2002 PRC/2004 USA
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Feng Li, Bin Wang, and Zhang Yimou
Spoiler alert: the plot's about an attempted assassination of Qin Shi Huang, so maybe it's not the biggest spoiler to say that no, it doesn't come off; otherwise, moderate
In 2002 it was still very possible to believe that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's record-setting $128 million American box office performance—had awakened something in our domestic audiences. Thus it says little good about the Weinstein brothers (I'm not sure where you would go to hear something good about the Weinstein brothers) that Miramax sat on Hero until, the story goes, Quentin Tarantino finally badgered them into giving it a release in 2004. It wasn't exactly striking while the iron was hot, and the fact is that Crouching Tiger maintains its record easily (it is, as far as I can tell, the only foreign-language film—well, non-Latin, non-Aramaic one—that ever broke $100 million in America, and the next-highest-grosser, Life Is Beautiful, earned substantially less than half Crouching Tiger's take). Even so, Hero set a record of its own, as the only Chinese film to ever hit no. 1 at the U.S. box office, and it enjoyed a very healthy $54 million stateside run, making it America's third-highest grossing foreign-language film. Of course, though the Weinsteins plainly left money on the table, one has to give those devils their due, and admit that their reluctance wasn't built completely on air. There's probably no permanent American audience of any significant size for Chinese action-fantasy cinema, as was amply demonstrated in 2016, when Hero's director, producer, and co-writer, Zhang Yimou, decided to aim another Chinese action-fantasy squarely at an American audience, with English dialogue and an American star leading a Chinese cast, and that film, The Great Wall, couldn't achieve so much as the same U.S. box office numbers (even in nominal dollars!) that Hero had, twelve years before.
The Great Wall didn't do well critically either, in fact it brought the knives out, but there were those bemoaning the development of Zhang's career even all the way back in 2004, accusing Zhang of selling out commercially and artistically, and abandoning the role to which his fans (that is, pretentious tastemakers, perhaps predominantly Western ones) had appointed him, that being a chronicler of Chinese culture whose works were amenable to the kind of Western audience who watch foreign-language films. Then again, he's had his Chinese critics all along, too. They're equally joyless (they also perhaps segment by PRC, RoC, and diaspora, I don't know), in that they also think he's spent the second half of his career pandering to Western audiences, and accuse him of letting down the side by making films that make China look too crappy and totalitarian, or, alternatively, not crappy and totalitarian enough, or, sometimes, simply too weird.
In fairness, he'd certainly worked hard to earn his farts-don't-smell international reputation as a maker of arty, export-ready Fifth Generation cinema, apt to be packaged for Western hipster delectation alongside the Hong Kong New Wave—for he'd had a celebrated but also troubled early career, suffering not one but two films banned by the CCP just in the 1990s, which probably helped his international standing—and, superficially, I suppose I can see the argument that it looks like Zhang did take a turn toward the sillier and less-grounded when he made Hero. But honestly I don't think that's looking at it the right way. It won't surprise you to know that Zhang's story gratifies me—that I love the idea of a filmmaker who made his bones with formally-pristine chamber dramas deciding to cash in his arthouse reputation in exchange for loads of money to make enormous epics, as that tends to confirm my belief that what all great artists secretly want is to make some really monumental shit. But just to point out the very obvious, he never actually stopped making those smaller, more intimate movies. Also, the dude needs the money, as he's fathered an absurd and at-the-time-illegal number of children to support and pay fines on behalf of. Most of all, the idea that there are two Zhang Yimous, one for snobs and another for slobs, is perverse and, frankly, wrong. In retrospect, it's pretty clear he's never been into making just one kind of movie, or even just two. He makes all sorts. But if he did only make two, the dividing line wouldn't be "serious" and "unserious," but the neorealist-inflected melodramas on one hand (I don't know what else to call a movie like Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles that is blatantly emotionally manipulative but also has onscreen child defecation), that are fairly austere and have maybe three or four high-impact glamor shots apiece, and the historical fantasias on the other, that are all high-impact glamor shots all the time. What might be the one constant in his filmography is the sheer intensity of his sentimentality. As for what I believe remain his most resolutely critically-adored films, from his earliest period, if you can't draw a straight line between the color-heavy poetry of Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern and his later wuxia epics, well, maybe that's a "you" problem.
Which is the long way of saying that Hero, his first wuxia film, is hard to describe as anything but a bona fide art film, and a direct extension of the aesthetic and narrative concerns (which are unified entirely here) that made him famous in the first place, only wrought on a much larger and more mythic canvass.
It gets somewhat complicated, in that very little we see actually "happened" and we have to muddle through, but the plot can be set up with pure straightforwardness: in the aftermath of the elimination of the Zhou Dynasty as even a nominal check on the independence of regional lords at the end of the 3rd century B.C., all that's left are warring states, with the biggest and most powerful being the Qin in the west. (If I remind you that it's pronounced "Chin," can you guess how this pans out?) The king of Qin's (Chen Daoming's) wars of reunification have been hard and slow going, however, and he has been especially beleaguered by a trio of assassins operating on behalf of the Qin's greatest enemy, the Zhao. Known only by their cool nommes de guerre—Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Broken Sword (Tony Leung)—they've made his life miserable for years now, including a brazen attack upon him in his palace in Xianyang by Flying Snow and Broken Sword, that only barely failed, and they still escaped. But recently a prefect from a tiny and insignificant province, known only by an absence of name (Jet Li, and I would prefer the translation "No-one," but they go with "Nameless"), has brought some good news to the court of Qin, for he has killed them all for his king. Naturally, such a feat demands that he be honored personally, and Nameless is brought to the king's palace, to be the first man in a decade not directly employed by the king to be allowed within a hundred paces of the throne. Indeed, for such superlative service (and perhaps also because the king would rather not scream at his guest across an empty hall), Nameless is allowed to come within ten paces of the throne.
You can probably see where that's going, and it's no surprise that when Nameless is asked to explain how a nobody from nowhere managed to eliminate three superhuman warriors, the king is right to disbelieve him, though there are further twists to come. The plot proceeds via flashback, and three different versions of how Nameless came to be sitting this close to the king are proferred, eventually one of them turning out to be the truth, or something close; Hero has been compared to Rashomon and I think that's perfectly apt in terms of mechanics and arguably apter than it intends when it comes what Hero's story is actually about.
Well, at the very least, it's perfectly solid as a screenwriting exercise, though perhaps not liable to blow your mind with its sharply-drawn characters and unpredictable, labyrinthine plotting. What is liable to blow your mind, however, is what this particular structure allows Zhang to do with his Rashomon-y back-and-forth of fabrication, speculation, and revelation. To the extent that Zhang's previous historical melodramas were about color in furtherance of storytelling, he's claimed that Hero is about color unbound entirely from specific meaning. So far as I believe that claim, color in Hero is, partly, a useful guide for a multifaceted narrative that unfolds as an anthology of possibilities, but mostly exists simply for its own sake. It's less a narrative supported by visuals than visuals supported by a narrative, then, justifying a RED Sequence, and a BLUE Sequence, and so on and so forth. Each sequence is not just "dominated" by its color; it's overwhelmed by it, which is why I took recourse to glib CAPITAL LETTERS, because the sensation of it is absolutely RED, BLUE, BLACK, and the like, with almost every single solid object in every shot being one shade of its sequence's chosen hue (and when it isn't, it's usually because it's in some sense meant to be out-of-place, as is Sky's yellow outfit against a black teahouse, or Nameless's black Qin uniform when he's battling Snow in blue).
So the sets, costumes, and props will share almost exactly the same color—even the landscapes are barely excepted, with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-Wai's guy, doing tricks with color correction to make a desert WHITEr or REDder, as the case dictates, while also pumping the saturation to just outright dangerous levels, so that the duel between Snow and Sword's protege, Moon (Zhang Ziyi), taking place in the red sequence (though with its incorporation of autumnal leaves it's one of the comparatively rare two-color scenes—the others mostly come in the white sequence, which is more like the white-and-taupe sequence anyway), will practically sear your eyes out. In a good way! Now, I'm still not sure after all these years how I feel about the blue sequence, and it's the least-accomplished, affecting the skintones of the actors in ways I'm not sure were entirely on purpose, and are definitely not entirely agreeable, but which also never become an issue with any of the other colors. In any event, with such a limited palette, Hero becomes as much a study in texture as color (the glossiness of the black palace floor against the matte of black cloth, for example, or the ornamental architecture of a red calligraphy academy), and Tiangxiao Huo and Zhenzhou Yi's production design and Emi Wada's costume design delivers on that promise tenfold within Doyle's photography. I hate to descend into utter cliché, but what else to call every frame but a monochrome, or duochrome, painting? If I say it is also a lot like Flash Gordon, I mean that in a good way, too, and I'll have been glad to have had at least one original thought about Hero, as certainly "THIS MOVIE HAS COLOR-CODING" is not.
I don't entirely buy that Zhang kept symbolism entirely out of his mind, however, and neither would you if you've seen it, given that the Xianyang framing sequence is oppressively black, and Nameless's initial lie, rendered as red, is bloody red, and it's hard to accept that Zhang just completely repudiated the associations of black with the historical Qin, let alone the associations of red with evil lust and dangerous love—not just the cross-cultural associations, but, like, within his own filmography—at least not when the first version of Snow and Sword's tale is, you know, a melodramatic yarn of evil lust and dangerous love that places Snow, Sword, and Moon into a sexual triangle and sets them at each others' throats. (And when it goes from red-and-yellow to all-red inside a single shot at the conclusion of Snow's duel with Moon, it's pretty impossible not to attribute "symbolic value" to that.) It's certainly not entirely rigorous: the green sequence really does come off like Zhang asking, "hey, have we used green yet?" But whether intentional or not, there's an emotional coherence and complexity to the use of most these particular colors, so that the white sequence (spotless white), some of which is flashback and some of which somehow isn't, and happens outside of Nameless's possible knowledge—and which also purports to be the actual truth—is perhaps as much an invention as the rest, Nameless's preferred version of the truth.
But the really extraordinary thing is, it's even more Rashomon than Rashomon, in that all three of the major sequences are true in their own way*, revealing some facet of the relationships at the heart of the story, because Snow and Sword are at each others' throats, and they're also forever wed, and Moon does love Sword, and Sky is... well, Sky's not a major factor, but he is Donnie Yen and Nameless is Jet Li, which is neat, and in my urgency to represent Hero as a formalist, emotional masterpiece, I have unfortunately buried the other lede about the film, which is that it's an exhilarating trip through the wuxia wilds as they were evolving in the early 21st century—which means great dance-like fight scenes that are still predominantly physical even if they're digitally-assisted with sparing CGI that's not quite there, but really only makes itself a bother during slow-motion shots of hanging water droplets and any-speed shots of the Qin Kingdom's metaphorically-potent and tactically-spurious rains of arrows—and Hero is a blast to watch for things wholly besides "color" or "texture" or "story" or "feeling," though in the best tradition they're not separable from those things, either. (My favorite fight is Snow vs. Moon, and the runner-up is Sword's weightless grief-battle with Nameless in soothing blue across a lake reflecting soaring blue-gray mountains and pink flowers, and done with a dreamlike alternation between wide-open shot scales and emphasizing close-ups, joined by dissolve transitions—but, man, they're all great.) Even so, what I treasure about Hero above all else is that it takes its essentialized characters, perhaps drawing upon your preexisting desire for Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung to just go ahead and fuck already, and turns that into a mythic love affair complicated by divergent ideology, and in the process using its tripartite structure to make you cry over their tragic romance three times for three different reasons. I will note that, at best, Wong Kar-Wai only did that twice, and it took him two separate movies.
And then there's also the controversy that dogs Hero to this day, which is whether it's just straight-up Chinese Communist propaganda. Firstly, of course, it's what it says it is: a story about the ascendance of Qin political realism over its philosophical and military competitors, and while Zhang would have doubtless made a very pretty movie either way, there's something moving about how Hero deploys the elegance of wuxia combat to chronicle the final battles of a band of chivalric warriors who'd outlived their era. It's also worth noting the Qin Empire didn't last so much as one single generation. The "propaganda" discussion tends to ignore these facts, but I would probably tend to find it boring and reductive anyway, as it's not inherently contradictory that the same artist could think 1)"the excesses of the Chinese government are bad," while still thinking 2)"it's a good thing that China is a powerful nation-state and not a dozen shitty, squabbling provinces." I mean, I have the same attitude toward America. (Yes, one elephant in the room is Taiwan—the others are Tibet and Turkestan—but while you absolutely can draw that parallel and I wouldn't say you're wrong, Hero just doesn't feel belligerent to me, merely patriotic, and not even uncritically that.)
This film certainly has neither color symbolism nor a complicated relationship with authority. What are you, some kind of moron?
For whatever reason, I'm loath to spoil this seventeen year-old film—perhaps because there are kids who love Shang-Chi and have no idea how drab their media consumption is—so to put it as hazily as possible, Hero's ultimate twist famously turns upon the necessity of centralized state power. Approximately two thousand Anglophone movies have the same general thrust—I genuinely hate the seemingly-unstoppable reflex to always describe Chinese cinema as "collectivist" (you want a "collectivist" film, watch Top Gun)—but Hero reaches that disparaging description in the very end, because by the very end it has annihilated the individual totally. Obviously, this was already baked-in when it decided its protagonist should be named nothing, and Li's presumably-deliberately empty performance is I strongly suspect exactly what Zhang wanted out of his nameless warrior; the whole thing, too, has the feel of an elaborate ritual, undertaken with an awareness in both parties of what that ritual means and how it'll shake out. But it only fully finishes the job with an astoundingly great piece of visual storytelling that hammers home the idea that an individual only matters because of their value to the state; of course it is somehow both the most elegant possible image while also looking like it could be equally at home in a Chuck Jones cartoon. (That's somewhat Hero in a nutshell, ain't it?) But there's something about it that resonates, and feels more ambivalent than just "yay! it's China time!" Surely it fits better than it's given credit for within Zhang's filmography, which, whenever it's gotten even slightly political—which is most of the time—has always been about the individual having the very soul crushed out of them by whichever Chinese society they happen to be living in. Hero is the happy-ending version of that story, for its hero's soul and its hero's suffering are, fortuitously, in perfect accord; but it is still that story, and the void its hero leaves behind still a void.
*Please don't tell me we're still pretending 71 years later that Rashomon is about "memory and subjectivity" and not "lying motherfuckers."