The Elusive Hero: Narrative analysis of values in Asian films

Stephan Rothlin, SJ

 Stephan Rothlin, SJ / Film & TV / Published Date:10 September 2021/Last Updated Date:17 September 2021

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Film forums have proven to be a fertile ground for reflection, helping us to better understand the extraordinary complexity of  the plots of some films. For over thirty years I have been engaging with people from different walks of life, in Asia and Europe, offering them workshops on Confucian ethics in which we have explored the meanings of “hero” in fictional works, such as films. By convention, the typical hero experiences adversity and challenges, adhering to values of respect, loyalty, compassion and wisdom. Chinese expectations about the “hero,” however, do not always follow the prescription of the “happy ending” scenario that is characteristic and recurrent in Hollywood, because heroes can also face illness and death like any other human being.

A more systematic narrative analysis of the different dramatic experiences of heroes can make us recognize in their struggles unique opportunities to reconnect with our  better selves. This kind of insight goes beyond mere entertainment and aims to highlight some key lines in a film’s plot through a focus on the ethical dilemmas that various heroes face.

This article is based on a long-term research project of the Macau Ricci Institute at the University of Saint Joseph, which Jesuit Fr. Mark Bandsuch has summarized in an article illustrating the value of a method based on narrative analysis of cinematic heroic characters to enhance moral education in contemporary China.[1] A decisive moment takes place when viewers begin to recognize their own personal struggles and dramas as they view the film. The method, which has nothing to do with any indoctrination strategy, but is based on individual experiences, which allow an attentive viewer to identify, at least in part, with the characters depicted and the complex dilemmas they face.

La Civilta Cattolica

By repeatedly watching films that are considered masterpieces, one can, for example, come to realize that the themes connected with martial arts go far beyond superficial fights and reveal values that are essential for a life that  aims at happiness. In fact, the screen images manage to convey in a very special way clear insights into fundamental Confucian values such as honesty, integrity, modesty, determination, loyalty and truthfulness, capable of resonating in the depths of those viewers who know how to go beyond the surface of visual media. Special attention should be paid to how the different heroes deal with illness and death.

Director Martin Scorsese has shown a particular sensitivity to the atmosphere created by the image, making a distinction between photography and cinema: “You create an atmosphere through the image. You place yourself in an environment where you can feel otherness. And these are the images, ideas and emotions that you get from cinema. There are certain intangible things that words simply cannot express. So in cinema, when you assemble one image together with another, in the mind you get a completely different third image: a feeling, an impression, an idea. So I think that the environment you create is one thing, and that’s about photography. But it’s in the joining of the images that the film captures us and speaks to us. It’s editing, and it’s the action of filmmaking.”[2]

Zhang Yimou, ‘Hero’ (2002): stop killing

Hero (英雄) is a 2002 Chinese martial arts film directed by Zhang Yimou.[3] The film traces the narrative of the attempted assassination of King Qin in 227 B.C. at the residence of Jing Ke. This film presents death as an almost continuous challenge, which various characters constantly face. During the period of the Warring States (453-221 B.C.), the protagonist, Nameless, a prefect of Qin played by Jet Li, arrives in the capital to meet with King Qin, who has recently survived an attempt on his life by Long Sky, Flying Snow and Broken Sword. Since that event the ruler has taken strict security measures. However, Nameless claims to have killed those three assassins and gives proof of this by showing the king their weapons and telling him how he prevailed over them. He says that he first slaughtered Long Sky, and then also pursued and killed Flying Snow and Broken Sword, who had gone to take refuge in a calligraphy school in Zhao State.

Calligraphy was considered one of the highest expressions of Chinese culture at the time. In fact, Nameless, who had commissioned Broken Sword to make a scroll with the ideogram of the word “sword” (劍), in order to secretly learn his swordsmanship through his writing, witnesses imperial troops attack the calligraphy school. No matter how many deadly arrows pour through the roof of the school, the calligraphy master continues to write, completely unharmed. Here we note a characteristic of martial arts films that goes far beyond lighthearted entertainment: the essential lesson is to pursue virtues that can never be destroyed by any lethal weapon.

Nameless also learns about “red sand,” a concept that in China indicates a complex issue of human relationships such as that between Flying Snow and Broken Sword, lovers who gradually grew apart. Once the scroll is completed, Nameless reveals his identity and challenges Broken Sword to a duel on the following day. But the latter, angry when learning of Flying Snow’s betrayal, makes love to his pupil, Moon. Flying Snow spies on him and, in retaliation, kills first Broken Sword and then Moon, who was trying to avenge her master. The next day, Nameless kills Flying Snow in front of the Qin army and claims the sword.

Nameless admits that he has learned a special technique for killing. However, he states that the king had underestimated Broken Sword and that one can make use of that special technique to inflict a blow that nevertheless does not injure the opponent’s vital organs. In another key moment in Hero, Broken Sword, before sending Nameless to Qin’s capital, writes the words 天下 (“Under One Sky”) in the sand. It is his plea to dissuade him from committing the assassination.

The king is deeply impressed by the tale, by how thoroughly Broken Sword has understood his dream of unifying China. And, even though he now realizes that Nameless is there to kill him, he stops fearing him. In an act of total trust, he throws away his sword and exposes himself to him, completely helpless and vulnerable as he examines Broken Sword’s calligraphy on the scroll. Here the hero comes to the essential insight that the ultimate goal of the art of the sword and martial arts is to set aside the physical and murderous use of the weapon and contribute, with a unified heart, to peace with the entire world. The karmic moment therefore comes when he realizes that it is the renunciation of killing that is the key to peace and the hallmark of a true hero.

The king understands that the ideal warrior described paradoxically should have no desire to kill. When Nameless in turn grasps the wisdom of this  insight, he abandons his mission and spares the king. However,  urged by his court to follow the law, he reluctantly orders that the man who tried to assassinate him be executed in the royal palace. He has realized that if he really wants to unify the nation, he must enforce the law and make an example of Nameless. The latter will receive a hero’s funeral. At the film’s end, a text reveals the identity of the king: he is Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

Wong Kar-wai, ‘The Grandmaster’ (2013): what’s worth most

The Grandmaster (一代宗师) is a martial arts film produced in China and Hong Kong in 2013. It tells the life of Ip Man, Grand Master of Wing Chun martial arts. Director and screenplay are by Wong Kar-wai. The story begins in Foshan, South China, during the Republican period of the 1930s, and continues with Ip’s move, after the Second Sino-Japanese War, to Hong Kong, where the story is taken up and continues until his death.

In the first scene Ip Man, wearing a cassock similar to that of a priest and a wide-brimmed hat, first expounds his thoughts on what fighting in martial arts is all about, and then demonstrates this in an emblematic scene, filmed in the rain, in which he fights in slow motion against a dozen opponents. Ip Man remains completely focused throughout the entire fight, never distracted, and manages to win. His memories take him back to his early experiences, when he received his first training in martial arts from Master Chan Wah-shun and married his wife, Cheung Wing-sing.

However, the peaceful existence of Ip Man is threatened when Gong Yutian, Grand Master of Wudang Quan Martial Arts, arrives from North China. Gong, about to retire, has appointed Ma San as his successor in the North and argues that the South should also have its own Martial Arts Grand Master. Various masters attempt to challenge Gong, but they are all blocked by Ma San. While the Southern masters are choosing a representative, Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er, arrives and tries to convince her father to stop the fight. Meanwhile, the Southern masters decide that Ip Man will represent them. He will be tested by them, before challenging Gong Yutian.

What is interesting is that the physical combat between Ip and Gong turns out to be, in fact, an exchange of philosophical ideas. Gong declares Ip the winner and returns to North China. But Gong Er challenges Ip Man to restore her family’s honor. Since at the heart of martial arts are precision and concentration, and not violence, the two agree that whoever breaks an object in the room during the fight will be defeated. The duel between Ip Man and Gong Er is intense and ends with Gong’s victory, because at the very end Ip breaks a step. The two part ways amicably. Ip says he wants a rematch, but in fact he himself had purposely broken the step to preserve Gong Er’s honor. The two keep in touch by letter.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Ip Man, whose family is  suffering  from hunger, loses his two daughters. Meanwhile, in North China Ma San betrays and kills Gong Yutian, behaving like the “murderer of a father.” When Gong Er returns, she is shocked by the seemingly cowardly behavior of her elders who abandoned her father, but they tell her that her father’s last wish was that she be happy and not seek revenge. Gong Er refuses to accept this, but rather vows that she will not teach, marry or have children in order  to devote her entire life to seeking revenge.

In the meantime, Ip Man moves to Hong Kong, hoping to begin a career as a martial arts teacher. But it is a difficult path fraught with all sorts of challenges, as there are numerous other masters in the city. Despite his growing fame, it is significant  to note that he is not interested in financial success. He meets Gong Er again on the eve of the Chinese New Year in 1950, and asks her to renew the challenge, with the unspoken intention of inducing her to rebuild his martial arts school. However, Gong Er refuses to do so, claiming that there are many martial arts schools that have disappeared.

At this point a flashback shows the clash that took place 10 years earlier between Gong Er and Ma San in a train station. It was the eve of the Chinese New Year in 1940, when Gong defeated Ma after a brutal and intense fight. Gong herself was seriously injured in the clash and abandoned her desire to practice martial arts.

The film then jumps forward to 1952, when Ip Man and Gong Er meet for the last time. Gong confesses to Ip that she loved him from the beginning. Shortly thereafter, she dies. Ip’s voiceover explains that the wounds Gong suffered in the duel with Ma San had been so severe that she had turned to opium to ease the pain. And that had been her downfall.

The montage of final scenes shows the development of Ip Man’s school and informs that Ip made Wing Chun popular all over the world, and that Bruce Lee was his most famous student. Off-screen, we are also reminded that Ip Man died in 1972.

The film takes the attentive viewer beyond that stereotype of martial arts that tends to reduce the plot to an increasingly boring string of fights. It is by no means a casual sequence of winners and losers, but gives dramatic shape to a philosophical debate that goes far beyond that, exploring the contrasts and widespread mutual prejudices between Northerners and Southerners. Gong Yutian asserts that any place, even a brothel, can become the place where virtue can be exercised, up to that critical level that allows one to become a master.

This is exemplified in the story of his daughter, Gong Er.  Her natural impulse for revenge in the name of her father did not end in the brutal fight in which she defeated Ma San, her father’s murderer, and was seriously injured. Beyond the harsh judgment that she became a slave to opium may attract, it was not this that kept her alive, but the bond of love with Ip Man that she felt from the beginning. Thus, supreme mastery is revealed as the ability to trust.  In the case of the Northern Master, Gong Yutian, this meant placing his trust in Ma San, who would later turn out to be his murderer; in the case of the Southern Master, Ip Man, it was a matter of trusting his students – including Bruce Lee – to whom he transmitted through martial arts a very demanding doctrine, capable of often bringing them to the breaking point in order to allow them to embrace in a deeper way the Confucian virtues of honesty, truthfulness and loyalty.

Martin Scorsese, ‘Silence’ (2016): how silence speaks

Silence is a 2016 historical drama directed by Martin Scorsese and based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name. Set in Nagasaki, Japan, the film was shot in Taiwan.

In the 17th century, two young Jesuits travel from Portugal to Edo-era Japan. They pass through Macao, where, in the Collegio San Paolo, they meet the superior, Alessandro Valignano, who commissions them to spread the Gospel in Japan. The story recalls the fact that at that time the Shimabara revolt (1637-38) against the Tokugawa shogunate had led to the suppression of Christianity in Japan, so that Japanese believers were forced to practice their religion in secret. They were called kakure kirishitan, or “hidden Christians.”

Silence is Scorsese’s third film focused on the challenges of faith, following The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997). The opening scene features Portuguese Jesuit Cristóvão Ferreira, who witnesses the torture of Japanese converts he had worked to bring to the Christian faith. In the presence of the Japanese authorities conducting the torture, the priest feels utterly powerless. A few years later, Alessandro Valignano, the Italian Jesuit sent as Visitor to the missions and who founded the Collegio San Paolo in Macao, receives news that Ferreira has abjured the faith in Japan after being tortured. Valignano thinks that “Ferreira is lost to us Jesuits,” but consents to the wishes of Ferreira’s two Portuguese students, the young Jesuits Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, who want to track him down in Japan. Kichijiro, an alcoholic fisherman who fled from Japan to Macao to save himself, agrees to guide them on the dangerous journey. As it happens, Kichijiro’s entire family is slaughtered, and he himself apparently denies the Christian faith many times.

Upon arriving in Japan, the priests encounter local Christian communities that are forced to live clandestinely, always in fear, while suffering deep divisions and violent internal struggles. The priests witness the scene in which officials, who have come in search of people suspected of being Christians, crucify some of the villagers on wooden crosses placed on the shore of the Ocean, where they will eventually drown, submerged by the rising tide. The bodies are then cremated on a funeral pyre, erected specifically to prevent a Christian burial.

Garupe leaves for the island of Hirado, the place where St. Francis Xavier, around 1550, first landed in Japan. Rodrigues, on the other hand, goes to the island of Goto, the last place where Ferreira worked as a missionary. There he is reunited with Kichijiro, who nevertheless betrays him into the hands of the samurai. An older samurai tells Rodrigues that if he does not renounce his faith, other Christians will pay the price. The Jesuit is then taken to Nagasaki and imprisoned along with many Japanese converts. He is told in court that Christian doctrine is hostile to Japan. Rodrigues asks to meet the Inquisitor, Governor Inoue Masashige. But he is taken back to prison, and Kichijiro is also imprisoned. The latter explains to Rodrigues that he was forced to betray him under threats from court officials. Despite his previous apostasies, Kichijiro insists that he is still a Christian and asks to confess and be absolved for his betrayal. Rodrigues reluctantly agrees.

Then the fisherman is released, after having agreed to step on a fumi-e (a Christian image), that is, to perform an act that symbolizes the repudiation of the faith. Later, the Jesuit is led, under escort, to the beach to wait for someone. In the distance he sees Garupe and four other prisoners, also under escort, approaching. To force Garupe to renounce his faith, the four are taken out to sea in a small boat and left to drown one by one. Garupe, however, resolutely refuses to commit apostasy and dives into the sea. Rodrigues witnesses his companion’s desperate attempt to swim out to sea to save the last prisoner, and sees him drown along with the other four.

After some time, Rodrigues is finally led to meet the aging Ferreira. Ferreira tells him that he has abjured the faith under torture, and says that after 15 years in that country and one year in a temple, he is convinced that Christianity has no role in Japan. Rodrigues argues with him, but Ferreira is implacable. That night, from his cell Rodrigues hears five Christians being tortured. Ferreira tells him that they had already abjured, but it is his apostasy that the Japanese demand to stop those tortures. Rodrigues is tormented by the doubt as to whether refusing to abjure is a selfish act, when doing so would put an end to the suffering of others. Placed before a fumi-e, he hears the voice of Jesus giving him permission to step on it. And he does so.

Like Ferreira before him, Rodrigues receives permission to live in the country and to adopt a Japanese name. He takes a wife. Their knowledge of Christianity is sometimes exploited to prevent Dejima’s Dutch merchants from importing Christian items into Japan. Then, after Ferreira’s death, Kichijiro asks Rodrigues to absolve him again, but he refuses, saying he is no longer a priest. Rodrigues hears the voice of God saying that He has never been silent, but has suffered along with those who have been tortured and killed. Only if he lets go of what he holds onto can Rodrigues humble himself before Kichijiro, whereas he had previously looked down on him. In sacrificing his “dignity” and faith, a parallel is established with the sacrifice of Jesus, who gave his life; Rodrigues now realizes this, but had not known it until God himself had spoken to him. Kichijiro later is stopped carrying a bag containing a religious object. He denies that it is his, but he is taken away and is never heard from again.

Many years later, Rodrigues dies. His body is placed in a large round basket and cremated according to traditional Japanese rites. Just before the fire burns down, his wife puts an offering in his hand to ward off evil spirits: it is actually the tiny, crudely carved crucifix he had been given when he first came to Japan. From this we deduce that Rodrigues had remained, covertly, a Christian.

An analysis of the film does not make it easy to identify who the real hero is. At first glance, the miserable figure of Kichijiro could be dismissed as that of an “anti-hero,” a traitor, since he continued to deny and abjure his faith whenever he found himself in the position of having to do so. Yet, despite the devastating loss of his entire family that he had suffered, he always seems to be on his way back, right up to the end of the film.

A key scene in the film has us hear a voiceover during the torture scenes in which missionaries and lay people are forced to step on religious images: “Come ahead now. It’s all right. Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain.” We might understand this voice as the deceptive self-justification that a coward gives himself in the face of torture; yet we might also understand it as the voice of Jesus the Redeemer who, at the moment of extreme trial, reassures his followers that he himself has done the work of redemption, that he has already paid with his blood the ransom of all people who are victims of violence and sin. One can dismiss Kichijiro’s sequence of confessions as an irretrievable chain of errors. From another point of view, even the journey of the Jesuits who, led by the “traitor” Kichijiro, end up being forced to renounce their faith and religious vows could easily be seen as a failed mission. There is an ambiguity in Silence, which nevertheless recalls that of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Japanese film Rashomon (1950), where the account of a rape is given in completely different versions, each of which depends on one of the four actors in the drama.

Writer Shūsaku Endō, based on the experience of his own personal struggles and apparent failures as a Catholic, most clearly identified with Kichijiro. Even Martin Scorsese suggests that the most fascinating and intriguing of all the characters is indeed Kichijiro.[4] At times, while making the film, Scorsese thought, “Maybe he’s ‘a bit’ Jesus.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). You run into the person on the street who rejects you: this is Jesus. Of course, Kichijiro constantly fails and constantly causes harm to himself and many others, including his family. But then, in the end, who is next to Rodrigues? Kichijiro. It turns out that he was Rodrigues’ great teacher, his mentor, his guru, so to speak. That’s why Rodrigues thanks him in the end.

In many ways Silence perhaps also reflects Scorsese’s own doubts about his role as film maker and problematic fidelity to Christian values in a context that appears extremely violent and prone to corruption. Narrative analysis can thus radically challenge the superficial identification of Kichijiro as a traitor.  Rather than a pure and simple traitor, one might consider him another Judas Iscariot, whose betrayal, having caused Jesus to be crucified, played a necessary role in the history of redemption. A theological insight might help overcome short-sighted conclusions that despair of finding a true hero in a story where the “traitor” is also the driving force behind the drama. The crucified and resurrected Lord, at first visually present in a painting delicately reminiscent of El Greco, disappears as the narrative unfolds, in the churning waters along the way, only to be reincarnated again in the crucified Christians. In the final scene, centered on Rodrigues’ corpse, there is at least a discreet hint that the crucifix, which his wife places in his hand, may be a sign of his intact communion with the risen Lord.

Scorsese said he preferred the face of Christ painted by El Greco because he thought it was more compassionate than the one painted by Piero della Francesca. In his youth, as he grew up, the face of Christ was always a comfort and a joy to him. We slowly begin to understand the conclusion of a master who has been a leading film maker for over fifty years, when he suggests, “But the idea of the Resurrection, the idea of the Incarnation, the powerful message of compassion and love . . .that’s the key. The sacraments, if you can approach them and experience them, they help you stay close to God.”

Feng Xiaogang, ‘Youth’ (2017): discovering enthusiasm and self-sacrifice

Youth (芳华) is a 2017 Chinese drama, script by Geling Yan and directed by Feng Xiaogang, who can be considered one of the most important living Chinese directors.

The film focuses on the excitement caused by the experiences of a group of teenagers in a military art troupe of the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution. The actors perceive the supposed “red dream” of their Chairman and great leader, Mao Zedong, as a profound source of inspiration and elation. It is moving to experience within the troupe the sincere feelings of sacrifice and commitment to a common ideal, but also the betrayal and suffering which were commonplace in an era when the cult of Chairman Mao’s personality as China’s hero was at its height.

Through Xiao Suizi’s narration, the film presents the story of two key characters: Xiaoping He, a naive and innocent recruit, and Feng Liu, a morally impeccable character, so much so that he is praised by his comrades as a true Lei Feng, that exemplary good soldier the Communist Party proposed as a model for all. The two also take part in the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 and prove to be heroes for their acts of bravery. In a dramatic battle scene, Feng Liu falls into an ambush with his troops, and tries to drag a comrade out of the mud. The attempt is successful: Feng Liu manages to save his comrade’s life, but his right arm is severely injured and has to be amputated.

A typical aspect of the dominant culture highlighted by the film concerns the experience of being bullied and abused. The girl Xiaoping He is an emblematic example of this, when she becomes the target of her roommates because of her peasant origins. They mock her and insult her for the bad smell she gives off because she is not used to showering regularly. These acts of persecution are often provoked by Hao Shuwen, the daughter of the regional commander. Like other groundbreaking cinematic efforts by Feng Xiaogang – for example, I Am Not Madame Bovary (我 不是 潘金莲) – the film pits false ideals of coexistence against genuine altruism and love, embodied by the followers of Buddhism.

After the war, in reform-era China, Feng Liu and Xiaoping He are honorably discharged from the army but find themselves struggling to survive on the brink of poverty in an environment that no longer recognizes their heroic efforts. The film often juxtaposes fake attitudes and buildings – for example, a fake White House – with authentic characters, such as a warm-hearted Buddhist monk in the midst of a society that seems to aspire only to material wealth and social climbing. However, despite receiving no recognition, the exemplary figures of Feng Liu and Xiaoping He continue to show their ideal concern for others. Scenes of the two characters’ harsh confrontations with the authorities who show no appreciation for them, also appear in the film.

The lengthy span of fifty years that the film sets out to cover begins with the earthly “god”, Mao Zedong, who unleashes the Revolution of a “new” culture, which was supposed to bring about a radical break with the “old” ideas, such as religions and the decadent Confucian philosophy, which is rejected as bourgeois. Young people like the members of the military art troupe see themselves as the spearhead of such a supposed “Revolution.” Watching the story evolve over more than half a century allows viewers to experience an entire country’s leap to an “open door policy” under Deng Xiaoping, to the battle cry “To get rich is glorious.” Millions had been inspired by the “words of wisdom” contained in Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, only to see it replaced by another national hero, Deng, who would radically challenge the logic of the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, Deng emerges as the paramount leader from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution and the chaos wrought by the Gang of Four.

Although one is moved to see that, in spite of all these changes, Feng Liu and Xiaoping He remain consistent in their generous giving to others, the development of the historical framework leaves no doubt as to how much the materialistic thirst for wealth and prestige seems to trample on their original values of caring for the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Not only does the behavior of the officials toward a genuine hero who lost his arm in a brave attempt to save a fellow soldier about to be killed in an ambush appear ruthless, but we are shown an even more ruthless and boundless thirst for material gain, for acquiring cars and houses, and the ambition to be promoted at the expense of others. The film’s surprise lies in the fact that, while the great heroes and lords of history like Deng and Mao seem to fade away completely, the testimony of ordinary citizens like Xiaoping He and Feng Liu shows that the Confucian values of honesty, integrity, loyalty and truthfulness, which the Cultural Revolution had attempted to eradicate, have survived in the consciences and actions of genuine, if unspectacular, heroes.

DOI:  La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.9 art. 11, 0921: 10.32009/22072446.0921.11

[1].    M. R. Bandsuch, “Narrative Analysis of Heroic Characters in Film as a Promising Method for Moral Education in Contemporary China”, in The Journal of Macau Ricci Institute, May 5, 2020.

[2].    A. Spadaro, ““Silence”. Interview with Martin Scorsese,” in Civ. Catt. En., June, 2017

[3].    J. X. Zhang, “Hero,” in Film Quarterly Summer 2005, vol. 58, no. 4.

[4].    Cf. A. Spadaro, “‘Silence’: Interview with Martin Scorsese”, cit.