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A Commercial for Authoritarianism
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I saw Hero yesterday. No, not the lame 1992 Hero with Dustin Hoffman and Geena Davis.

This was the new Jet Li movie set in ancient China, with Crouching Tiger-like action sequences. It's gotten universally good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and I figured it would be a good way to while away a Sunday afternoon.

What I did not expect was Chinese nationalistic propaganda. I guess I should have read some of the reviews more carefully. Here's one from the New York Tiems:

Set during the third century B.C., the story of an assassination plot against a powerful king unfolds with such dazzling bursts of color and blurs of furious action it might be easy to miss the nationalistic message tucked amid the visual enchantments. Roll over, Chairman Mao, and tell the comrades the news: the history of the empire now comes wrapped in kaleidoscopic kung fu cool.

"Easy to miss"? Maybe if you're fresh from a morning lobotomy. The message is not subtle...nowhere near it. Later in the same review we learn:

Many of Mr. Zhang's earlier features were initially banned in China and more recently he has directed state-sponsored films promoting China's successful efforts to serve as host for the next summer Olympics and World Expo.

Oh...great. Zhang makes propaganda for a living. Nice. It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that this film had been sponsored by the Chinese government.

Without actually spoiling the plot, the basic gist of the movie is that even if dictators are cruel and vicious, slaughtering villages right and left and usurping as much as he can usurp...all that oppression and conquering is really what's best for the people, since it will ultimately unify them under one banner, as one people.

There's one moment in the film where I nearly laughed out loud, unintentionally. The king sheds a tear upon learning that an assassin decided not to kill him because he understood the king's goal of taking over all of China. "Finally, somebody understands me," the king weeps. Oh, there, there, poor tyrant. It's tough being a slaughtering despot.

But enough of the not-so-subtle were the fight scenes?

I'll probably be in the minority in saying they weren't all that great. The film is told in a Rashoman-like style, in that events are told and retold from different perspectives several times. So we don't get to the "real" story until about two-thirds of the way through.

This has the narrative effect of nullifying any emotional impact to fight scenes, since most of the ones in the film didn't really happen. You mean that first guy Jet Li fought died? No, he just made that up. No wait...he didn't. No wait...he really did fight him and stab him, but he didn't die. No wait...

By the end you don't really give a shit. And since there's no dramatic underpinning to most of the fights, the only way to appreciate them is purely at the aesthetic level. And sure, most of them are well-choreographed and well-filmed.

But when they're not in service of a story, but rather a thinly-veiled piece of Chinese State propaganda, it's a little tough to kick back and groove on the over-stylized chop-sockey.

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