Zhang Yimou’s Hero shares with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon an artist’s-eye view of essentially pulpy material. The basic plot — a nameless warrior (Jet Li) favors a king with accounts of his prowess in battle — could have been (and probably has been) a springboard for any number of fast, cheesy martial-arts flicks emphasizing ass-kicking over substance. But Yimou, like Ang Lee before him, attends to the story’s deeper themes and draws out its rich potential as both cinema and poetry.
“Presented” in its Miramax release by Quentin Tarantino, who knows eye-popping Asian filmmaking when he sees it, Hero is the kind of movie in which the nameless protagonist, preparing to cross his sword with the spear of the legendary Sky (Donnie Yen), drops a few yen into an old koto master’s basket and asks him to play some more music. In another film, the point would be the warrior’s absolute cool in the face of combat. Here, it’s just part of the overall tapestry of beauty. What keeps Hero from lapsing into artsy solemnity is that the hushed and meditative views of nature are organic to the virtuoso action scenes.
The aforementioned Sky is one of three adversaries who have been threatening the life of the king (Chen Daoming) for a decade; the others are the calligrapher/assassin couple Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). The warrior has apparently vanquished them, earning the right to sit within twenty paces of the rather paranoid king. The story’s structure is odd by modern standards — all the action unfolds in flashbacks — yet will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Eastern literature, where men often sit around and tell stories. Hero is indebted on some level to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon, which told the same story from four different viewpoints. The king, who is perhaps wise to be paranoid, suspects that there’s more to the story than the warrior lets on.
Hero is better experienced than discussed — and better seen two or more times. I saw it on an import DVD a month or so before its American release, and it’s a more ravishing and visceral movie the second time around, when you know the film’s tangle of loyalties and plots. Christopher Doyle’s sumptuous photography joins forces with the soothing music by Tan Dun (who also scored Crouching Tiger) to create a landscape of triumph and tragedy. In this heightened atmosphere, it’s perfectly acceptable when the warrior and Broken Sword skim lightly across a lake, sinking their swords into the water to keep themselves aloft, or when Flying Snow faces off against Broken Sword’s protegé Moon (Zhang Ziyi) in a forest dominated by yellow leaves that become weapons and, later, indicators of defeat. Hero is a classic tall tale, a fable told around the fire.
Jet Li certainly has presence as a martial-arts master, but when the camera moves in for a close-up, not a lot is going on; his impassive face looks like nothing so much as Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween, and he has a rather unfortunate speaking voice. He has been cast as the film’s stoic death-dealer, though, and most of the heavy-duty emoting is placed in the able hands of the actors Yimou has surrounded Li with. Cheung and Leung make fine godlike starcrossed lovers, and Zhang Ziyi, as in Crouching Tiger, is a vivid hellcat driven more by passion than by strategy. What, if anything, does the warrior feel about his mission? We’re given a backstory, which feels a bit rote, as if required by the classical plot. Hero, an eminently Chinese story, concerns itself more with mastery and honor than with the unpredictable urges of a few fallible humans. It deals most often in wordless poetry — lovers joined forever by steel; the mood-setting color scheme of each version of the tale — and lets us fill in the rest.