Hero tells the tale of the nameless warrior (Jet Li) who has come to the ruler of the Qin kingdom of pre-China to inform him of the manner in which he has slain the three assassins who have tried to kill the king. The king has been conquering other kingdoms in order to unify six kingdoms into one great country, and is grateful to the nameless warrior and asks to hear his story. What follows is a collection of flashbacks from different perspectives. While this might sound dull and without tension, it is not and looks fantastic in the process.
This is a gorgeous film; colours inform the flashbacks to indicate the nature of the confrontation and the relevance of the narrator’s attitude to the tale. Reds, blues, greens, whites, oranges blaze or shimmer where necessary, providing a visual treat that has rarely been in film, let alone a ‘wushu’ (martial arts) film from China. The swordplay is fantastic, particularly the fight between the warrior and the assassin Sky (Donnie Yen), done in black and white as the two imagine what their fight would actually be like, if they fought. There is a battle in the middle of a lake, as the warrior and the assassin Broken Sword (Tony Leung) leap across the surface of the water, beautiful blues filling the screen. A wonderful duel occurs in the middle of trees in autumn between assassin Flying Snow (Maggie Leung) and Moon (Zhang Ziyi), Broken Sword’s pupil, where the leaves fly and swirl around the combatants as swords and clothing whirl and sweep. It’s dazzling stuff, stunning cinematography that leaves you breathless.
If there is a tiny flaw in this perfection, it might be a cultural thing. Not being Chinese might make the average viewer miss out on some of the things that are going on in the film. The feeling I got was a coldness, a detachment, not identifying with the characters. Perhaps this was deliberate, with the dehumanising names, but the fact that Broken Sword and Flying Snow were lovers never came across on the screen, and we never completely engage with the people in the story. The story is very Chinese, with their particular depiction of what a hero actually constitutes, and the handling of what these myth-like characters could do, so I will readily defer to the Eastern storytelling in what was told, and plead Western ignorance.
Hero is fantastic stuff and Zhang Yimou tells an epic story with style and élan. Jet Li is his usual inscrutable self, more an ideal than a real person, which is apt for the story, and is the most glorious martial artist working in cinema currently. I think this makes up for him saying no to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (even if I can only see Chow Yun-Fat in the role now) to do Kiss of the Dragon.