We saw Hero last week. It is a profoundly disturbing film. I am not certain that a more visually beautiful apologia for tyranny has been filmed since the advent of color.
As a martial arts fantasy, Hero has been compared to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But where CT, HD was about individuals, Hero is consciously an epic about nations, where the individuals scarcely matter.
Hero is set in China, about 2000 years ago, split into kingdoms, locked in a seven-way tug-of-war for domination. A nameless warrior has been summoned to the palace of the King of Qui, to receive his reward for killing three assassins who had been aiming for the king. (The king himself is seeking not merely dominance, but unification of China.)
But the King ain't the King for nothin', and he suspects that there's more to the warrior's story than he's telling. Perhaps, the warrior is an assassin himself, fabricating his story to gain access to the king, to murder him. The King doesn't get it quite right, be he gets it right enough to pull out the rest of the story from his Nameless guest.
In the end, the heroes of the story, the assassins, end up choosing to die in order to allow the king to carry out his plan of unification. All of them. The assassins who pretended to allow themselves to be killed actually end up dead, and Nameless spares the King's life, and suffers the King's justice.
A couple of words of hedging. It's not clear that any of the other kings are any better, they just don't have the vision of unifying the entire country. Without that vision, war will continue. One the assassins understands this, and persuades Nameless to go along.
The assassins themselves realize their limitations. For all their military skill, they can lead neither armies nor nations. They are tested against each other and against the king, as individuals. They can threaten the king, but they cannot replace him.
Nevertheless, historically, the king in question was one of the more bloodthirsty Emperors. Notably, he's not willing to surrender his throne for peace, or to try to persuade the other kings to follow his vision through constructive diplomacy. Whether or not the Chinese actually did possess some sense of over-arching national identity before the Quis' hegemony, the film assumes they did. The king doesn't appeal to that identity to anyone other than the assassin in question.
In today's political climate in China, the message is quite clear - don't rock the boat, or you'll take down the whole country for your narrow political goals. Instead, follow the government, follow the Party, in the interests of unity. The message could be aimed at Taiwan, at Hong Kong, or at the growing Internet dissent.
It assumes that China's unity is so fragile, that any internal power struggles will inevitably result in collapse. The option of creating pluralistic institutions capable of distributing and channelling that power is never discussed.
It is the timeless cry of the oppressor - apres moi, le deluge - and no amount of cinematic beauty can mask its inherent ugliness.