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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 19 March, 2003, 23:48 GMT
Heroic take on China's past
By Stephen Applebaum

Chinese director Zhang Yimou
Yimou wanted to change the perception of martial arts
Chinese director Zhang Yimou risked controversy in his own country with Hero, his story of the tyrannical Emperor Qin - but also earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.

Yimou is used to his films being considered controversial at home.

As one of the leaders of a group of film-makers known as the Fifth Generation, he was constantly at odds with the authorities.

It is ironic, therefore, that with his first foray into martial arts film-making, the internationally acclaimed director is being accused of siding with the state.

Nominated for an Oscar, Hero revolves around a plot to assassinate the legendary King of Qin, 2,200 years ago.

The monarch survives all attempts on his life, and goes on to unite the country's warring states through brute force.

The problem, as some commentators see it, is Yimou's sympathetic treatment of the emperor.

His actions may be bloodthirsty and tyrannical, but as a man he is presented as reasonable and calm.

I really want to make it clear that I put my entire heart into this
Zhang Yimou on Hero

By the end of the film he has become a hero, suggests Yimou, because he has decided to listen to his people and pursue peace.

Yimou claims even to understand why Qin would execute Nameless, the warrior played by Jet Li who brings him to this point.

"The emperor could have decided against killing him, but he had to maintain his people's respect," he says.

"Being an emperor is a two-edged sword. He is bearing office and therefore has to do a certain number of things that seem to be against humanity."

Challenging views

Indeed, the historical Emperor Qin replaced feudalism with a merciless monarchy.

He also killed Confucian scholars and burned their books, a deed which later earned him the admiration of Mao Xedong.

For this very reason, modern artists have traditionally approached the subject with caution.

Actor Jet Li
Action hero Jet Li is the star of Yimou's film

Li, whose latest American outing, Cradle 2 The Grave is released 28 March, welcomes the debate that Hero has provoked.

"People now have different views about the unification of the country, the unification of the Chinese writing system, and the unification of different regional cultures into one Chinese culture.

"So, really, you can compare it to today's euro in Europe, which is backed by some and not backed by others. Everybody can have their own opinion. It's great."

Still, Yimou would prefer that politics were left to one side when considering Hero's merits.

"I didn't want to make a political film, and I believe if you want to politicise it that would really be inappropriate. It would be wrong."

He says he is simply paying homage to the martial arts novels he read growing up.

Passion and commitment

He admits that the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made it possible for him to realise his dream, but believes he has brought something personal to the martial arts genre.

"Jet Li said that he always made these martial arts films where they were just about fighting.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Crouching Tiger opened doors for Chinese film-makers

"He's never made a film that contained the stuff that mine contained; namely, that kung fu can be something to do with peace."

A recurring theme of the novels was that the best fighters did not need their swords.

"They just needed to use their heart and their philosophy in order to influence other people," recalls Yimou.

"That's something that I wanted to introduce into a film. In the scenes where they're fighting, I think the warriors are basically like two artists who are doing battle on a very high intellectual and spiritual level."

Although most people in China understood the film's message, Yimou appears to suggest that some deliberately ignored it in a bid to score political points.

"I really want to make it clear that I put my entire heart into this, making sure I used all the colours, the music, the artistry and so on to emphasise the idea of peace," the director concludes.

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