Sunday, September 19, 2004


We saw "The Hero" yesterday. It wildly embellishes a true story, one that gets brief mention in the histories of the period (late third century b.c.). It was a beautiful movie, especially in its use of color, a grand story told with only a few characters. In particular I was fascinated to hear them speaking in a mixture of classical Chinese (my academic field) and Mandarin, but more weighted toward the classical. Even so, I don't think my ability to understand the dialogue really added that much. The story was on the screen, a visual feast.

Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Donnie Yan are all a bit north of 40, but managed the swordplay and wire work pretty well. I imagine the Bak Fa Yow liniment was flowing freely....

The only wrong note for me was their translation in the subtitles of 天下 tianxia as "our land." Literally "(all) under Heaven," I think a better general translation would have been "this world." But in the film's anachronistic echo of 20th century Chinese nationalism, a modern reading may be more telling, as in 打天下 da tianxia - a euphemism for "to exercise state power."

Anyway, making a nostalgic hero out of the barbarian king who destroyed the Chinese states of the Central Plain must ring false to some students of the period.

The actual assassin was Jing Ke 荊軻, sent by Prince Dan of the state of Yan in 227 b.c. to assassinate the King of Qin. Jing Ke talked himself into striking distance of the King, then pulled a knife from inside a rolled-up map. A guard pinned Jing Ke's sleeve to a pillar with his sword, allowing the King a chance to escape before Jing Ke's blow could land. Jing Ke managed to slice off his sleeve to free his arm, but before he could renew his attack, the King's guards killed him where he stood.

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