Graceful and elegant in its presentation, Hero is a stylish work of art that demonstrates the possibilities that can result from effectively coupling an interesting story with stirring visuals. Yimou Zhang”s historical epic is no Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hero is much grander in scope and far more ambitious in its themes.
In ancient times prior to being unified, China was composed of multiple warring kingdoms. Set in this period of unrest, Hero is the story of Nameless (Jet Li), a minor official in the Kingdom of Qin who arrives in the royal palace claiming to have rid the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) of his greatest enemies, three dangerous assassins who sought to murder the ruler. Nameless proceeds to tell the tale of his miraculous adventures to the King, but how do we know that Nameless is telling the truth? Alternate versions of the tale are offered and Zhang illustrates every version with visually stunning flashbacks.
The first time I watched Hero was during the fall of 2003 before the whole Miramax delayed-release debacle, and the first thing I wondered after hearing the movie would soon play in the United States was how the East to West translation would fare. In Mandarin, Hero is linguistically elegant, its dialogue packed with both meaning and style. Perhaps it”s unfair to expect a perfect translation of both concept and style from Chinese to English, but the dumbed-down subtitles of Hero make it play like some episode of the Jackie Chan Adventures.
Hero is often times an exercise in poise and formal conduct. The movement of the actors are always fluid, replete with purpose and ceremony. From the brushstrokes of calligraphy to the quick jabs of swordplay, Zhang”s film captures simple actions and gives them meaning and beauty through careful construction. In all respects, Hero unfolds like a complex ballet, orchestrating related, yet independent movements into a single display of creativity. The visual palette that Zhang uses to complement the storyline is no less than extraordinary. Each version of Nameless” tale is illustrated with a different color, each symbolically reflecting the underlying mood beneath each interpretation of the story. Audiences are thus met with bold visions manifested entirely through red, white, blue, and green.
The artistic qualities of Hero are widely apparent, and Zhang devotes both time and energy to every scene in order to formulate a complete picture. The careful deliberation in which each sequence unfolds is a testament to the overall coherence and fluidity of the storyline. From the melodic fall of gentle rain that accompanies Nameless” fight with one of the assassins, to the ornamental swirl of red leaves that supplements another later fight sequence, Hero is a movie where details matter and every choice made is justified in its contribution to the overall narrative.
For an epic action movie, Hero is surprisingly light on the gore. Its purpose is not to create a spectacle but to communicate a substantial story. Deaths are mostly portrayed through dramatic collapses and sometimes not portrayed at all. This treatment of the subject reflects how violence is used in the film. Hero isn”t a martial arts movie in the sense that a plot was thrown together for the sole purpose of showcasing some spectacular action choreography. On the contrary, Zhang”s efforts seamlessly integrate sequences of swordplay into the natural plot progression.
Hero possesses an aesthetic beauty that stands alone and is simply a feast for the eyes. In one sequence, the actors do battle across a tranquil lake, the silence only broken through the clash of swords or the skim of blades against water. In another, the writing of calligraphy is shown as an intricate dance, one that involves the whole of one”s body as well as the whole of one”s concentration. Zhang”s imaginative visions of how each event unfurls results in multiple parts of the film where the expository function of dialogue is replaced instead with stirring music.
With all the aspects of a grand historical epic, Hero is a both a triumph of sophisticated cinematography and of ambitious plot. Zhang produces a perfect marriage of visual and conceptual storytelling, a feat compounded by the sweeping score and the chemistry of the cast. Beautiful from start to finish, Hero illustrates an ideal time and place beyond our reach yet not beyond our imagination.
Archived article by Tracy Zhang
Red Letter DAZE Movie Editor