The post earlier published at PassionForCinema:Hero
The Hero( no relation to the Sunny Paaji flick please), is one movie which inspite of watching multiple times, is something that just keeps on throwing up more and more layers to me. The first time i watched it , i was just swept away by the color hues, the visual splendour, the artistry and the grandeur. But every time i watched it again, there was also some meaning or some layer, which i had seemed to miss out on the previous viewing. I think one factor that really helped me in understanding the movie better was my 1 year stay in South Korea. It gave me a first hand glimpse of the Far East, though Korean culture is different from Chinese culture in some ways, in many other ways it has heavily borrowed from Chinese culture. For that matter Chinese culture itself is not a monolothic culture, it is much more diverse, much more varied, like Indian culture. Hero like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers belongs to the wuxia genre. To the uninitiated most of the wuxia movies appear like a montage of spectacular visuals, punctuated by breathtakingly choreographed sword fights and elaborately mounted battle scenes. But beyond the visual razzle dazzle and splendour, lie very deep philosophical overtones and layers.
Having resided in The Far East for a year, i can vouch for the fact, that the culture and society of that region is not easy to understand, be it Korea, China or Japan. In quite a lot of aspects, there is a similiarity to India, the respect for elders and authority, the secondary status of women, the importance given to society over the individual. Wuxia is a literary form in China, that is akin to Japan’s samurai tradition and the Wild West in American society. The term itself is derived from Wushu, Chinese for Martial arts, and Xia, a kind of honor code. These people like the Samurais were loners, not serving any authority, nor belonging to aristocracy. This is significant, as the Far East is a place, even today, bound by rigid class distinctions. The protagonists are people, trained fully in the martial arts, possesing great skill and strength, but using the power only for justice, not for personal revenge.
Hero revolves around the main protagonist who prefers to be Nameless( Jet Li), who approaches the King of Qin, at his palace, informing him that he had killed 3 assasins, Flying Snow( Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword( Tony Leung) and Long Sky( Donnie Yen). Suitably impressed the Emperor, invites him to recite his story, provided he sits within 10 paces of the throne. From here on the movie adopts the Rashomon technique, of different perceptions. After the King listens to the tales of Nameless encounter, he is surprised , having known them before, and gives his own version of the events. The post here is primarily to focus on the characters, their motivations, the relationships between them.
Strip away the visuals, the fights and the battle scenes, if one actually sees the basic core of the story, it is here on the interaction between the King, Nameless, Snow, Sword and Sky. The King’s character was based on Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a Unified China. If one goes a bit deeper back into the History of China, prior to 221 BC, China was a collection of warring states, he was the first person to actually unify China, by subjugating the warring kingdoms and becomming the emperor. Yet he had a reputation of being a ruthless autocrat who banned Confucianism, burried alive scholars and killed millions of people in the name of the larger interest. He was also credited with the Great Wall, and comming up with a common language.
Yet he lived always in mortal fear of assasinations, if one sees in the scene where he meets Nameless, he asks him to sit at 10 paces from the Throne. After listening to Nameless narration of the encounters, the King is surprised especially at the story of Sword and Snow, whom he had known before. He then unveils his own version to Nameless, accusing him of stage managing the events to gain access into his private presence. What we are having here is a mental game of chess between the King and Nameless, the latter trying to assasinate him, and the former trying to protect himself.
The very first encounter between Nameless and Sky takes place at a Weiqi parlor, where as per his version, he had duelled and killed Sky. Weiqi is the Chinese name for the game popularly known as Go in Japanese and Baduk in Korea. Go parlors in East Asia, are somewhat akin to the poker salons of the West. Now Go or Weiqi is a board game that seems simple, but in reality is a complex game of strategy. The basic objective of the game is to conquer a large part of the board compared with your opponent. If one takes the philosophy of Go, you start with nothing( an empty board), conquer spaces, and slowly take over. Here too if one sees Nameless uses a strategy of having defeated the King’s opponents to enter his chamber. But this is where the King turns it against Nameless. The King, is not able to accept that a legendary warrior like Sky, could have been so easily vanquished by Nameless. As per his version, Sky deliberately lost to Nameless and this would allow the latter to gain entry. It was a strategy where two collaborators appear to be enemies, in order to mislead their main rival.
It is however in the story of Nameless, Sword and Snow, that the movie actually delves into multiple layers and meanings. As per Nameless version, Snow was having an illegal liasion with Sky, and his last wish to Snow was to avenge his death. Sword who happens to be Sword’s love, is heartbroken, and in order to get even has sex with Moon( Zhang Jhiyi), his servant. This had led to a series of events which culminated in the death of Sword, Sky and Moon. The particular scene where Sword makes love to Moon, in front of Snow, just to spite her, is again reflective of the East Asian philosophy of loyalty and honor. He is unable to accept the fact that the woman he loves, has been some one else. He wants to make her feel the same way he had felt on knowing she was Sky’s love. Again in that famous duel scene between Swan and Moon, she initially refuses to fight her. In traditional East Asian society, servants were not considered equal to masters, and duels could take place only between equals.
The Emperor however refuses to accept the version of the story. He has known Sky and Sword, and though they are his rivals, he has respect for their honorable character. Again if we take the two aspects here, one is the first importance given to character in East Asian society. Also why does not the Emperor believe what Nameless had narrated to him? Traditionally East Asian society has been based on class hierarchy and personal relationships. The Emperor knew both of the lovers, he can’t take the word of an anonymous stranger on its value. Again here he theorizes that both Sword and Sky, had allowed themselves to be vanquished by Nameless, to facilitate his entry into the chambers. What we see here is again strategic, on their own Sky, Sword and Snow, knew that they could not approach the Emperor directly in his heavily guarded palace. So they come up with a strategy here to allow a stranger into the palace, by making it appear he was their rival.
It is in the final resolution of the movie that some of the most contentious issues come out. Many Western critics have commented that the movie offers an endorsement of authoritarianism. In fact the dispute here comes between Sword and Snow themselves. Sword is willing to subdue his personal ambitions, in the larger interest of the unification of China and peace for all. Snow however is bristling for revenge , ever since her father, a prominent general in the Zhao army was killed by the invading Qin’s forces. Nameless himself was orphaned as a child in an attack by the Qin’s forces. Zhao was the last kingdom to be subjugated by Qin’s Army, but only after a strong resistance. If one sees here, the motivation for revenge is stronger in Nameless and Snow, compared to Sword’s. Sword had his chance of killing the Emperor, however he realized that his death would cause anarchy.
What is being examined here is the eternal argument of individual vs the society or nation. Again this is a matter of perception, to people in the West, born and bought up on ideas of personal liberty, the fact that individuals can be sacrificed for the larger good is anathema, it is equivalent to fascism for them. But to many in the Far East and Asia, the state and society are far more important than the individual. Having worked in a company that was totally Korean, i can vouch for this fact. Korean and Japanese companies, dont believe in the concept of a flat hierarchy. While hierarchy is present in many Asian societies, the Far Eastern nations take it to an extreme. In Korea i had observed for instance that even in an activity like drinking, there is such a complex system of hierarchy, with regards to toasting and filling up drinks. Language, mode of addressing, usage of words everything changes depending on where you are in the social order. People in the West may wince at the fact, that thousands of people are uprooted to build a new highway or project, but for the local people, they do not take it as a big thing. Or maybe the fact that they are conditioned to think the way. Right from school level onwards, one is taught to respect authority, elders and the Government. The fact is that unlike Western societies, which have a clear cut line between Good and Bad, Far Eastern societies have their own set of values which can be confusing and complex.