In Hero, director Zhang Yimou's elaborate fable about the adolescent period of China's first unified empire, warring assassins clash while walking on water, flying through the air, even while merely thinking about one another. The settings and outfits encasing these duels are choreographed and color-coordinated far beyond narrative logic, picking up and dropping visual schemes with a fantastical, distractible fury that is only possible through the zillion-dollar machinery of contemporary cinema. In some ways, the film (the most expensive in the history of Chinese cinema) is a marriage of old and new; of the 10,000-extras-sprinting-in-lockstep pageantry of an Akira Kurosawa epic like Ran with artfully modernized myth-alikes like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and frenetic style-orgies like Kill Bill. In another way, Hero takes all the gloss and visual power of those films and perverts it in a way as old as government itself: into wrappings for nationalist propaganda that would turn audiences off if presented unadorned.
Hero hearkens back to a time when honor and prestige were measured in the number of paces one was allowed to stand from a ruler's throne--in other words, either the Idaho State Capitol Building in late 2001 or imperial China in late B.C. Only the astonishing number of honor-motivated suicides among the central characters cements the venue as the latter. The story follows the recollections of the aptly named Nameless (Jet Li), a sheriff in the kingdom of Qin, whose ruler (Chen Dao Ming) dreams of uniting all seven Chinese territories into a single plaything. When Nameless presents his sovereign with the swords of Qin's three most feared enemies, Sky (Donnie Yen), Falling Snow (the stunning Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), the king is both thrilled and wary. He suspects that to vanquish such noble rivals one would need a videogame cheat-code of unparalleled power. He is right.
After the king rejects Nameless' tale, the two verbally spar until the truth about Nameless, his abilities and aims becomes clear. One can get lost in the interlocking waves of death scenes, recalled death scenes, imagined death scenes and made-up death scenes that comprise the remainder of the film, but the essence of the story is simple and common both to history and cinema. Someone wants to cram a billion people into a single language and culture, no matter what the human cost. Someone else wants the first someone dead, and regional sovereignty preserved, no matter what the personal cost. The only novelty is which someone Zhang ultimately throws his cinematic weight behind.
Up until the last 10 of Hero's 99 minutes, there is nary a crack to be found in Zhang's vision. Admittedly, elements like wind, shadow and extra-extreme close-ups are slathered on throughout with all the subtlety of a cluster-bomb, but those elements only serve to maximize the artistic impact of the director's godlike control over color and sound. Meticulously crafted scenes, like when Falling Snow and Moon (Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger) fight among swirling autumn leaves, or when Nameless pursues Broken Sword across the surface of a mountain lake are so majestic that one's logical faculty can easily dissolve into a steaming puddle of "Duuuude ..." At the film's end, it is revealed that loss of self is exactly the intended reaction.
I will not betray the exact method by which Zhang transforms Hero from an achingly beautiful fantasy into unsettling political agitprop--suffice it to say, the character to whom the title ultimately refers is not one of the flashy sword-wielders on the film's poster. For all the time and energy that Zhang expends portraying his dignified assassins as physical and spiritual demigods, Hero openly ends up being about the pesky threat that their iron-willed individuality poses to a righteous Chinese dictatorship. Zhang's characterizations are ultimately trickery, and his cinematic strengths are diversions. Focus on the pretty stuff, refer the film to your buddies and the let the soul-deadening ideology hitch a ride--that is the gist of Hero's quest. I only wish I could say that I am not looking forward to seeing it again.