Paring Chinese writer-director Zhang Yimou with the rough and tumble martial arts genre would appear to be a mismatch: his quiet, slow-paced films are as delicate as porcelain vases. But his stupendous “Hero,” which was just released in the United States, proves that attractive opposites should get together more often. Yimou brings to the table all of his strengths, emphasizing the beauty of martial arts while also getting that uniquely Chinese feeling of sweet regret just right by blending the opposing forces of action, inaction and inevitability. “Hero” is a ballet of contrasting elements in which balance, not battle, is the focus.
Full of extraordinary deeds and sacrifices, “Hero” is mythic in scope. The film tells the story of four assassins and their attempt to kill China’s first emperor over 2,000 years ago. In the process of conquering all the independent provinces, soon-to-be-emperor King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) has made many enemies and fears for his life. Hearing that three wanted assassins have been killed by one man, he sends for his savior to reward him. Calling himself Nameless (Jet Li), the warrior arrives at the palace and the king listens as he tells the story of the killings.
In a modern twist, the story is told three different times, revealing more with each retelling. The opening scenario is simple. Nameless challenges the first assassin, Long Sky (Donnie Yin), to a duel and wins. Disguising himself as a traveler he finds the other two, Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung), who are lovers. Nameless sows discord between them, causing Snow to kill Sword in a jealous rage. Separated from her lover, Snow is easily defeated in combat. But in the Buddhist ethos behind Chinese cinema, nothing is as it seems. Over the course of the film, the veils of deceit are gradually ripped away to reveal the complex truth behind Nameless’s appearance in front of the throne.
Although based on real events, the heroes of the film are just as magically endowed as their “Crouching Tiger” cousins, skimming across water and wrecking havoc on entire armies with effortless super-human speed. Although “Crouching Tiger” is on the tip of the movie’s tongue, “Hero” transcends it through sheer mind-blowing beauty and by focusing on more interesting issues such as nationalistic duty and the need for balance in all things. Yimou, who demonstrated his mastery of color in “Raise the Red Lantern,” unleashes all his skill here. From the screaming red of the paintbrush plumes capping the archers of Qin to the swirling blue of Snow’s robes, each piece of clothing is a masterpiece. And if the costumes are fine canvases, the sets are Heaven-come-to-Earth.
Cinematographer Chris Doyle begins the film with shots that are well beyond any composition seen in film history and then proceeds to top himself again and again. In one astounding moment, trees rain leaves down on the wind-buffeted figure of Maggie Cheung, whose robes curl around her like smoke while her hair billows out to the side like flapping ravens. Then, in the piece de resistance, the leaves change color around her from orange to red. You’ll be shocked by the sounds coming out of your mouth as each mind-blowing setting is revealed.
Permeating “Hero” are the yin and the yang, the opposites that complete each other and the world. Yimou sets one scene in the desert and then the next scene on a lake, sharp swords drip soft water and women do battle with men. The romantic women, Broken Sword’s apprentice Moon (Zhang Ziyi, “Crouching Tiger”) and Flying Snow, are yin. They represent feeling, while the men represent yang, thought and understanding. Composer Tan Dun (“Crouching Tiger”) even has Itzhak Perlman play yin on his romantic-sounding violin, while yang is played on a silk-stringed violin with more measured tones. Here the tyrant is just as much a hero as his would-be assassins. Not presented as contradictions, yin and yang are embraced equally: loss is necessary to gain true peace in the formation of ancient China, action and inaction are brothers and only passion unchecked is the enemy.
With “Hero,” Yimou not only gives us a truly great movie, transcending genre and elevating cinematography with scenes of innovative beauty, but he teaches us about the important role of storytelling in creating a country. A story has the power to unite and carry us along on multiple levels by appealing to both the mind and heart. In the film, Broken Sword and Flying Snow study swordplay not by fighting but through mastering calligraphy, a type of writing that communicates both visually and abstractly. It is storytelling, not sword fighting, that is the more powerful force.
As Long Sky and Nameless demonstrate, by utilizing our stories, our history, we can see the result of entire battles without lifting up a sword.