Zhang Yimou's latest spectacle is gorgeous, pro-empire leanings notwithstanding
Zhang Yimou's Hero begins with a scene that would be the ending of many heroic epics: A lone warrior is called in for an audience with the king, who lavishes gifts upon him in return for vanquishing the king's foes. The magnificence of the moment is as stark as could be: Jet Li (whose character here is called "Nameless") looks tiny walking alone up the massive steps to the palace; the throngs of crown guards and other functionaries cheering him on are plentiful beyond Cecil B. DeMille's dreams.
When the king greets Li and invites him to tell his tale, we understand that the film really is backward; we can settle in and watch as Nameless from Nowhere recounts how he came to save his king and earn his treasure. But the movie is not that simple. Early on, we will learn that Li's initial account isn't exactly the way things went down.
Every version of the story that unfolds involves a crucial encounter between Li and a trio of characters played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung - playing lovers here, as they have so memorably for Wong Kar-Wai - and the eternally teenage Ziyi Zhang. Yimou helps us keep the varying accounts straight by color-coordinating his flashbacks: When we meet these characters, they and their living quarters are dressed entirely in red; later their world will be blue, then white. The white flashback even boasts a second flashback within it, where everything is green. It's an efficient clarifying device that does double duty, also allowing Yimou to go crazy with his production designer. The images onscreen are ravishing, lush, and romantic; and Yimou has cast the story with some of the most magnetic actors working in China today.
For balance, Yimou adds an army to the mix that could compete with Peter Jackson's orcs and elves. The screen fills with widescreen arrays of archers, and their arrows are a terrible thing: We hear the creak of a thousand bows and when they cut loose their projectiles are like a swarm of fast-moving, steel-headed locusts. They land with an enormously satisfying thwonk! that rings in the memory even after the movie is through.
The story is full of intriguing ideas about the warrior's art. The techniques of swordplay, we are told, share much with calligraphy and music, and studying an opponent's brush strokes can offer insight into his fighting tactics. The spiritual side of violence reaches deeper still, to a point where it seems to have less to do with training than with the purity of a fighter's soul. One character indicates that the greatest warriors can kill with a blade of grass.
Where the philosophy stumbles is at the macro level. In ways that can't be explained without spoiling the plot, the film ends up arguing for imperialism, suggesting that it is noble to conquer other lands so long as what you want, in the end, is one big peaceful country. The movie ends on an unconvincing, sweet-and-sour note, but what it offers along the way is well worth seeing. •
By John DeFore