Directed by Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou, the greatest of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, was once thought to be the creative voice of political protest inside China. Sinologists interpreted his early films Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) as parables against the totalitarian state; his struggles with government censors were widely discussed in the West; and Gong Li, Zhang’s leading lady, was seen as a repudiation of the china-doll stereotype in favor of a stronger, more independent woman.

But when Zhang’s first film about contemporary China, The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), appeared, the distinguished Sinologist Jonathan Spence wrote that he was forced to consider the question of whether Zhang had given in to Communist Party pressure and censored himself. The cordial reception a litigious peasant woman receives from bureaucratic legal officials seemed like government propaganda. So did the apparent moral of the story: that complaining about corruption brings more harm than good to oneself and one’s community. That lesson, etched on Gong Li’s face at the end of the film, could have been dictated by Deng Xiaoping.

Qiu Ju certainly marked a turning point in Zhang Yimou’s relationship to his government. The filmaker and author Evans Chan, one of Zhang Yimou’s harshest critics, describes him as the Leni Riefenstahl of China. Some of the basis for this view can be found in Hero, the kung-fu blockbuster that is now making Zhang Yimou one of China’s new millionaires. Three years after it appeared in China, Hero is the most commercially successful Chinese film ever to be distributed in the United States, and Zhang is the PRC’s all-time box-office leader.

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Five years ago Zhang Yimou said in an interview that filmmaking is “about survival, and only next is artistic value. If you can’t survive, then where does this value come from?” Asked more recently about his shifting politics, his cautious but candid answer was, “Because people read political messages in my films, they expect me to be a political fighter who is always on the front lines. So whenever they cannot read into my works a dissident view . . . they become disappointed. I keep saying that I’m the same director. I’m an ordinary film director, I’m not a political fighter.”

Zhang Yimou no longer needs to worry about survival, and he certainly cannot call himself an apolitical filmmaker. A Zhang documentary was part of the Chinese government’s submission to the Olympic Committee that chose Beijing for the 2008 summer games, and the government has entrusted him with the responsibility for directing the opening ceremonies in Beijing. Zhang Yimou also conceived and choreographed the pageantry for the closing night of the 2004 Athens Olympiad. With millions watching on television, Zhang issued China’s stunning invitation to the world to come to Beijing. At the climax of the spectacle the spotlights focused on an innocent little girl, a living china doll of the sort that has increasingly become the defining image of Zhang Yimou’s “speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil” artistry.

Indeed, Zhang has arguably positioned himself as the chief artistic spokesman for the new China, an emerging political and economic giant whose Maoist political ideology has collapsed and which now seeks to base its claim to legitimacy on the nationalist pride of its citizens. If sports have emerged as an especially powerful way for countries to create nationalistic fervor, film is the great medium for building unifying nationalist myths. In China, Zhang Yimou is helping the government to achieve both objectives.

Still, it is a long step from here to Leni Riefenstahl. To appreciate the force of Evans Chan’s comparison, one has to get past Hero’s entertainment value and think about the story it tells.

For most mainstream American film reviewers, Hero was fabulous cinematography, brilliantly balletic kung-fu battles, and great entertainment. The only question was why it took so long to get to America: it was made in 2001, released in China in 2002, and only arrived here in 2004. Hero was the most expensive film ever made in China, at $30 million (less than a third of the cost of a typical Hollywood feature), and Miramax was the principal investor. Zhang gathered together a cast of Chinese film stars—the kung-fu legend Jet Li; Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, who made ordinary people charismatic in the surprise Hong Kong hit In the Mood for Love; and Zhang Ziyi, the teenager Zhang Yimou discovered and Ang Lee made famous in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Zhang Ziyi is known in China as the little Gong Li, and her forte as an actress is the projection of an inextinguishable innocence.

Although in China Hero broke the box-office record set by Titanic, Miramax delayed its American distribution. One explanation (several have been offered) is that the Miramax co-chairman and co-founder Harvey Weinstein doubted its American box-office appeal and was considering major editorial surgery (a one-hour version was distributed in Europe). But, the story goes, Quentin Tarantino persuaded Weinstein to leave it alone. Kill Bill was Tarantino’s version of a kung-fu movie, with Uma Thurman as his Jet Li. He had made it in Beijing, which saved his producers a great deal of money and put him in contact with China’s filmmaking glitterati. It is said that Tarantino told Weinstein that the uncut Hero was “really, really great” and the decision was made to proceed with American distribution and attach Tarantino’s name (and with it, it was hoped, his Kill Bill fan base) to Zhang Yimou’s film. Tarantino’s name is the first thing on the screen in Hero—a striking measure of his self-importance and Miramax’s confidence in his Midas touch. Tarantino’s seal of approval seems to have helped: Hero opened in August at number one and continued to make money into the fall.

Hero is not Zhang Yimou’s worst film. That honor belongs to an earlier Hong Kong commercial film, Codename Cougar, an amateurish effort that failed even to make money. But in Hero, unlike Zhang Yimou’s better efforts, the characters are all mythic cartoon figures who lack even the psychological density of archetypes. Zhang Yimou, who had been spinning his wheels, making smaller and less significant films, concedes that he decided to make Hero after he saw the artistic and commercial success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ang Lee, a Taiwanese filmmaker, proved that the Hong Kong kung-fu movie could be repackaged for Hollywood and the increasingly global audience. Using wires, special effects, and digital enhancement his martial artists flew through the air and fought each other from the tops of bamboo trees. Despite its stylized action, his film had psychological depth and evolving, memorable characters. Though Ang Lee’s success set off Zhang Yimou’s enterprise, Hero does not match Crouching Tiger’s achievement as a film. Hero’s kung-fu scenes may be more inventive and balletic than Ang Lee’s; I will leave that judgment to Tarantino and other kung-fu adepts. It seemed to me an adult version of the mayhem on display in children’s cartoons, an aesthetic of stylized violence that conceals the infliction of pain.

Zhang Yimou nonetheless remains one of modern film’s greatest cinematographers. His palette is inventive—red in all its shades is his signature—and he films monumental landscapes that are harsh and yet awe-inspiringly beautiful. In his early films—most dramatically in Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern—the artistry of his cinematography matched the power of the narratives. For Hero, Zhang Yimou teamed up with the Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle (In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express), considered by many to be the most original in Asian cinema. Together they created a film that is arguably too beautiful. Because the plot is convoluted, a Rashomon-like retelling of contradictory narratives, colors are used to code the sequences and thus keep the audience on track. Costumes, landscapes, and everything else change from red to blue to green to white to black. But as the film unfolds, the imaginative beauty of each sequence becomes banal: imagine being in an art museum with a fabulous collection of paintings that have been arranged by color. And despite the color-coding, many in the audience will still be left scratching their heads about what actually happened.

What does happen? The film (whose screenplay is coauthored by Zhang Yimou) is set in the time of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor Qin, who conquered the six other provinces and created the first unified Chinese empire (221–206 B.C.). We are introduced to Emperor Qin (Daoming Chen) sitting behind rows of flickering candles in a vast empty throne room in a walled inner city. Though he never moves from the throne, the flickering, which almost seems choreographed, keeps the visual scene from becoming static. The emperor lives in fear of assassination, and it is easy to believe that he is the kind of tyrant who deserves such a fate. At the other end of the throne room is the great swordsman called Nameless (Jet Li). The audience is meant to suspect that Nameless is the assassin who will succeed where all the others have failed.

The confusing storyline involves Nameless’s physical proximity to the emperor and is played out as an exotic version of the children’s game of giant steps. When we first see them they are as far apart as the throne room allows. As Nameless describes his success in killing the emperor’s assassins he is allowed to move one giant step closer to the throne. His feats, presented as color-coded flashbacks, begin to strain credibility. How can this unknown and nameless hero have defeated these legendary warriors? The answer, we discover, is that they have sacrificed themselves, warriors from provinces where the emperor’s army has slaughtered thousands of people, so Nameless could get close enough to the emperor to assassinate him. With Nameless in position, the film goes to color-code black.

The myth that nation-building unifies, that nationalism will cure all, appears suddenly as an epiphany. As Nameless is about to strike, he becomes the only person who has ever understood the true dream of his emperor. Behind that man’s cruel and autocratic appearance is a compassionate leader whose only ambition is to unite China in peace as one nation and end centuries of warfare and bloodshed. The emperor’s courtiers suddenly appear and like a Greek chorus demand that the nameless hero—who had the chance to kill the Emperor and miraculously repented—die for his assassination attempt. The great and all-powerful Emperor Qin must bow to tradition, and the assassin who spared his emperor dies in a hail of black arrows as a sacrifice to the birth of the nation. Historians of China tell a different story about the Emperor Qin who used book burnings and mass murder to silence all political dissent. But myths have more power than history: they transform wish-fulfilling fantasy into conventional truth.

Zhang Yimou has already made another kung-fu film. If creativity is really about survival first and artistic value second then we can only hope that, with his survival assured and his resources virtually unlimited, Zhang Yimou will rediscover the artistic values that made him one of the world’s great filmmakers.