What do assassins look like? Are they strictly agents of chaos and disruption, leaving nothing but bloodshed and terror in their wake? Or are they artists in disguise, navigating an already violent world with grace and compassion? Assassins take on many roles – plagues of empires, political philosophers, perhaps even the heroes of history. When brought to the big screen, these questions demand an answer that honors the colorful moral complexities that underlie high-flying action and masterful swordplay. Director Zhang Yimou delivers all of this and more in “Hero” – a martial arts film that transcends genre, time and the laws of gravity.
Zhang’s film plunges viewers into warring ancient China, where the Qin Empire is approaching the total conquest of all rival kingdoms. Nameless (Jet Li), a small town officer, gets an audience with the king (Chen Daoming) after claiming to have killed three assassins opposed to Qin imperialism. The king, made suspicious after previous attacks on his life, normally forbids anyone to come within a hundred paces of him, but Nameless’s feat is enough to earn a chance to recount his battles during a closer conversation. The King and his guests exchange stories and twists, giving viewers a glimpse into the multifaceted lives of the three assassins – Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung).
In the same way that the brilliant fights of the warriors reflect their talents in other activities – game of chess, calligraphy, storytelling, etc. – The intricate themes of “Hero” are illuminated by striking visuals and aesthetics. Zhang divides the film into chapters, not only chronologically, but to describe different accounts of the same events. Each of these chapters is intentionally washed down with a dominant color that contrasts with the neutral-toned palace of the king and the gray hordes of the Qin army. For example, the harmony and ambition of two young lovers is accentuated by a vibrant green forest house, while the impulsiveness and zeal of the same characters is manifested in their fiery red dresses. The film’s exploration of color amplifies the various emotions depicted in each depiction of the past, actively painting each side of the story and emphasizing the message each storyteller seeks to convey.
Zhang complements this color coding with deliberate attention to scale. The film opens with alternating shots of the intimidating mountainous landscape and the vast armies of Qin, whose power mirrors that of the infinitely imposing terrain. Yet this immensity is juxtaposed with the skill of the individual: a calligrapher changes the course of Chinese history by warming the heart of the king with the illustration of a masterful character, while the fate of the Qin Empire relies on the execution by Nameless with one stroke of the sword. Intense close-ups of the calculating and emotionally charged faces of the assassin in combat provide an increasingly immersive quality of intimacy in the face of Qin domination.
This juxtaposition leads to even more compelling revelations about the ideas of home, self, and political progress. As the oxymoronic title of Nameless suggests, there is a lot to be resolved about identity both within and above warring China: who is Nameless compared to the King? Unnamed to the masters he meets? Each master to his homeland, and his homeland to China? The characters of “Hero” grapple with important questions regarding the future of their country, forcing viewers to reflect and reassess their own patriotic attitudes.
The fighting, however, takes center stage, and audiences must revel in the skill of the warriors – “How fast your sword is,” Flying Snow remarks during the Nameless duel. “Hero” is part of the wuxia genre – a collection of films celebrating martial artists and their adventures. Indeed, it’s possible that the film’s many battle scenes hamper its deeper subtext. Yet Zhang skillfully sidesteps this distraction with meticulous choreography and extreme attention to sensory detail, transforming the genre into an efficient vehicle for exploring rhythm and nuance: between shots of the film’s opening sword strokes, viewers are compelled. recognize the individual raindrops that fall during the course of the battle by listening to the jerky blows of a guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument. Zhang manages to honor the genre, the artistic sensibility of the audience, and the challenges to Chinese identity in one effort. Oh Zhang, how fast your sword is.
While the plot of “Hero” is rooted in the livelihoods of ancient blade-wielding warriors, the film seems particularly relevant to life today and for years to come; asking who we are, what we want and what we believe in is always an important exercise. Zhang’s work remains deeply entertaining two decades after its release – a testament to the director’s ability to incorporate such meaningful themes into such a compelling story. “Hero” deserves the attention of the public, in China and everywhere.
– Editor Charles W. McCormick can be contacted at [email protected]