For those who inexplicably have avoided martial arts films–even those who passed on the fine Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—director Zhang Yimou (Happy Times, The Road Home) should overcome any remaining resistance with Hero, his Academy Award nominated film set 2,000 years ago when the king of Qin fought fierce battles to unite seven independent kingdoms into a united and peaceful China. (This the same king and period of history covered by an earlier, very different, but also first-rate film, Kaige Chen’s The Emperor and the Assassin.)
For Zhang, this is not only a first foray into martial arts, but an unusual step into distant history. Although to westerners some of his films may have seemed as if they took place in earlier centuries, Zhang’s earlier films have been set in the 20th century, including such works as Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum. But while Hero ventures into a new period for Zhang, it is a return to the rich and visually stunning style of those earlier films, carried to a notably new level of accomplishment.
Hero, with cinematography by Christopher Doyle (Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American) accompanied by a haunting musical score by Tan Dun, China’s leading contemporary classical composer, is an experience of transcendently accomplished esthetics. Every frame seems an ideally balanced composition of form and color, every sequence a perfect juxtaposition of movement and sound, all in the service of a complex and fascinating story of love, loyalty, jealousy, sacrifice and betrayal. Built into the story is also serious consideration of the art aspect of martial art–its relationship to music and calligraphy.
Despite offers of generous rewards offered by the king (Chen Daoming), three renowned assassins, Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen) have not been defeated. Now a local sheriff, Nameless (Jet Li), comes to the palace carrying the weapons of the slain assassins and is granted an audience with the king to tell his story. He does–and his story is followed by two other versions of the same events–different perspectives, each represented onscreen in a predominantly different color (red, white, blue). There’s a well realized secondary role in Moon (Zhang Ziyi), a servant girl and sometime lover to Broken Sword, herself well versed in swordplay.
The martial arts duels offer the sort of gravity-defying leaps, twists, and turns seen in earlier films, but Zhang has staged them with the grace of dance–it’s like watching a finely choreographed ballet. One sequence makes brilliant use of a dripping water motif, while another has the swordsmen skimming over the surface of a mountain lake. With judicious restraint in the length of the fight sequences and a minimum of gimmickry, Zhang successfully subverts the adrenaline charge of combat to the thematic explorations of art, human emotions and history.
Similarly, Zhang’s sweeping scenes of armies swarming, especially those on horseback with banners flying (an homage to Kurosawa’s Ran) portray the potential for warfare, rather than combat itself. When an army unleashes a torrent of arrows, it is highly stylized; Zhang doesn’t pander by direct depiction of mayhem and gore. Those and the scenes in the king’s court add grandeur and awe consistent both with the elegant production and the thoughtful themes underlying it. Hero is a breathtaking accomplishment.