This review was originally published at Christianity Today.
The Grand Canyon. The Northern Lights. Van Gogh’s sunflowers. We’ve all been stricken speechless by vivid displays of color. For me, there’s the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the shimmering metallic blue of Pacific Ocean waves at twilight; the day I discovered first-hand that ladybugs sometimes hibernate on mountaintops, clustered together in masses, blood red against white snow (hard to believe, but true).
To that list of awe-inspiring and vividly colorful experiences, I’d have to add the first time I saw Zhang Yimou’s Hero on the big screen.
It’s strange to consult a thesaurus for words that mean “beautiful” while I’m writing a review of a martial arts epic. But that’s what Hero does to its audience. The gravity-defying duels between swordsmen are some of the most spectacular you’ll ever see. An all-star team of China’s most talented screen actors delivers performances of astounding physical skill and delicate emotion. Adventures, debates, epic battles, and revenge quests weave together into a complex tapestry. And the soundtrack by Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is lush and stirring. But those colors …
Sometimes, we miss out on the best films merely because they’re “foreign.” Hero sat neglected on the shelf at Miramax for two years while gaining popularity in China and with fans of Hong Kong cinema who got hold of import DVDs. Those responsible for stalling it should be rounded up and fired. It won an Oscar nomination in 2003 while still unreleased in the States, but the Academy voters who didn’t give it a fair shake should be ashamed of themselves. If you miss seeing Hero on the big screen, you have missed one of the peaks of cinematic spectacle.
Perhaps political bias stifled the film’s exhibition. Hero is one of those rare works of art that serves both as an intimate character drama and as a national myth. While Zhang Yimou was not commissioned to make Hero by the Chinese government, the movie would have made such an investment worth every penny. It is surpassingly excellent in every technical category. But there have been murmurs of discontent in China over whether or not the director is paying homage to Chinese Imperialism. And indeed he does portray a tyrannical king as wise and conscientious. But he also offers devastating displays of destruction unleashed by that same conqueror. The conflicts occur between the “warring states” of China, circa 220 B.C. Aiming to become emperor, the King of the country of Qin, Chin Shi Huang Di (played with authority by Chen Dao Ming), crushes the cultures of six opposing regions to gain supremacy.
This portrayal of violence and brutality runs counter to a wholesale endorsement of imperialism. Hero is about the way that the spread of an empire can all too easily devalue and destroy the valuable distinctions defined by the language, personality, and artistry of differing cultures. In direct contrast to the film’s colorful characters, the King’s armies drain color from the screen. They’re like minions of Tolkien’s orcs—dark and cold—and the King oversees this like a contemplative spider at the center of a web, where he too is haunted by the cost of his campaign.
As the film opens, the king honors a warrior called Nameless, who has slain three famous assassins that threatened the throne during the conquest. The reward: a private meeting with the king. This hero, played perfectly by international martial arts legend Jet Li, grants the king’s wish; he relates the stories of how he outwitted these legendary killers—Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Sky (Donnie Yen).
In the style of Rashomon, Nameless’s stories are offered to us in multiple, contradictory flashbacks. Each story he relates raises the king’s suspicion and requires a revision. Thus, Nameless and his targets are portrayed in a variety of relationships, sometimes meeting different fates. Each enthralling flashback is portrayed in a distinct array of colors.
In one, Nameless and Sky meet in a spectacular duel that’s as much a match between their minds as it is between their blades. In another, Nameless helps Broken Sword and Flying Snow defend a calligraphy school from the oncoming forces of the king’s warriors. This involves deflecting relentless torrents of arrows that are launched in a siege that resembles the ferocity of The Two Towers‘ Battle of Helm’s Deep. Nameless opposes this siege in order to gain the killers’ trust, to learn their weakness, and to defeat them using their own passions for one another. Zhang Ziyi, sporting the same youthful ego and impertinence that she portrayed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, plays a key role here as Broken Sword’s servant, Moon. Two more astonishing clashes—one a breathtaking ballet in a storm of falling yellow leaves, the other a battle on the surface of a magnificent lake—are each worth the price of admission; it’s unlikely you’ll see anything so memorable all year.
But the most important clash is the one between the hero’s narratives and the king’s questioning. Nameless is clearly superior to those whose weapons he has claimed and set down before the king. But what has made him such an unparalleled warrior? And what will he ask of the king now that he has performed this feat as a volunteer?
To say more about the plot would be to spoil the story’s most interesting twist. And besides, there is much to say in honor of the cast and crew.
Nameless is a perfect role for Jet Li. The part asks little of his acting talents (fortunately) and much from his athletic abilities. Similarly, Donnie Yen (Blade II, Shanghai Knights) turns Sky into a man who gets right down to business, letting his sword do the talking.
But the true masters of the show are Zhang Yimou and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle (The Quiet American, In the Mood for Love). They find rarely seen backdrops in China that rival the New Zealand landscapes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
Zhang gets a lot of support from Oscar-winner Emi Wada’s extraordinary costume design. Production designer Tingxiao Huo brings this ancient world to life, so that the armies riding through the gates of the cities seem to be charging right out of the history books. Itzhak Perlman’s soulful violin stands out against the stormy backdrop of the Kodo Drummers’s drums in Tan Dun’s soundtrack. (The themes are too similar to his work for Crouching Tiger, but then again, they’re perfectly suited to the material.)
Zhang has a long list of marvelous films, including Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, both of which earned him Oscar nominations, and the recent, romantic short story The Road Home. He calls To Live (1994) his most important movie, and it’s true—that epic about family and hardship in Chinese history is his most accomplished work of storytelling. But Hero is his masterpiece of visual imagination.
While it is almost impossible to discuss Hero without comparing it to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that’s only because American viewers are unfamiliar with a genre called wuxia—a decades-old tradition of Chinese martial arts films. If they must be compared, yes, both feature warriors with the supernatural abilities to run up walls and bound through the treetops; but Crouching Tiger is more melancholy and romantic, whereas the action and spectacle in Hero make Ang Lee’s film look like a high school play.
Hero also burns with immediacy and relevance. As China struggles with the division between Beijing and Taiwan, Zhang Yimou poses a heartfelt challenge. He acknowledges the value of unification and peace. He knows that militant resistance of the empire’s progress can lead only to more violence and loss. But he reminds the viewer that the peculiarity of unique, diverse cultures produces valuable, irreplaceable rewards … and people. It is as if the storyteller cannot find a satisfactory conclusion to his own epic.
Thus, American viewers may be unsettled by the conclusion, as there seems to be no room for democracy in Hero‘s paradigm. In a worldview that reveres the will of a conqueror over the will of a benevolent God, “peace” comes at a cost that will give no one true peace. That is why, in the end, Hero remains a conflicted, colorfully turbulent film. By the time the climactic challenge occurs, few will find themselves unmoved by the king’s good intentions; but after his bloody campaigns, he is not the man who earns the title “hero.”
Seen in this light, Hero‘s distinct, aerobatic duels come to represent the power of art to communicate ideas across borders and languages, from common people to kings, emperors, and presidents. The story’s emphasis on the art of calligraphy is connected to its exhibitions of swordsmanship—in developing an artful style of writing, Broken Sword and Flying Snow prove that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword. This metaphor, along with the film’s explorations of conscience, fidelity, trust, and responsibility, make Hero ultimately an insightful and rewarding achievement.
2004 doesn’t have a new Lord of the Rings film to fill the screen with bedazzlement and wonder. But it does have Hero. Do yourself the favor of catching it on the big screen. And leave yourself plenty of time to discuss it with your friends afterward. It may be two years old, but it’s still the richest cinematic feast on American movie screens so far this year.
Note: Near the end of the film, a character delivers an important message in two words—”Our land.” In the Chinese version, there are actually three words—”All under heaven.” Zhang Yimou changed it out of concern that it would not translate properly. Frankly, I prefer “All under heaven.”