Dir.: Zhang Yimou
PG-13, 96 min.
Now showing at area theaters
Like Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou's Hero is as hard to pigeonhole as it is satisfying. Part Rashomon in its use of multiple narrative threads and competing points of view, part straight-ahead wire-fu extravaganza, the film is that rare hybrid that dazzles you into accepting its characters' gravity-defying feats of prowess and whirlwind swordsmanship, while making you gasp from lightning flashes of emotional immediacy and pure cool. The warriors in Hero fight on water, ping-pong against walls with every parry of their swords and knock fusillades of arrows from the sky with a superhero's speed, yet they suffer pain and loss in an all too human fashion.
The movie mythologizes the birth of the first Chinese empire, in the year "a long time ago"; it begins with the arrival of a stoic warrior, Nameless, played by martial-arts stalwart Jet Li, to the castle of the King of Qin, who has ambitions to unite the seven warring lands of Asia under one ruler. Nameless has come bearing the weapons of the king's most feared enemies, the assassins Sky, Snow and the dreaded Broken Sword, as proof of his victories over them. Impressed but cautious, the king asks Nameless to explain how he managed to vanquish such a powerful lot, but after Nameless tells the story of his victory over Sky, followed by his triumph over the lovers Snow and Broken Sword, the king questions the truthfulness of the account, offering his own version that paints Nameless' intentions in a far more sinister light. Is Nameless, in fact, another, more supreme assassin? Is he in league with the king's enemies? The conversation takes on additional suspense, and what follows is a riff on 1,001 Arabian Nights, with both men alternately cast in the role of Scheherazade: the longer they keep telling stories, the longer one of them lives.
Director of photography Christopher Doyle marks each new version of Nameless' tale with glorious aesthetic flourishes and shifts in color motifs. When the warrior recounts his journey to the land of Zhao, where embittered lovers Snow and Broken Sword have holed themselves up in a calligraphy school, the mise-en-scène is dominated by reds as rich as ruby and bright as blood; the next version of the tale is highlighted by yellows as brilliant and melancholic as fall leaves, the next by greens as pungent as mint and as iridescent as the scales of snakes. If Josef Von Sternberg, that lover of texture, were to have composed in color, he would have made a movie like this one. Each shift in hue also marks a shift in tone and content, every new color inviting whole new levels of interpretationdoes green signify inner calm, yellow the regret that comes with accepting fate?
As Nameless spins new tales, his narrative incorporates new characters, each deserving of his or her own chapter. Chief among these are Snow (played by Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, whose face can be at once as impassive and as ferocious as a Kabuki mask) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, whose inner calm belies cobra-like speed). In each competing version of the tale, the pair become representative of every kind of relationship, from jilted, revengeful lovers to eternally dedicated soul mates. Moon (played by Crouching Tiger's gifted Zhang Ziyi), the protégée of Broken Sword, shifts from dedicated pupil to fiery mistress to raging defender of her beloved master with all the verve and earnestness of youth, her relative slowness with the sword replaced by the whirlwind of emotions that flash across her facea performance as impressive in its range of expressiveness as Li's kung fu. For all of Nameless' monkish reserve, it is these three characters who supply the movie's emotional core: a love triangle that suffers casualty after casualty with each new telling, each version of their story a nuanced look at love as war and love in war, victory coming only with loss and sacrifice.
True, all this narrative weaving and layering mutes some of the power of the overarching story, but that's just fine, since each set piece has its own stylistic touch so striking that it begs to be seen again and again. In the battle between Sky and Nameless, shot in dreamlike black-and-white, their weapons glow so brightly that the sword and spear seem to be dueling themselves. Broken Sword's assassination attempt on the ruler is shot among sinuous emerald curtains that ripple through the air like dragons, the sword thrusts cutting through the fabric so purely, the pieces seem to hang together for a moment before separating. In Snow's battle with Moon, leaves blow in the direction of every spin kick, tracing an autumnal wake in the air.
Hero is a bold, sweeping epic, but it's also tinged with some accidental irony. Yimou, who made the wonderful Raise the Red Lantern and Ju-Dou, has seen his films banned in mainland China, though Hero has been met with rousing governmental approval and open, uncensored arms, as well as a popularity second only to (no kidding) Titanic. And yet this film that celebrates the birth of an empire can only make a person wonder: is Yimou like his hero, Nameless? Now that he's been let in the kingdom, does he have other intentions? That question is impossible to answer, but one thing's for sure. His kung fu is very, very good.
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