If it's possible to overdose on visual beauty, then Zhang Yimou's Hero is an acid trip for the eyes: China's most renowned director films his historic martial arts fantasy-drama in a variety of hues -- blood red, melancholy blue, lucent green -- and stuffs it with almost otherworldly digital effects.
Still, for the first 45 minutes of Hero, I wondered why Zhang -- who's made such powerful, original, or contemporary films as Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less -- would bother with a genre and a style that's so been there, done that. From the acrobatics of The Matrix five years ago through the brutal generic deconstruction of Tarantino's Kill Bill, Zhang's movie feels somewhat dull and superfluous for about half of its run.
But then this great filmmaker comes up with the extra touches that give Hero the boost it needs. Without telling us at the start, Zhang reveals his tale in gradually unfolding layers of lies, conjectures and finally truths, somewhat like Akira Kurosawa's famous Rashomon. And for a contemporary touch, Zhang's fabled re-imagining of 2,000-year-old Chinese history provides a slightly dangerous (for him) critique of his native People's Republic.
Zhang completed Hero in 2002, two years after Ang Lee, the Taiwanese-born American filmmaker, released Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. history (Lee returned to China to make it). It's no wonder Zhang's American distributor waited a while to release Hero: The films are similar, and certainly nobody wanted to see Zhang's film caught in a pointless pissing contest to declare one of them better than the other.
Hero takes place a few centuries before Christ, at a time when China is divided into seven very territorial and defensive kingdoms. The most powerful of them is ruled by Qin (Daoming Chen), its eponymous king, who dreams of uniting all of the kingdoms into a peaceful nation with a common language. But the subjects of the other kingdoms perceive him as conqueror, and some of their most powerful swordsmen resolve to assassinate the sanguinary monarch.
Qin's most threatening enemies are Long Sky (Donnie Yen) and the romantically involved duo of Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung). They've all tried to do the deed, and the powerful king lived to tell (as did his would-be assassins, who got away with their lives). Now the king's young protector -- a fierce fighter, orphaned in childhood, who (shades of spaghetti westerns!) calls himself Nameless (Jet Li) -- has returned to Qin with the claim that he's handily dispatched Sky, Snow and Broken Sword.
But as Nameless tells his story, King Qin remembers his own encounters with the putative dead, and he begins to doubt his new hero's word. In a steely dialogue between Nameless and Qin, with ample flashbacks to keep the action going, the truth comes out -- and the true heroes emerge.
In Zhang's world, heroism is a matter of courage and principle, so the word "hero" covers both genders. It's also not black and white, which may account for his movie's sumptuous color schemes. By the time Hero ends, Zhang has re-defined the concept numerous times, giving balance and credence to his characters' different ways of enacting their ardent nationalism.
Zhang's movie takes the barest outline of Chinese history and spins it into a fabulous fable. Yet when its characters speak of a unified China, which Broken Sword believes should be called "Our Land," you know he's speaking to his country's current dictators, whose policies of economic openness -- which have benefited only city dwellers, leaving the peasants more destitute than ever -- have not followed suit with broader freedoms that should be the birthright of every man and woman on earth.
As for the action in Hero, it's all stuff we've seen before: They leap, they fly, they float, they walk on water, and they seem never to be able to kill one another, until the moment when they finally do. But remember that Zhang tells his story several times through, and so in Hero, there's dead, and then there's Dead.
The beauty of his fight scenes comes in both their obstructions and their commonplace fantastics. In one, Nameless lunges in slow motion through shimmering droplets of revivifying water; in another, the fighters battle among a tornado of leaves that seem to want to impede the kismet of their adulterated human race. For a brief moment we get an arrow's-eye view as trident spears glide through the sky to meet their targets. And when a locust storm of arrows descends upon Snow, she fights them off with her sword and her red silk robes.
At a lightning 96 minutes long, Hero tells its story efficiently and espouses its themes concisely with a hand that stops just short of being heavy. It's a talky drama, with sufficient action to please the people who will see it mostly for the swordplay. It's also a near-perfect visual experience, which is never enough, but which in this case helps an awful lot. In Mandarin, with subtitles.