Zhang Yimou’s elegant, star-studded action epic, Hero, ambitiously attempts to elevate the sword-fighting genre in both style and substance. It builds not only on a long tradition of martial-arts movies but also on more modern incarnations like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It begins with a king who’s attempting to conquer a divided land to become the first emperor of China. A nameless assassin (Jet Li) approaches the king and reports he has killed the three assassins the king fears most—Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen). The nameless assassin has come to claim his reward.
In a flashback, “Nameless” recounts how he defeated each warrior, and the king listens to his tale, but he suspects Nameless may not be telling the truth. So the king retells the story as he thinks it really happened, changing one detail that shifts the loyalties of each of the characters and changes the outcome entirely. But Nameless then changes yet another detail and tells the story again, like it’s a move in a game of storytelling chess.
Hero is magnificently shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, known for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, and while he and Zhang take full advantage of digital effects to make people float and spin, their use of color takes a more painterly approach than Crouching Tiger or The Matrix. The characters spend much of their time fighting, but the violence is muted by a torrent of orange leaves or a shower of arrows so thick it looks like a cloud of locusts.
Zhang is better known for period dramas than action flicks, and even within Hero’s battles he explores more than just the choreography of combat. In what may be the movie’s most spectacular set piece, the king, convinced that Broken Sword’s fighting ability is related to his mastery of writing, sends his army to the calligraphy school where Broken Sword studies, a red tent in the middle of the desert. The two disciplines, you see, require the same wrist motions and have some kind of mystical connection. The king’s men, astride the king’s horses, unleash a torrent of arrows aimed at the students inside the school, and Broken Sword and Flying Snow stand outside the tent to shield them. Waves of arrows sail through the air while the calligraphers feverishly write characters in the sand, as if it will protect them, while Broken Sword and Flying Arrow perform an elegant dance that mirrors both the motions of writing and the defensive posture of sword fighting. With thrilling visual flair, Zhang pits the sword against the pen and fends off war with knowledge and non-violence.
Zhang dabbles less effectively with other themes, such as the issue of Chinese unification, which is highly relevant today and far too complex and divisive to be treated so lightly. A romance between Broken Sword and Flying Snow is interesting when it’s a pawn in the game of storytelling, but it fails to convey much emotion. And a junior assassin played by Crouching Tiger’s Ziyi Zhang seems like an afterthought; she’s given very little to do.
But the theme of pacifism holds fast, developed through escalating violence and loyalties that change so easily we’re encouraged not to take sides but instead to rise above them. The assault on the calligraphy school is echoed late in the movie when the king’s army lets fly another flurry of arrows, this time at a man backing against a wall. The arrows stick in the wall so that it’s soon covered with projectiles, except in one spot where the silhouette of a man remains. The man’s shape is seen once more a few minutes later, under a red sheet as he’s carried through town.
From one flashback to the next, the colors of the assassins’ clothing change—red, blue, shimmering white—and similarly each of the flashbacks features a tear running down Flying Snow’s face, but the reason for the tear is different each time, a tear of anger, of jealousy, of loss and finally, tragically, it’s the tear of a warrior who cannot lay down her sword.