I’m really not an experienced martial artist and all that was a lot of hard work, and I really found I had to manage every day how to get by each day.
—Maggie Cheung, “Hero Defined”
It’s a chance of a lifetime.
—Jet Li, “Hero Defined”
“A few years later, if someone mentions Hero, you are going to remember the colors. You are going to remember in a sea of golden leaves, two ladies dressed in red dancing are in the air. You are going to remember, on a lake as still as a mirror, two men are using their swords to convey their sorrow, like birds flying on the water, like dragonflies.” Here Zhan Yimou describes his film for the making-of documentary, “Hero Defined,” included on Miramax’s new DVD. He’s right. While Hero surely features any number of memorable elements—gorgeous performances, complex morality, stunning fight scenes—its use and understanding of colors are exceptional.
This strategy informs every frame, as the film reimagines history in a way that underlines its tragedy. It begins with sorrowful narration, beginning, “I was orphaned at a young age. I had no name, so people called me Nameless. Being a nobody, I studied swordsmanship.” As Nameless (Jet Li) tells his story, he is now a local sheriff and renowned warrior, solemn and solitary, without apparent master or mission. Set during the Period of Warring States, the film has Nameless summoned by the king of Qin, Shihuang (Daoming Ghen)—who reigned 221-207 BC, and here listens carefully to the young man’s testimony. Well he should, for the story changes shape from chapter to chapter, as Nameless recalls his complicated life’s journey, the events that have brought him to this time and place and, more importantly, the lies he’s heard and told in order to arrive at truth.
Nameless’ narration provides the fundamental framework of Zhang Yimou’s elegant wuxia, though it’s hardly a fixed structure. Set during 220 B.C., that is, just before China’s first emperor, the tale concerns shifting loyalties and brutal battles, the formation of an empire out of six warring kingdoms. This is the king’s stated goal, and the results are dreadful loss and carnage, educing repeated attempts on his life. At the film’s start, he seeks news of three would-be assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk). Appearing before the king in a gargantuan hall, with weapons once belong to each fighter, Nameless is called on to chronicle their fates, one by one. With the conclusion of each section, he is allowed to come nearer to the king—and it is unclear whether he means to carry out the assassination or offer his services to the warlord. The king judiciously suspects the worst.
As Nameless, Jet Li brings his singular mix of melancholy, ferocity, and resilience. As the film goes on to consider the qualities of and demands on a hero, Nameless appears to bear an impossible burden, at once ethereal and visceral, as he realizes that his decision—essentially, to kill or be killed—will change the course of history. As he works toward making that decision, the events he recounts prove as elusive as his motivations. Arranged as a series of flashbacks that gradually fold into one another, comprising multiple versions of what may have happened, the film explores the subjective nature of truth, the ways that stories become histories, that personal experiences bleed into imperial sagas.
Shot by the brilliantly inventive cinematographer Christopher Doyle, each segment takes on a hue to designate mood and character. For his first flashback sequence, Nameless recounts his battle with Sky—set in a rainy courtyard, the House of Chess sequence features delirious wirework, choreographed by the great Ching Siu-tung (who has choreographed fights for everyone from John Woo to Johnny To, and has directed over 20 features himself, including A Chinese Ghost Story ), with gleaming sword edges, water drops, and rivulets shown in spectacular detail. In “Hero Defined,” Zhang Yimou calls it a “traditional Hong Kong style fight scene: two martial arts experts performing their real stuff for the audience. But I made a small change to their fighting. The fight between them was a battle in their heads, on a subconscious level. By treating their fight in a different way, I was hoping to bring something new to the genre.”
If previous fight scenes might also be understood as metaphorical and in the combatants’ heads, Hero does offer specific innovations, having to do with color and structure. Each image is dramatic, whether strewn with autumn leaves, filtered through snow, or bright with desert sunlight, “natural” elements turned hyper. The fight scenes are especially distinctive, at once sensual and precise, emotionally moving and works of austere art. Zhang Yimou observes in the DVD’s documentary that “The color, the mise en scene, and the dramatic tension are extraordinary.” And this is because they are so deeply entwined with one another.
Even the melodrama—centered in the romantic triangle of Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Moon (Zhang Ziyi), Broken Sword’s lovestruck disciple—is most profoundly expressed in martial arts contests, as Moon and Flying Snow face off in bright red garments, set against swirling yellow leaves, or Flying Snow and Nameless clash on the surface of a lake, their swords tipping into the blue water in order to launch themselves into full-on contact.
Retelling China’s founding myth as a martial arts epic, Zhang’s film has its own convoluted and controversial history. Released in Asia in 2002, it set box office records in mainland China (taking in some $27 million, and has been available in the U.S. on imported and bootlegged DVDs for months), while also drawing criticism for its mainstream appeals and the absence of horrific massacres ordered by Qin Shihuang (including that of his own family, as recalled in Chen Kaige’s pointedly anti-imperial 1998 film, The Emperor and the Assassin). Neither does the film reconsider his achievements, including his completion of the Great Wall to protect his new Empire (in particular from the Huns).
The film rejects the usual weighing of good against bad “history,” or even measuring the individual or collective “accomplishments.” The movie is less about history per se than it is about its construction, its justifications, delusions, and deceptions. Just so, Hero uses its fight scenes—rushes of motion, urgency, and dazzling color—not to celebrate conquest or to proclaim victors, but to paint specific, abstracted, and also deeply emotional relationships, and to underscore the costs of violence.
Long revered as an “outlaw” director of films such as Ju Dou , Raise the Red Lantern , and The Story of Qiu Ju , all starring Gong Li and earnestly critiquing Chinese historical oppressions, Zhang has recently been portrayed as a “sell-out” for Hero‘s “sympathetic” view of China’s first emperor. But the film is more complicated than this description suggests. Briefly retitled Jet Li’s Hero for its U.S. opening (suggesting the promotional importance of name of the man playing Nameless), it is less concerned with history per se, or even the sort of action typically associated with the star than with the director’s usual themes, reshaped to accommodate grand and gorgeous action sequences.
Hero displays and deconstructs the very process of making history, insisting on the ways that deception, self-interest, and self-delusion influence not only individuals but also national identities. Finding poetry in both mendacity and veracity, Zhang’s brilliantly stark and colorful meditation investigates not the means or end, but the limits of honor, that much-celebrated concept at the heart of wuxia, imperialism, and nationalism. By film’s end, honor appears an excuse for cruelty and injury. Here, sacrifice, however noble or seemingly “heroic,” is also awful, and war wreaks devastation. And so, despite its many delays arriving in U.S. theaters, Hero is also, at last, timely.