To paraphrase Longfellow, into each life some sun must fall. As the studios burn off their dreck in the window between summer blockbusters and the fall’s “prestige” pictures, Miramax has belatedly released (the film premiered in China almost two years ago, was nominated for an Academy Award, and has been available on DVD for some time) one of the most engaging, visually rich films ever made.
Hero tells the story of a meeting between a great warrior, played by Jet Li, and a king, played by Daoming Chen. Having dispatched three assassins who tried for a decade to kill the king, Li’s character, who was orphaned young and never named, is called to court to account for his success and reap his reward. What follows is a series of Rashomon-style flashbacks offering different versions of the tale.
These facts, though, are only the bare bones of the plot. The meat is in the film’s gorgeous use of color and imagery and its exploration of honor, sacrifice, and heroism. It’s not by accident that I mention the color first. Hero’s color is used expressionistically: It helps dramatize the film’s themes and locate the viewer in a specific moral universe. It is also so rich, so vivid, so mesmerizing that those themes may be safely forgotten, and the film will still be a ravishing experience. I hate the word ravishing, but I’m damned if I know what else to call it, which, I think, is one of director Zhang Yimou’s points: There are things you can communicate visually that words cannot express. This is part of what sets Hero apart from other movies. Rather than merely translating a written script into images, the conception of the film is almost completely visual (Zhang cowrote the film with Feng Li and Bin Wang). In many other hands, this would be a weakness; you couldn’t count on the imagery to carry you. Zhang, though, is so assured in his visual scheme (and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle) that it takes your breath away. Each scene is composed as if it were a painting, and the film is paced so that action is meted out between beautifully calm images that relax the senses and invite contemplation.
Perhaps the most lyrical action sequence is Flying Snow’s (Maggie Cheung from In the Mood for Love) reluctant battle with Moon (Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Both are clad entirely in red, and the scene takes place in a forest of endlessly falling bright yellow leaves. At times, the leaves almost obscure the women entirely, as the camera swoops around their fight, artfully choreographed by Wei Tung (who directed Jet Li in The Contract Killer and has frequently choreographed fight scenes for John Woo). When, at the end, blood is drawn, the camera lingers for a while on a single drop that slowly falls from the blade of a sword, and the falling leaves shift to red, intimating Flying Snow’s feelings of guilt.
The film also includes Cheung’s In the Mood for Love costar, Tony Leung, as her lover, Broken Sword, and, as Long Sky, Donnie Yen, who previously battled Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II. All the actors are physically graceful, obviously, but they are also skilled at underplaying their scenes, letting a twist of the mouth or a single tear (an effect that is perhaps overused) communicate their state of mind.
Part of the film’s magic lies in the way it invents its world, creating images that never look phony but seem too flawless to be real. The formal pageantry of the ancient court is magnificent, as seemingly hundreds of extras (CGI is used elsewhere, so some of these may be animated, though they all look real) advance and retreat in perfect formation. There are also grand battle scenes in which the ritualized synchronization of so many thousands of soldiers has a strange, martial beauty of its own. When the archers shoot, their arrows hang in the air just a beat longer than they should, allowing the viewer to appreciate their near-perfect harmony while also heightening suspense.
The film’s themes are Shakespearean in their grandeur and simplicity. The title might well have a question mark appended, as the issue of heroism is roundly examined. Like Hamlet, Jet Li’s character is forced to decide whether true valor lies in action or restraint. His decision is appropriate thematically, but Zhang allows enough ambiguity for the audience to recognize that, in his shoes, some of us might well reach a different conclusion.
The film does have deficits. While there are a few great moments of deadpan humor, Zhang is pretty serious overall, leading the audience to laugh occasionally in places where hilarity was not intended. And Western audiences may still need some time to get used to the conceit that Chinese warriors are able to move with little regard to gravity, though it leads to fantastic sequences in which the characters move about a piece of architecture like figures in an Escher drawing or skim the surface of a pond like dragonflies.
Regardless of its few minor flaws, I can’t imagine an audience that wouldn’t enjoy this film. It has thrilling action; an attractive, talented cast; political intrigue; star-crossed love; noble sacrifice — you name it. It’s also the most stunningly beautiful film I can remember having seen.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Hero / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()