Throughout his 15-plus year international career, China’s Zhang Yimou has explored the tension at the intersection between individual biographies and national history. The most accomplished of the so-called “Fifth Generation” filmmakers — the first graduating class from Beijing Institute of Film after the 1970s Cultural Revolution — Zhang’s films have often been thinly veiled critiques against China’s social inequities, such as examining the role of class and patriarchy in the pre-Communist era (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) or dramatizing the tumult of the Cultural Revolution (To Live, 1994). In all of his films, however, Zhang foregrounds humanity rather than history, though the latter is often the inexorable force weighing upon the former.
Zhang’s latest, the wuxia (kung fu) epic Hero, represents a departure. For one thing, it is Zhang’s most unabashedly commercial work after a dozen art house films. Though one of the most expensive films in Chinese history, it is also that country’s most successful movie ever (at least until Zhang’s newest wuxia spectacle, House of Flying Daggers, debuts this year).
It is also his first foray into genre film, no doubt inspired by the outstanding success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). While the two movies share key cast and crew members, Hero is Zhang’s first film where the “human” element is the least significant, buried beneath stylized production, an array of fight scenes, and the weight of not just ancient history, but contemporary world events too.
Hero is set at the dawn of China’s “modern” history, the second century B.C., during the reign of Qin Shi Huang (Daoming Chen), the first dynastic emperor of China. Qin united warring factions by crushing his rivals. Not surprisingly, he was much hated and, as lore had it, fended off countless assassins from these subjugated states. A mysterious constable, Wu Ming (Jet Li) — his name literally translating as “no name” — arrives at the royal palace, bearing the surrendered weapons of three assassins: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). Seated before Qin in his throne room, Wu begins to recount how he acquired the trio of arms; the bulk of the movie is comprised of these flashbacks. Sky’s segment only appears once, but Wu’s interactions with Snow and Sword are recounted three times. Zhang admits unabashedly looting this structure from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950); while such repetition lends itself to the film’s artistic plans (see below), Hero is an awkward effort from a director who usually excels in creating seamless narratives.
The acting provides some counterbalance. Jet Li hasn’t appeared so intimidating since his pre-Hollywood days; Wu’s intense, stoic focus radiates its own kind of charisma. Cheung and Leung are ridiculously attractive together, but their star-crossed lovers’ tensions here are reminiscent of their roles in Wong Kar Wai’s much-lauded In the Mood For Love (2002). Lastly, Zhang Ziyi (as Sword’s apprentice, Moon), so impressive in Crouching Tiger, and veteran action star Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey) are shuttered off into smaller bit roles. At least their fighting sequences are entertaining, especially Li and Yen’s early duel, set within a rain-splattered chess hall where the drops of waters create an alternate rhythm to their sparring.
Zhang buries some of these imperfections under a gloss of admittedly stunning visual beauty. Australian Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has worked as Wong Kar Wai’s longtime lensman and also on Crouching Tiger, captures the expansive majesty of Zhao’s painted deserts as well as the minute details of a painting brush. Zhang also splashes buckets of color onto Hero, saturating each frame until they make Bertolucci’s Chinese epic, The Last Emperor (1987), seem washed-out in comparison. Zhang and Doyle polarize the hues dramatically, developing coordinated and complementary schemes as part of the narrative.
The first version of Wu’s meeting with Broken Sword and Snow is cast in shades of blood red; Snow’s ruby lipstick matches her dress, which matches Moon’s sword handles, which match a shower of falling, autumn leaves. In another outstanding scene, Sword and Snow storm the palace, where they duel the king amidst billowing green curtains, referring to the assassins’ lime-tinted robes. At these times, Hero attains visual moments that can be transcendent, poetic, and more visually striking than any wuxia film since Wong Kar Wai’s esoteric Ashes of Time (1994).
Despite these artistic strengths, Hero offers disturbing meditation on China’s history and our contemporary moment as well. The film’s moral is that, sometimes, to achieve peace, you must wage war, an idea that seems lifted from the Bush administration’s book of catchphrases. While it may be historically logical to claim that China’s current existence would not have been possible without Qin’s imperial rule two millennia ago, Hero validates a nationalistic impulse that Zhang himself has critiqued in his previous films.
Hero‘s portrayal of Qin is more sympathetic than what history tells us (he was so despotic that a peasant uprising ended his dynasty barely a year after his death). It’s not clear what purpose such revisionism serves, except to exalt (or maybe mystify) the origins of a Chinese manifest destiny. At a time when unilateral nationalist fervor is the source of considerable unrest in the world, Hero (however intentionally) appears to justify war under the banner of peace. Had it been released five years ago, the movie’s point might have seemed anachronistic, but today, it’s hard to ignore its resonance with world events. That doesn’t make it a dangerous film, or even a bad film (despite its narrative confusions). However, for a filmmaker known for imbuing his work with personal and social insight, Zhang’s latest effort sadly manages to miss both marks.