Movie Review: Heroes of Collectivism

I saw the movie Hero (Ying Xiong) a couple nights ago. It had decent fight scenes, breathtaking landscapes, gorgeous use of color, and great cinematography, but the plot was horribly collectivist. It felt like a propaganda piece with the fabulous visuals used to keep it from being boring. Full article contains major spoilers, and assumes you have seen the movie (it does not explain the plot).

It was a little difficult to untangle my feelings about the message because I liked the pro-pacifism angle, the idea that a warrior may (and usually should) choose not to kill. Feuds are negative-sum games, and it may be best to opt-out of revenge so as to end a vicous cycle. But the pointless consequences for the main characters and the way that sacrifice was held up as noble bothered me. Let's consider their deaths:

There was no need for Nameless to die - he did not try to kill the king, and thus did not violate the spirit of the law. The movie implied that an exception here would lead to bad consequences later - if the rules are not enforced, the state appears weak, and people will not respect them. This is crap, and a little economic analysis easily reveals that this is a bad rule. If you kill potential assassins whether or not they choose to kill, then you remove their incentive to change their mind at the last minute.

There was no need for Sword to die. Surely his point about violence could be made in a less melodramatic way than having his lover kill him. A flesh wound or a few lost fingers should be pretty convincing. Or he could have simply refused to fight, dropping or not drawing his sword - it seems unlikely that Snow would have killed him. Instead, by fighting and then letting a fatal blow through, he basically tricked Snow into killing him. Not very pacifistic.

Snow's death rendered Sword's even more pointless. He died to convince her of a moral message...and she then kills herself before passing it on or benefitting from it. Not very pacifistic.

Now, I understand that these sorts of pointless deaths are appealing to people with different emotional makeups than mine. Romeo and Juliet annoy me by being stupid, but they don't make my skin crawl. But Hero glorified the idea of individuals martyring themselves for the good of the collective. As the title implies, the main characters are portrayed as heroes for their choices. Through meditation and training, they have reached a mind-boggling peak of ability, which allows them to sacrifice themselves so that the state may grow. The message is that this is the ultimate level of success for the most able and noble individuals.

This is especially galling because martial-arts movies tend to glorify individualism, showing that trained warriors can take on endless numbers of mindless drones. Far from denying this, Hero takes it to an extreme, as when Nameless and Snow defend the studio against the rain of arrows. But this is demonstrated only to make it all the more dramatic when these individuals choose to set aside their abilities and let the drones triumph, for the greater good.

It is interesting to contrast Chinese and American nationalism via the movies Hero and America's Heart and Soul. One glorifies the state, the other glorifies eccentric individuals. Its quite a gap. Its good to be reminded occasionally that while the US is much more collectivist than we libertarians, its a bastion of individualism compared to some places.

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Yup, I've seen this one - I

Yup, I've seen this one - I agree that it is primarily a propaganda flick, but an interesting movie nevertheless. It never occurred to me that the aim was collectivism as such. Instead, what I thought of it was that it was an attempt to use art and a rosy-eyed version of appeal to history to put a rationalising spin on the "One China" policy wrt Taiwan: it doesn't matter that the means are evil and a great many innocents are dying as a result of the designs of a megalomaniac (complete with explicit imposition of cultural changes, including language), what counts is "All Under Heaven." With that, Sky convinces Unnamed not to kill the King of Qin despite the protests of the others that the King's plans are reprehensible. In like manner, I would suggest that the movie is aimed at getting ordinary Chinese to get anti-CCP activists to put aside their agitation not so much for 'the greater good' as an end itself but in relation to particular hot-topics as part of advocacy of broader Chinese nationalism.


Yes it is a beautifully

Yes it is a beautifully staged movie, stunning even in the visuals, but I left the theater agitated, in a kind of quiet seething at the poisonous political message that was presented wrapped in beauty.

We see the king and his grand castle, we see the king's many armies, we learn how he unified China and put an end to fighting. We are presented with assassins who are heros, if we swallow the film's big lie, when they choose not to kill the king for the sake of an eventual peace under the China's first emperor.

We do not see the tax collectors, we do not see the farmers who grow the food that feeds the king and his armies. Glen Whitman, at Agoraphilia, did his homework on this and turns up some history. Read We don't need another hero. Turns out that at the time of of the king's reign, he was not popular with the people. Public works and taxes were seen as a great burden. Some nobles became resentful. The king took to banning critical political writings and burned libraries. (This part of the history didn't make it into the movie.)

So, spare the king for honor? For peace? When has there been peace under tyranny?