'Hero': Pinnacle of Zhang Yimou's Artistry

Directed by: Zhang Yimou, Runtime: 99 minutes
Grade: A

In 2000, Ang Lee revitalized a genre with his beautifully composed film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Though films like Once Upon a Time in China had kept the sect of historical martial arts epics alive through the '90s, it was the renown that Lee's film received that brought the spotlight back on its majesty. Two years later (four years for us in the United States), we're given Zhang Yimou's Hero (Yīng Xióng), a film that's exciting and beautiful in equal measures. It's in the film's composition as a piece of art in motion that has transformed it into an enduring piece of work, taking its potency away from the drama that fueled both Ang Lee's film and Zhang Yimou's later pictures (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower) and filling it with direct artistry. The result is breathtaking, transforming Hero into a simple yet effective story of heroism crammed full of beautiful choreography and dazzling visual delights.

Set during the period directly before the Qin Dynasty where states were at war for dominance, the plot revolves around a nameless prefect (Jet Li) who has arrived to garner an audience with the King of Qin (Daoming Chen), a warrior leader known for his violent conquests in an effort to unite China. The king stays in his battle armor and sleeps in the main hall of his stronghold in fear of assassination, all following an attempt on his life. With the weapons of three known threats to the king in tow -- the spear of Sky (Donnie Yen) and the blades of Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) -- Nameless arrives in his hall and tells the king the stories behind the defeats of three highly-skilled assassins.

As he tells these stories of deceit and plotting, we're treated to bold colors slowly beginning to ink into the picture by way of Christopher Doyle's mesmeric cinematography. Zhang Yimou uses multiple palettes to shift and alter the mood as he deems fit, drenching scenes in red to evoke passion, green to reflect freshness, and white to dial into truth. His narrative mirrors that of a color-infused spin on Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, navigating through several renderings of the same story being told with different voices -- voices of zeal, romance, skepticism, and bleakness, all of which carry their own truths and fallacies. And they're all a sight to see as they reveal bits and pieces about the characters through each yarn spun, all performed excellently by a smorgasbord of perfectly-pitched talent -- from Jet Li's stoic projection as Nameless to Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung's great chemistry as Broken Sword and Flying Snow.

Though director Zhang handles these palettes in bold, oftentimes blunt fashion with crisp blues and glaring shades of ivory white approaching absurd levels of emotive communication, they all tie into the filmic tapestry in a way that makes the sledgehammer-worthy imagery enchanting to behold. Incredibly beautiful images fall into our vision, like two red-draped warriors fighting amid a sea of yellowing leaves and the sight of green drapery falling from a ceiling. Whether he wanted each movement to mean something or not becomes inconsequential, as the meaningfulness behind Hero becomes growingly more organic for each viewer. Colors and imagery can either be a focal observation, or merely a striking kaleidoscope to fill the background during an enthralling martial arts epic.

Zhang Yimou ties Tony Ching Siu-Tun's exhilarating choreography within each of these handsomely-drawn stories, which persistently, yet gracefully, grapple onto the purpose behind the film. Frivolous fights aren't cooked up just so icons Donnie Yen and Jet Li can square off, or for the purpose of witnessing stars Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung from In the Mood for Love cross swords -- which, amusingly, they carry a similar distance between them here to that of their star-crossed married types in Wong Kar-wai's film. Instead, this martial arts choreography streams together with Hero's valor-fueled story to an expressively moving degree, letting raw feeling fluidly control their battles. It even manages to capture wuxia (wire fighting) in a way that feels both whimsical and welcome, a difficult blend to hit. Among the five central stars -- including Zhang Ziyi in an impressive turn as Moon, Broken Sword's disciple -- almost every actor matches with one another, and none of it feels artificial or tacked on.

One recurring theme flows through Hero that I absolutely love: the universality of artistry. Though we're taken through a story of tyrannical pain and the benefits of his removal from his throne, a stream of skillful imagination persistently stays with the picture that latches onto a respect for intelligence and the arts. We see the connections between swordplay and calligraphy, weiqi (the Othello-style game referred to as "chess" in the film, also known as Go), and even the respect to musical rhythm. It humanizes the characters and, amazingly, creates a bridge between the king and his enemies through his respect for the arts.

That's one thing that you'll slowly begin to see about Hero: though it's largely about struggles between good and evil, it's also about the state of mankind in ancient China attempting to obtain harmony in drastically dissimilar ways. Though it's best to look at it through a poet's pair of glasses and soak it in as a piece of emotion-driven physical art, like a combination between a ballet and a painting being brushed before our eyes, there's also a purposeful aside about diligence in the eyes of oppression. Zhang Yimou's film thrives as a lyrical tragedy because of it, becoming gorgeous and entrancing on top and rather stirring underneath. As both an entertainment and as a visual symbol chock full of magnificence, it stands among the very best that martial arts can offer.


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