there is something in there a Chinese audience would identify more closely, but most of my Chinese friends are actually quite dismissive of this type of film.

As with you, I don’t know enough about wuxia. There does seem to be some deliberate playing around with the genre conventions, but I don’t know enough to add anything useful. I would just note that the highly discursive style of the film seems a very heavy handed way of signalling that this is a ‘folktale’ as such, but perhaps that is intended to hide deeper levels within the film.

But is that really an example of realistic sword fighting? While it certainly isn’t the kind of ballet that Hero presents us with, it still looks highly choreographed and stylised to me.

There was another clip I was trying to find which was highly stylised, straight out of a classical kabuki performance. I would have thought it fell more on the ‘realist’ than the theatrical style, but I suppose it is all a matter of degree.

I’d forgotten about Fencing Master, it is indeed something Kurosawa seems to have thought about in some depth.


Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: I’m sure there is something deeper within the choice of colours and tones as you mention

Indeed. Although both the director and the cameraman have repeatedly said in interviews that there was no intended deeper meaning other than aesthetic choice, the colours continue to fascinate.

Ugetsu: I’d forgotten about Fencing Master, it is indeed something Kurosawa seems to have thought about in some depth.

Coincidentally, the 1962 remake has recently appeared on YouTube without subtitles. If you check the link, which should start at 14 minutes 35 seconds, you are taken to a scene where the titular fencing master has been given the chance to show how he would choreograph a scene for a new theatre production. He manages only a couple of seconds before the director stops him and explains that this is not at all what he is after. He doesn’t need “form”. What he needs is “realism” (the English word).

For the rest of the film, this becomes something of a running joke as the old fencing master doesn’t understand what is meant by the foreign word. As a result, he is not only unable to work on modern productions, but fundamentally incapable of grasping what they are trying to achieve.

The film includes a couple of theatre scenes which the fencing master has choreographed in the traditional form, even when he keeps trying to attain that elusive concept of “realism”. One is here and another here.

This is of course the 1962 remake and not the original 1950 film that Kurosawa wrote directly, and I don’t know how similar they are in their depictions of the choreographed fights or whether either shows what Kurosawa had in his mind, but this is what they in this particular film saw as old school choreographed fighting, which the video you posted earlier also reminded me of, even if it is less theatrical.

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