Hero, in my opinion, could be Zhang Yimou’s Art of War. The wuxia film – though laden with martial arts sequences reflective of the brush strokes of a Chinese calligrapher – transcends the boundaries of its’ genre to take the spectator on a spiritual journey. The journey transcends chronology, objectivity, and morality, compelling the audience to focus only on the principles of war and wu xing that Zhang – as the film’s possible auteur – exemplifies.
The film begins by following Nameless, a Zhao-orphan-turned-Qin solider, to the King’s palace in Qin. There he introduces the classist yet perceptive and practical King to the fiery, proud, and violent Flying Snow and Broken Sword as lovers, calligraphers, and covert assassins. This is the first account of his encounter with the two, the mise-en-scene of them and their environment both swathed in red could be Zhang pointing us towards the fire element of Wu Xing; a period of restlessness and hate for the lovers in the summer season. I choose to interpret Flying Snow and Broken Sword as aspects of Nameless’ own personality, as it could explain the transitions that Nameless himself experiences as he grapples with the two characters. In the fire stage, the proud, short-tempered, violent, Othello-esque Flying Snow kills the seething, hypocritical Broken Sword for having cheated on her in a vagrant subversion of gender roles. The “male gaze” is almost non-existent; the status quo is one of women portrayed as assuming the same roles as men in war, in their homes, and in their families. Perhaps in this stage, Nameless’ anger, resentment, and desire for vengeance are strongest. That his rash, emotional side has no real positive impact on his goals – Flying Snow ends up defeated at the hands of Nameless – is Zhang’s second principle of war.
The mise-en-scene of Flying Snow surrounded by autumn leaves indicates a transition in the journey, a transition into the metal stage of wu xing. However, the King’s version of Nameless’ account begins in the water stage, as Nameless, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow are all swathed in blue silk. The mise-en-scene of Nameless’ mental conflict with Broken Sword right above water further reinforces this fact. Flying Snow embodies Zhang’s second principle of war – that skill is valued over physical prowess – by stabbing Broken Sword to protect him from having to confront Nameless, exemplifying the theme of sacrifice. That Broken Sword kills himself after her death gives the film an almost Shakespearean touch; Flying Snow playing Romeo, after whose death, Juliet commits suicide.
That Nameless attends Flying Snow’s funeral in the first place after having killed her reinforces the third principle, that respect and honor are more important than the end result. His mental battle with Broken Sword and Sky, emphasize the first principle of war – that the mental battle is just as important as the physical, that war must be fought with calculation and precision. Both respect and deceit, ironically, are important themes in the film. Nameless is revealed to be an assassin deceiving the King, who is punished but later given a hero’s burial to reward both his honesty, and his decision to change his mission. Broken Sword’s words – “the sword is not the answer” – embodies the film’s zeitgeist of pacifism. While the wood stage of wu xing ends in disappointment for Broken Sword and Flying Snow (as exemplified by the King’s cutting of the green curtains), the autumn stage is where Broken Sword (or rather, Nameless), experiences a transition.
Broken Sword’s monologue exemplifies Zhang’s fourth principle of war – that it is a spiritual journey for the warrior. That through war, a warrior’s spirit transitions from restless to calm, from bloodthirsty to pacifist, is a principle I’ve encountered in many films; in Lester Burnham’s journey in American Beauty, even in Bollywood films. This trajectory is perhaps one of my favorite elements in my favorite films. The mise-en-scene of Broken Sword in a sitting posture, having been killed by Flying Snow (her suicide possibly representing the death of the two aspects of Nameless’ personality) is possibly my favorite scene in the film. In this autumn stage, where the people are swathed in white and Nameless’ desire to kill dies down, does one realize the ability of humans to change and to grow more humble. Needless to say, Hero is definitely recommended.
List of References:
- Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. (2017). Wuxing (Wu-hsing) | Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. [online] Available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/wuxing/ [Accessed 22 May 2017].