This is the setup of Hero, a movie now playing in theaters, starring some of China’s biggest stars: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Zhang Ziyi. For those who have not seen the movie yet, you may want to quit reading here, as the film’s end figures quite prominently in the rest of this column.
In itself, Hero is a beautifully shot film, with a compelling story, magnificent sword-fighting scenes, and fantastic sets. It also contains one of the most politically odious subtexts you’ll find in a movie ever to grace U.S. screens. Worse still, this subtext has particular bearing on the current political state of America.
Jet Li stars as a humble law-enforcement officer who has killed off the three deadly assassins who had sworn their lives to killing the king of Qin. This amazing feat gains him an audience with the king, who so lives in fear of his life that, since the last almost successful attempt on it, he allows no one to approach closer to him than 10 paces.
As Li, whose character is so humble that he is only referred to as “Nameless,” tells his tale to the king, the king realizes that not all is as it seems, and that he has let into his chambers an assassin equal to, if not greater than, the ones who came so close in the last attempt.
In the final retelling of the story of the three assassins, the assassin-pretender, and the king, the truth finally comes out. The skillful assassin-pretender Nameless has his opportunity, comes forward to strike . . . and chooses not to. He tells the king that his life is being spared for the greater good of uniting all the warring states in peace under one banner. Nameless is then executed, yet given a hero’s burial.
Why is this so repellent? The king, who wishes only for peace, sees this peace coming via the point of an arrow. Unarmed innocents are slaughtered as masses of troops invade other states and are cut down by sky-darkening shafts of death raining down. The path to peace, in the king’s eyes, must come through war and subjugation—it is as ugly an appeal to authoritarianism cloaked in cinematic beauty and allegory as you will ever see put to celluloid.
As the New Republic’s Elbert Ventura puts it, the movie’s climax is “one of the great sucker-punch endings in recent years. What had seemed a traditional, if artsy, martial arts epic is transformed into pernicious propaganda with that closing act of submission. By having its protagonist sacrifice his life for the imperial cause, the film endorses a philosophy of individual subservience to the state.”
At the close of the film, the camera pans over the Great Wall, giving us the visual link between Qin and the country from whom the word is descended, China. This then fades over the title card—the words our land.
The United States is not China. There are no seven warring states that comprise our country. A century and a half lies between us and the bloody civil war that tore apart this nation. But at this time, the oligarchical machinery that runs our country is making the same appeal to authoritarianism that lies at the heart of this breathtaking yet deeply flawed film.
Recently, performing artists have been commercially browbeaten into submission when they have voiced opposition to the will of the leadership. The nation’s top law-enforcement officer regularly makes statements designed to silence political speech critical of the commander in chief. Whereas politics used to end at the water’s edge, the constant threat of terror and the tactic of fear pervades almost every announcement made by the administration, be it unsubstantiated claims that al-Qaida could poison the supply of medicine if we allowed imports of cheaper drugs from Canada, or regular pronouncements of terror alerts, made at politically opportune times, based on 3-year-old intelligence chatter.
Political opponents are tarred as coddlers of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein if they cast votes in contradiction to administration wishes. The leader of our country has suggested that the opposition leadership doesn’t care about the country’s security. While the administration’s partisans stalk their duly nominated opposition with bullhorns and flip-flops, the commander in chief uses the Secret Service to harass and arrest dissenters, requires loyalty oaths in order to hear him speak, and, as happened last week in Pennsylvania, allows his supporters to literally drag female protesters out of the room by their hair.
They control the White House, the Supreme Court, and both houses of Congress. What is left, except the total defeat of the opposition? There may be “two Americas,” but the current leadership wants but one land. Its own.
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