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Cinematic Narratives in Hero: Primordial Father and Assassins
By Pandit Chanrochanakit
This paper begins with questions on what message Hero,1 a film by Zhang Yimou, conveys to its audience and how the story operates to convey this message. The message is really a simple idea of “peace under one ruler,” but the ways it presents the unification of China through cinematic narrative is fascinating.
The national imaginary portrayed in Hero is of an archaic China in the midst of turmoil during a period of fighting among seven independent kingdoms. Qin, leader of the Qin kingdom, finally defeats his enemies to become supreme ruler of China. However, a number of assassins want to kill him, including Nameless, Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow. Nameless wants revenge because Qin destroyed his “country,” Zhao. Nameless studied swordsmanship to achieve his goal of killing Qin. However, after meeting Broken Sword, an assassin who has decided to forgo his mission, Nameless decides not to kill Qin. Instead, he sacrifices himself for the ideology of “peace under one ruler.”
This paper attempts to interpret cinematic narrative of Hero and investigating how it contextualizes the story. The paper uses Slavoj Zizek’s Lacanian cinematic materialism to examine the idea of unification under one ruler. The investigation reveals that homoeroticism is working in the film to convince the audience of the importance of a primordial father, as represented by Qin's relationships with his would-be assassins, Sky, Broken Sword, and Nameless. Flying Snow represents a stain on the dominant male discourse; she therefore has to die in the film. This paper concludes that the ideals of unification and "peace under one ruler" are ways in which some Asians, director Zhang Yimou in this case, resist the Western Gaze on Asian politico-cultural practices. Hero convinces its audience that peace under one ruler is worth any sacrifice.
II. Colorization in Hero
William E. Connolly points out that film is an intersection between cinematic techniques and a critical story. Techniques are a kind of micropolitics, an “organized combination of sound, gesture, word, movement and posture through which affectively imbued dispositions, desires and judgments become synthesized.” 2 The micropolitics, as introduced by Connolly, help the audience understand how a film works or operates and what kind of ethic is promoted in a film. The micropolitics in Hero operates through colorization. “Colorization” originally meant tinting black and white film. But in my treatment, colorization means creating turning color film into a monotone. This is unlike Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, that were deliberately shot in black and white film. Hero uses color film, but shoots scenes that are constructed in monotone, specifically in following the narratives of Nameless and Qin.
Hero can be separated into six acts. The color of each act plays a crucial role in creating a sense of place. Different moods are also set by using the colors black, red, blue, white, and green. As in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in which each protagonist describes the same event from a different perspective, in Hero, the narratives of different stories become a form of negotiation between Qin and the assassins. Each of these narratives is divided by color.
The stories told in Hero are depicted within a large frame or vast landscape unless a fighting scene needs a close-up shot. The landscape in Hero represents the homeland of everyone under the Qin kingdom. The royal palace of Qin is at the center of Hero. People’s identities are embodied in their behaviors, especially that of the assassins, who are all people of Zhao. We can see in the third act that the people of Zhao are characterized as appreciating calligraphy, which represents their deep scholarly roots. Rather than taking up martial arts or inventing weapons, they practice calligraphy until the last moments of their life. Ironically, all of the assassins are people from Zhao.
The first act depicts gloomy gray clouds over a valley rushing with chariots and cavalrymen. This scene presents China in turmoil and unrest. The terrain depicts China in drought, a vast field under gray cloud, but does not locate a specific place in China.
The second act, rendered in red tones, depicts scenes in the Zhao kingdom. We cannot tell how far Zhao is from the Qin kingdom to Zhao, but we can see Zhao’s vast landscape. The film shows crowds of foot soldiers and archers moved freely from place to place. There are no long marching scenes, but we also see Qin’s invincible artillery.
Nameless narrates different stories of how he crushed other assassins, starting with Sky. The duel between Nameless and Sky is described in detail to convince Qin that Nameless is a mighty warrior. We find later that the duel is made up. The scene is set in black, representing sadness and Nameless’ intention to kill Qin.
In the third act, Nameless tells Qin how he overcame Broken Sword and Flying Snow, two assassins that had almost finished their mission. These scenes are again rendered in red, representing jealousy, lust, desire, anger, and falsehood. Nameless tells Qin that he took Sky’s spear and traveled to Zhao, where he showed the spear to Flying Snow and Broken Sword. Flying Snow loves Broken Sword, but kills him because she him betraying her by making love to his maid. She also has intimate feelings for Sky, and wants to revenge him by killing Nameless. Nameless takes advantage of Flying Snow's weakness at hearing the bad news of Sky's death to kill her.
Qin finds out that Nameless lied to him about killing the two assassins. The color turns to blue in the fourth act, representing royalty, as Qin then tells his story. Qin valued Broken Sword and Flying Snow as self-respecting warriors who would never have committed the acts told by Nameless. He interprets Nameless' story as a conspiracy among the assassins to achieve their goal. Because Nameless’ skill with the sword is limited to within ten paces, he needs to get closer to Qin by hunting Broken Sword and Flying Snow. Qin believes Nameless had to convince them of his plan and his ability to carry it out.
In the fifth act, Nameless hesitates to kill Qin. The real story, revealed by Nameless, shows that Qin underestimated Broken Sword, who has persuaded Nameless to abandon the mission. The color turns into white, representing mourning, sadness, illumination, and purity. The story tells why Broken Sword abandoned his mission and why Nameless hesitated. Qin is delighted by Broken Sword’s words “All under Heaven,” meaning he has understood Qin’s ideal of a united China. Qin even lets Nameless have his sword so that he can make the decision whether or not to accomplish his mission. In the last act, the color turns black again when Nameless sacrifices himself for his ultimate goal, peace under one ruler.
According to Connolly, the micropolitics of colorization helps set the stage for macropolitical action by the audience. 3 The macropolitics of Hero, I assert, is the ideal of “peace under one ruler,” represented through the conversation between Qin and Nameless. This conversation is the only experience that the audience observes. All of the conversation between Qin and Nameless is colored black. The monotones of each act creates a color-blind effect in the sense that everyone and every object in that scene is the same shade. The audience is forced to perceive the particular messages being given by the colors; the audience is thus colonized by these messages.
III. Lack of Being
This section discusses Slavoj Zizek’s concept of the “lack of being.” 4 Zizek examines film using a Lacanian interpretation which focuses on the primordial father, the phallus, sacrifice, and jouissance or lack. 5 Zizek investigates the idea of the Thing, which appears within the diegetic space of cinematic narrative. The Thing emerges in different forms (e.g., alien, rock, robot) in various films. The gigantic buffalo in The White Buffalo, for instance, represents the primordial father as a sacred Native American animal. The buffalo is used to portray the wild and natural discourse of America which was disrupted by Capitalism, represented by the hunting of the white buffalo.6
In Titanic, the gigantic ship represents the phallus disrupted by intercourse between Jack and Rose, who are from two different economic classes. The sinking of the Titanic is punishment for disrupting the natural order of human society. 7
Zizek uses the notion of jouissance, or lack, to mean that people are convinced they are missing something. Sacrifice, on the other hand, means to fulfill the lack of the other. 8 These two notions can be used to explain the cinematic narratives of Hero.
The film begins with the appearance of the assassin, Nameless. He is searched for weapons before being allowed to attend a ceremony in honor of the new emperor. Nameless is a low ranking officer of Qin who has already accomplished his mission of killing assassins who threaten Qin. Later, we learn that Nameless is himself a war orphan from Zhao who wants revenge on Qin for destroying Zhao. His non-name shows that he has no real identity, and also represents his lack of a father. When Nameless encounters Qin, he cannot kill him because of he has discovered a primordial father, the founder of a nation. His lack of a phallus is represented by his self-sacrifice for his primordial father’s ideal.
Broken Sword represents the impotent phallus. Both his name “Broken Sword” and failure to kill Qin show that he is sexually impotent. Even though the film actually shows him having sexual intercourses with Moon and Flying Snow, these stories are told through Nameless’ words and Qin’s imagination. His thick, broken sword not only connotes his sexual impotence but also his inability to kill the primordial father. In addition, he persuades Nameless to abort his mission.
Broken Sword expresses male intimacy towards Nameless when he draws on the desert ground the words “All under Heaven," enabling Nameless to look through his eyes. When Nameless encounters Qin, he has already abandoned his goal of assassination.
Of the assassins, Flying Snow has the strongest commitment to killing Qin. Qin had killed her father, a Zhao general of Zhao. Flying Snow’s jouissance is to kill the primordial father. Her support of Nameless is outweighed by Broken Sword’s influence, since he and Nameless share the ideal of peace under one ruler. Flying Snow thus becomes a stain on their homoerotic male relationship and she needs to be eliminated.9 This story operates similarly to Solaris, when the reappearance of Harey disrupts the norm of the idea that “woman merely materializes a male fantasy.” 10 In Hero, the male fantasy is the unification of China. As a stain, Flying Snow must die to preserve the fantasy.
Qin is portrayed in Hero as a primordial father, a mythic figure, a tyrant, and a lover. 11 He explains that he needs to unify China to make life easier for people. Unification will lead to the pursuit of peaceful life by living under the same standard i.e. literature and measuring.
Sky represents the dead. He conspires with Nameless, but fails to accomplish his task. Unlike Broken Sword, Sky never gets close to achieving his mission. Sky sacrifices his spear to convince both Broken Sword and Flying Snow of his honorable intentions. Although at first Sky seems to be the most skeptical about the ideology "All under Heaven," we later find out that he did not die in a duel with Nameless. The duel is only a conspiracy between him and Nameless. After Nameless failed to assassin he “gave up” his sword to pay homage to his fallen friends.
This Lacanian analysis of the protagonists in Hero is the basis of the next section, where I show how these warriors are involved in a political economy of friendship, an exchange of homoeroticism.
IV. The Political Economy of Friendship in Hero
This section attempts to answer the set of questions: “What kind of political economy occurs in Hero?” “What is exchanged in the film?” “What is the use of value and exchange of signs in Hero?” My analysis reveals that the object of the economy or circulation among the heroes Sky, Nameless, Broken Sword, and Qin is a homoerotic relationship, in a sense that they believe in the same token “All under heaven.” They exchange and share this ideology at any cost, including their lives.
First of all we need to treat homoeroticism, which characterizes asymmetrical relationships between adult men and boys or young men. The older partner takes the initiative and gains sexual pleasure, while the younger (the boyfriend or loved one) gains the friendship and help of the older man. 12 The homoeroticism as shown in Hero is not relationships between adult men and boys but rather relationships among adult men who believe they can sacrifice their lives to achieve their goals. A warrior or a hero is a person who will sacrifice anything for the collective good of society. The collective good, in Hero, is peace, which can be achieved only under one ruler. Hence, the political economy of homoeroticism operates in that they exchange their “lives” for both an ultimate good and friendship.
In his documentary film Yang and Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema, Stanley Kwan traces how gender issues are represented in Chinese films back to the 1930s.13 He shows how male intimacy or homoeroticism is presented in Chinese films, including the swordplay genre (e.g., in films directed by Chang Cheh), Kung fu genre (e.g., in films directed by Bruce Lee), and gangster genre (e.g., in films directed by John Woo). 14
In Kwan's documentary, Peggy Chiao, a film critic, expresses her feelings about male bonding, muscles, and nudity, saying, “it's like a male paradise. It’s all very sexual.” 15 Homoeroticism is not only depicted in half-naked male bodies, but also in male friendships, which are treated as prior and more important than male-female bonds. As director Chang Cheh remarks in Kwan's documentary, “Chinese hero has no truck with woman, he is much more concerned with his male friends.” 16
The boundary between friendship and homosexuality blurs. This can be seen in Chinese films that portray high levels of masculinity and intimate male bonding rather than heterosexual intimacy. Cheh further explains that, “It’s my reading of Chinese tradition, nobody thinks of [the novel] The Three Kingdoms as gay.” However, he admits that Freud’s interpretation of sexual drive is important. 17
Chinese films only present men as sharing passion and intellectuality. In The Killer, a film by John Woo, men help each other even when they are opposed to each other. 18 In this film, a detective extracts a bullet from a hit man’s arm. The scene reflects the hit man’s face showing both pleasure and pain when the detective inserts a knife into his wound. Woo remarks that their intimate eye contact is unconscious, a way of depicting their mutual admiration as though it were a “first date,” even though it is not conceived in sexual terms. 19
The sword represents the phallus, as Kwan points out. Hero shows the impotent phallus of Broken Sword, who aborted his mission, Nameless' lack of father and discovery of fraternity with a primordial father, and Qin as that father, the first emperor of China. Only Sky that seems to be a normal person, but he loses his phallus-spear to Nameless. Flying Snow shows her jealousy of the male phallus, her female jouissance. Qin, the primordial father, is the only potent person in the film in that he achieves his ultimate goal.
To achieve swordsmanship one must unite himself with one's sword. Broken Sword, Sky, and Nameless fail to unify with their swords or spears. Among these assassins, Broken Sword is the most outstanding swordsman. His calligraphy shares the same principles with swordsmanship, but he cannot keep his “broken phallus.” Nameless, too, lacks a phallus. Together, they agree that “the swordsman is at peace with the rest of the world [when] he vows not to kill and to bring peace to mankind.” 20 Since calligraphy and swordsmanship share the same essence, Nameless asks Broken Sword to find the twentieth way to write the word “sword” in order to evaluate his skill as a swordsman. From the Zhao perspective, this is art and creativity, but for Qin it is too diversified. He claims that once he has unified China, he will “eradicate this problem” by consolidating calligraphic writing. 21
The relationship between the swordsman and his sword is intimate. Qin, talking about Broken Sword, remarks on the martial art principle that “once the unity between swordsman and his sword is attained, even a blade of grass can be a weapon.” 22 This is because “the sword exists in one’s heart.”23 The ultimate achievement is actually the absence of a sword because it means the swordsman and his sword are united. The hesitation and abandoning of their mission is really their inability to possess their swords. They become impotent assassins in front of Qin, the primordial father.
I would like to point out that Hero uses homoeroticism to create a sense of non- hierarchical relations among men, including even between Qin and Nameless. Their relationship has no power dimension. It seems that they are independent from each other, they each have free will to make decisions, to kill or not to kill, sacrifice or not sacrifice, take action or remain passive, be dead or alive. It is Qin’s wit that allows Nameless to hesitate. Male bonding is a strategy for dealing with assassination. His statecraft leads him to hand Nameless his sword, since Qin believes that Nameless will never kill him.
The homoeroticism in Hero depoliticizes heterosexual relationships. Broken Sword and Flying Snow are lovers, but their love is trivial compared to the love shared among the male heroes, Nameless, Broken Snow, Sky, and Qin. These male warriors do not ask for understanding from their friends because they already understand each other. Flying Snow, by contrast, fails to understand why Broken Snow aborted his mission even at her last moment of life. If she had understood, she might not have been willing to die. Flying Snow is the female stain who disrupts the flow of homoeroticism and, at the same time, allows men to practice their love. 24
The words of Broken Sword, “All under Heaven,” do not immediately encourage Nameless to abort his plan to assassinate Qin. Nameless later changes his mind because he is hungry for “the greater good for all,” which he comes to understand means peace under Qin’s rule. He believes that one person’s suffering is nothing compared with the suffering of many. The conflict between Qin and Zhao is trivial compared to the greater cause. 25 In Hero, friendship is intrinsic to philosophical thought. 26 Friendship shapes the cinematic narrative of Qin’s supremacy.
V. Who is the Real Hero/Heroine?
There is only one dead body seen in Hero, that of Flying Snow, the female protagonist. Death in Hero seems unreal in that Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword do did not die fighting Nameless, as portrayed in his narratives. They are surrender to death. Only Nameless’ funeral is celebrated as a heroic funeral, but we do not see his dead body. The death of Flying Snow is left ambiguous in that females do not really fit into the swordplay film genre, yet her death is presented as more real than that of the men in the film.
But who is the real hero/heroine? The macropolitics of the film shows that the one who can manipulate the relations among male bonds or homoeroticism is the real hero. Qin is the real hero in that he is even impressed by his enemies and he installs his regime within a national narrative and imagination. As the primordial father, Qin achieves his goal: Qin as the supreme mono-emperor.
According to Michael Shapiro, cinematic nationhood is the process through which film articulates nation-building and sustains the projects of states.27 Albeit Hero was labeled an “unashamed compromise,” 28 it is an exemplar of how cinematic narrative works on the project of cinematic nationhood. Hero provides a set of ideas: peace under one ruler; unification prior to peace; peace and unification worth any sacrifice. This set of ideas forms the narrative of a national imaginary, constructed within the cinematic narrative of Hero.
1. Hero, pro. and dir. Zhang Yimou, Zhang Yimou Studio Production et.al., 2002, VCD format.
2. William E. Connolly, “Film Technique and Micropolitics,” Theory and Event 6, no. 1. See also Lars Tonder, “Between Lack and Abundance: Introducing the Zizek/Connolly Exchange on Film and Politics,” Theory and Event 6, no.1. I admit that using Connolly and Zizek in this paper presents some conflict in my analysis. However, since I found that both theorists contributed to my understanding of the film Hero, I decided to keep this conflicted approach.
3. Connolly, “Film Technique and Micro Politics.”
4. Tonder, “Between Lack and Abundance.”
5. Slavoj Zizek, “The Thing from Inner Space,” Sexuation. Ed. Renata Salecl. (Durham and London: Duke University Press), 2000, pp. 216-259.
6. Ibid., pp. 217-8.
7. Ibid., pp. 222-4.
8. Ibid., p. 246.
9. The notion of “stain” is the idea that an object that goes against nature has to be removed from the picture or natural landscape. In this case, Flying Snow disrupts the flows of homoeroticism. Bonitzer explains how stain makes film works because it induces the gaze. See Pascal Bonitzer, “Hitchcockian Suspense,” Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) (London: Verso), 1992, p. 21.
10. Ibid., pp. 228-9.
11. Many film directors produced the mythic stories of the many assassination attempt on Qin's life. For example, Chen Kaige produced two films on Qin: The Emperor’s Shadow and The Emperor’s Assassin.
12. Plato, The Symposium (New York: Penguin Books), 1999, pp. xiii-xv
13. Stanley Kwan (Director), Yang and Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema. London: Connoisseur Video, 1996. Videocassette.
14. John Woo was an assistant director to Chang Cheh.
15. Kwan, Yang and Yin.
18. Ibid. See also John Woo (Director), The Killer. Hong Kong: Fox Lober Home Video, 1994. videocassette.
19. Kwan, Yang and Yin.
20. Yimou, Hero.
24. See Pascal Bonitzer, “Hitchcockian Suspense.”
25. Zhang Yimou, Hero.
26. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press), 1994, pp. 2-3.
27. Michael Shapiro, Method and nations: Cultural Governance and the Indigenous Subject (Unpublished manuscript, 2002), 207.
28. Susan Jakes, “Play Safe,” Time Asia 160, no. 24, 23 December 2002, (5 May 2003).