Yimou Zhang’s Hero is easily the most gorgeous film gracing movie screens right now. No matter that its beautifully designed, color-themed flashbacks inextricably reminded me of the three-tribulations section of Ken Russell’s Tommy and the shifting color schemes (in both set and costume design) that divide the restaurant in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
Whether or not such similarities are deliberate — or even conscious — they’re impossible to deny. This, however, does nothing to rob Hero‘s flashbacks of their breathtaking beauty, nor does it alter the fact that they are brilliantly used to separate the stories being told. In essence, Hero is very much part and parcel of the standard martial-arts film — a work designed around a series of action set-pieces that serve much the same function as musical numbers in a musical. (Jackie Chan’s “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence in Shanghai Knights, for all intents and purposes, was a musical number.)
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the martial-arts film has virtually become today’s musical, especially as the former genre has become reliant on effects and wire-work to a degree that any pretence of realism has long since vanished. And with the highly stylized approach of breaking set-pieces up in terms of design and color, the line between the musical and the martial-arts film is even further blurred. Whether admirers of either genre are quite ready to make any such crossover themselves is another matter, of which only time will tell.
I will say that as someone whose mind often wanders during elaborate fight sequences, Hero‘s approach is a definite plus. Another is the story’s offering at least the illusion of being more substantial than usual, even if plot is definitely subordinate to set-pieces, and is in service to possibly the most transparent propaganda to come along since the days of Sergei Eisenstein in communist Russia. Zhang’s film transforms the historical character of the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) — who was, by most accounts, a blood-thirsty tyrant with a case of paranoia that makes Richard Nixon seem a model of balance by comparison — into a thoughtful, sad, driven ruler whose primary goal was to achieve peace by unifying China. He may well have justified himself in his own mind in exactly such a manner, but history paints a considerably less benevolent picture.
What Zhang seems to have hit upon in communist China is the same thing that Eisenstein found true in Stalinist Russia with Ivan the Terrible: It’s OK to do some nationalistic lionizing of a king, so long as he’s royalty from a long, long time ago. This, of course, raises the question of whether Hero is a piece of Communist propaganda. The film certainly carries the Chinese government’s seal of approval, but I’m not sure that Zhang hasn’t pulled the wool over their eyes in a few ways, especially since he heavily hints at the King’s paranoia, while the climactic business, however nationalist in tone. Too, he uses ironic hypocrisy in almost the same way that Jean Renoir did with his final “an interesting definition of accident” line in The Rules of the Game, a film that set out to rebuke France’s “ruling class.”
As for Hero being nationalist propaganda, anyone who thinks China has a lock on that might want to take a look at such recent Hollywood efforts as Behind Enemy Lines, We Were Soldiers and Tears of the Sun. Regardless of its underlying ideology, Hero is, first and foremost, a nonstop excursion into style; that, I believe, is its raison d’etre. Despite its historical context, the story is basically a myth, though that again ties Zhang to Eisenstein, who tranforms the title character in his 1938 film Alexander Nevsky into a national hero precisely because so little was known about the actual historical figure; thus the director was given free rein to create him from whole cloth. Jet Li’s character, Nameless, serves exactly the same function here — as do the would-be assassins he’s defeated in order to sit within 10 paces of the king.
Hero‘s shrewdnes lies in its storytelling approach, resembling that of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where the same events are shown as stories related through different eyes. Most of Hero‘s flashbacks are presented by Nameless as he tells how he defeated the trio of potential assassins who’ve been plaguing the king for years, but they are all deliberately — and in this case, quite literally — colored by the storyteller. Similarly, the king’s hypothetical versions of events are in the same vein — the single, strong point of view of a character. And as such, they are also open to question.
It’s this kind of cleverness — and complexity — that gives Hero weight far beyond any question of its ideological concerns. But first and foremost, this is a film that exists for its sheer visual beauty — and in that, it’s nothing short of breathtaking. Style rules here; thematic concerns and plot are just the icing on the cake.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke