Hero, Zhang Yimou's foray into wuxia, martial arts, marks a departure from both his earlier period dramas depicting feudal China, Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, and his contemporary urban stories, To Live and The Story of Qiu Jiu. Zhang takes a familiar tale, previously explored by his former fellow Fifth Generation director Chen Kaige in The Emperor and the Assassin (a huge commercial disaster), and adds his own imprint by assembling a cast of Hong Kong's biggest stars and letting cinematographer Christopher Doyle loose in China's glorious deserts. Jet Li plays Nameless, a black-clad assassin and minor official whose parents and family were killed by the Qin, and who has been summoned to the austere Qin court where he sits before the Emperor (Chen DaoMing). He presents the sovereign weapons of the three legendary assassins he has vanquished, Flying Snow, Broken Sword and Sky. It is the period of the Warring States and the Qin emperor seeks to unite the country by quashing all dissent.
Zhang directs Christopher Doyle, the greatest cinematographer working today, to go color mad in Hero. Doyle creates an elaborate scheme where each character gets a lush, saturated color to depict his story. The production design is so complete, every article of clothing and every architectural detail is consistent with the character's palette.
In a initial sequence, Nameless confronts Sky (Donnie Yen) and interrupts his chess game. Their duel in a rain-drenched courtyard is played out in their minds as a blind musician plays. With each kill, Nameless is permitted to move ten steps closer to the Emperor and when he gets close enough, he will assassinate him
Shifting to the vermilion, Nameless rides to a calligraphy academy, where Broken Sword (Tony Leung chiu-wai) and Falling Snow (Maggie Cheung) perfect the nineteen ways of writing the character sword. The Emperor's army mounts a spectacular horseback attack, something like Kurosawa's Ran on 'roids; the dedicated students do calligraphy, impervious to the CGI arrows filling the sky, as Snow and Nameless fend off the storm in an impressive, effects-heavy sequence.
Nameless recounts a message from Sky, who the viewer suddenly learns was Falling Snow's ex-lover. In a jealous rage, Sword seduces his assistant and disciple, feisty Moon (Zhang Ziyi), creating a fatal rift between him and Snow, who kills Broken Sword. Autumn scarlets set up the background for the clash between the two women. In a rare bit of humor, Snow says in classic 70s Shaw Brothers Martialese to Moon, "You ask to die. I will help you."
In what becomes increasingly an exploration of style over content, Zhang squanders the talents of his gifted actors. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung movingly conveyed their longing for each other as would-be lovers in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love and Ashes of Time. In Hero, the audience gets a lingering view of an actor's eye and is left wondering, what for?
The Emperor does not believe believes Nameless' tales and their conversation continues, leading to the inevitable Rashomon comparison with multiple versions of a single story, but Hero lacks a sense of gravity and the distinct points of view. In the next version, Nameless asks Snow and Sword to help him. Zhang and Doyle concoct one stunning sequence after another; another Zen battle of the minds between Nameless and Sword in a lake surrounding an open air pavilion. Swords pierce the surface of the water; Sword meets his maker and Nameless earns ten more steps.
In a white version, Sword cannot bring himself to kill the emperor; the enraged Snow kills him. By now, the Rashomon connection is tenuous, this is repetitious pretty stuff, little below the sheen of an exquisite veneer. Moon mourns Sword and Nameless kills Snow.
In the green segment, it is revealed that Snow is the daughter of a Zhao general killed by the Qin regime and seeks revenge. In an idyllic rather giddy interlude, Snow and Sword write calligraphy together, before they dramatically storm the palace. Sword battles the emperor eloquently amid verdant sheets of fabric, but when Sword has the chance to assassinate him, he hesitates. The sympathetic emperor sheds tears when he hears this version of the saga. Nameless continues to offers layers of truth and falsehood and the appearance of reality in his story.
The scholar swordsman Sword writes a message in the sand for Nameless, "All under heaven." Finally, Snow tracks down Sword and kills him for the betrayal and in a moment of grief commits suicide. The theme of uniting the warring states suggests an uncomfortably imperialistic pro-China subtext.
The emperor's role is the best drawn in contrast to the other actors who are given little to do in sketchily drawn roles. The real hero is the benevolent ruler, who unravels Nameless's stories and when his courtiers demand "permission to execute," he reluctantly assents, knowingly that he must protect "all under heaven." Rah China.
Comparisons to the flawed Crouching Tiger are inevitable with the extensive wirework, CGI, even down to a similar-sounding Tan Dun score featuring Itzak Perlman instead of Tiger's Yoyo Ma. In Tiger Ang Lee got evocative if somewhat overheated performances out of his actors. Zhang, usually a fine director of actors, forgets his previous work with Gong Li and Jiang Wen, and lets close ups, wind and flowing swathes of fabric replace dialog and acting.
The action sequences are hardly memorable, and despite the work of Ching Siu tung (the listed director of such films as Swordsman II and a classic Hong Kong martial arts choreographer), the martial arts choreography is not first rate. Jet Li and Donnie Yen fought superior battles in Once Upon a Time in China.
Doyle seemed to have replayed Ashes of Time on a large budget. His usual freewheeling experimentation seems restrained by the Ran-like spectacle. With dialog consisting of a few lines and the cool symbolism, it is hard to attach any emotion to the characters who all, it must be admitted, make beautiful hangers for their monochrome outfits and die exquisitely.
Hero is a mediation on the nature of power, loyalty and sacrifice, but Zhang's exploration simply skims the surface of these issues, since he has chosen to trade plot and drama for visual pyrotechnics. More troubling is Hero's glorification of the Qin emperor, compassionate even as he gives the difficult order, in his duty and ultimate quest to unify a divided land. Has Zhang made a Faustian bargain with the Chinese government not to censor any more of his work? It appears so. Hero is an old fashioned big-budget crowd and government pleaser.
Zhang sacrifices both plot and emotional content to gorgeous cinematography and design. Hero is eye candy that brings fleeting pleasure and leaves a lingering sense of emptiness.