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Guest Post: All Under Heaven

(Spoiler warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Zhang Yimou's Hero

It is also a guest post by Matty P.)

Zhang Yimou's Hero is a feast for the eyes. Jet Li and Maggie Cheung repel thousands upon thousands of arrows as artisans paint the written word in one scene. In another, Cheung battles an outraged Ziyi Zhang amidst the swirl of brilliant autumn leaves. The battles themselves are breathtaking, showcasing the deadly art of combat in poignant beauty. In contrast, the result of combat is revealed to have a cost to all those exposed. Jet Li's Hero portrays the act of violence thematically as a paradox.

Violence in of itself cannot be considered a good thing. Rather, its very existence, very definition is to cause harm. Yet the age old moral question remains, can violence yield a greater good? The ancient Roman adage was: "It you desire peace, you must prepare for war." Orwellian double speak, it flies in the face of my mother's advice when I was a child that violence never solves anything. My mother's intention wasn't to develop in me deep seeded naiveté, rather to instill the wisdom to avoid revenge when others wronged me.

And revenge is the very thing that motivates the character Nameless in Hero. Under the guise of a servant to a growing empire, Jet Li as Nameless, planned to strike at the king responsible for the death of his family and the murder of his people. The King of Qin steamrolled his way across the seven fractured warring nations of modern day China, asserting himself Lord of a new empire, soaking the lands he wished to rule in the blood of those he claimed his lordship over. So hated by the people because of the carnage, the King of Qin locked himself away in his palace for fear of assassination.

But Nameless, standing within killing distance of the kind, hesitated to kill him. Not for fear of failure or squeamishness about taking a life, but because of an idea. An idea summed by three words, "All under heaven."

It had become the belief of Nameless, taught to him by Broken Sword, that only one man's ruthless domination of the once warring states of China could end the bloodshed. Death now, peace later. It's an attempt to justify a means by an end.

Mathematically, it makes sense. Kill a few thousand now in conquest, and the king prevents further warring between city states that would take the lives of hundreds of thousands.

In contrast, the cost of such a plan becomes not just the lives lost in attempts to hold back the King of Qin, but the loss of these once unique cultures that must blend into a unified China. The audience sees this price paid not only through Nameless' search for vengeance, but in the destruction of the Snow and Broken Sword's refuge; a compound for artisans of the written word. Because they will not submit to being ruled and they will not fight, the calligraphers are slaughtered. And with the deaths of so many, including elders, knowledge of the discipline and culture passes with them.

Violence can be both seductive in its simplicity and frightening in its implications. It can result in internment or in liberation. Independence or ethnic cleansing. But we must be careful in how we justify our actions. Enacting violence and claiming a greater good is a dubious process considering intentions can never guarantee an outcome. The success, longevity, and long lasting consequences of violence on the scale of war is far too difficult to predict and far too easy to criticize in hindsight.

two comments

First off, I love the film’s beauty, as evidenced by the pic above.

On the Violence for the larger good, I think the real issue wasn’t actually lack of unity. Uniting a China, how and for what purpose?

We have really only touched on the issue of ends justifying means, but I think that concept is tied more to violence then probably any other catch phrase. Think of any justifiable violent activity, and by definition it is the ways justifying the means. The movie Hero does a fantastic job bringing that out. Good post Matty.