Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon created a whole new audience for wuxia films, which are for the Chinese what the Arthurian legends and American westerns are for us - mythic battlegrounds where a country's soul is fought over. To those of us raised in the U.S., there will always be something a little exotic about these Eastern imports, a mysterious quality having to do with how a Chinese hero is expected to conduct himself - his moral code. And Hero, the new film from China's Zhang Yimou, veritably wallows in that mysterious quality. What makes a hero a hero is one of its themes, whether it be courage, discipline or honor, all of these noble characteristics conveyed through some of the most exquisite cinematography in the history of movies. Some will want to go for the fight scenes alone, which are executed with magnificent grace. The rest of us, after feasting on the fight scenes, will want to digest what Zhang is trying to tell us about China's past, present and future.
It's over 2000 years ago, and the King of Qin (Chen Daoming) hasn't yet unified China and built the Great Wall to keep out the marauding hordes. Instead, he's trying to avoid getting killed. So when a rural prefect known only as Nameless (Jet Li) appears on his doorstep, having slain the three most deadly assassins - Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) - the king welcomes him with open arms. Well, not quite. First, he demands that Nameless tell him exactly what happened, which Nameless does in a flashback that's rendered in inky, bloody reds (calligraphy playing a prominent role in the movie). But the king is suspicious, suggesting that Nameless try again, which he does in another flashback, this one rendered in pale blues. Then there's another flashback, this one rendered in white. There's even a flashback-within-a-flashback, in green. In Zhang's color-coded Rashomon, truth is split, as if by a prism, into relative hues and shades.
I called it the new film by Zhang Yimou, but Hero's actually been sitting on the shelf for two years, waiting for Miramax to finally release it. Why the Disney subsidiary held on to it so long is anybody's guess; all I can say is, it was well worth the wait and well worth the added expense of seeing it on the big screen. In China, where it broke all the box-office records, Hero was criticized by some for excusing the king's authoritarian methods, but is that true? I'd say it complicates our notions of what a king is, the sacrifices he has to make, just as it complicates our notions of what heroes are, the sacrifices they have to make. As lovers who are also fighters, Leung and Cheung convey a strange mix of emotions, especially when they're going after each other in gravity-defying bouts of balletic warfare. And Jet Li, who's looked a little lost in his American outings thus far, seems right at home as a Man With No Name who lets his terrible, swift sword do the talking for him.
As for what the sword's saying, I'll leave that to you. Whenever the characters' motivations didn't make sense to me, I just sat back and luxuriated in the movie's astonishing sights and sounds - the locust swarm of arrows that darkens the sky, the ploink-ploink of raindrops offering a subtle counterpoint to another climactic duel. What that ploink-ploink has to do with the price of eggs in China I couldn't tell you, but it's unforgettable, at once lethal and lovely.