A dazzlingly lensed, highly stylized meditation on heroism and the point at which individualism conflicts with the common good, “Hero,” Zhang Yimou’s long-planned foray into martial arts territory, skewers its chosen theme with a single-minded devotion. Taking its inspiration from several real-life attempts to assassinate China’s first emperor, who unified the country from a mass of warring states 2,200 years ago, pic is more a cinematic fantasia melding music, color and combat than a traditional, or emotionally involving, narrative feature. Anyone expecting a conventional crowd-pleaser on the order of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” will come away feeling cheated; film is closer, if anything, to Wong Kar-wai’s elliptical, arty take on the genre, “Ashes of Time” (1994), albeit much more accessible. Robust returns as a specialized item look more likely than breakout biz across the board.
Almost two years in the making, and with a reported budget of some $30 million — double that of “Crouching Tiger,” — pic represents a high-stakes roll of the dice for Chinese cinema in general, as well as a return to center stage by Zhang after a series of well-regarded but small efforts.
After a foreign language Oscar-qualifying run Oct. 24-30 at a 100-seat venue in Shenzhen, and a massive ad-pub blitz thereafter, film officially premiered Dec. 19 in Beijing and went wide on some 200 screens throughout China, breaking first-day records with a reported gross of $1.45 million. Ten days later, theaters were still running the film to SRO biz, with nationwide takings reportedly already north of $12 million. In Hong Kong, business has been brawny on 46 screens, and in mid-January, film fans out to Taiwan and Singapore. Miramax, which has the pic for numerous territories including North America, is mulling a May release, although U.S. preem will take place on Jan. 14 at the Palm Springs Film Festival.
The period, and the basic story of an assassin who tried to kill the King of Qin, formed the basis of two recent Mainland productions — Chen Kaige’s opulent but dramatically messy “The Emperor and the Assassin” (1999) and Zhou Xiaowen’s little seen but far superior “The Emperor’s Shadow” (1996). Compared with those two movies’ detailed sense of era, “Hero” has an almost spare look, which evokes the period without slavishly following its actual designs. In spirit, pic is more a martial arts movie, set in the usual semi-mythical age, than a historical drama.
However, “Hero” breaks tradition with the martial arts genre by neither primarily being driven by narrative nor featuring a huge number of characters (there are basically only six protags, plus loads of extras). Other departure from the genre is pic’s use of swathes of color to reflect moods and feelings. While this approach isn’t entirely new, Zhang takes an extreme position in “Hero,” above and beyond even his use of color and fabrics in “Ju Dou.” Result is an estimable success on the aesthetic terms the director sets out for himself, but may encounter resistance from viewers expecting, or desiring, a different, more ordinary sort of movie.
Narrative is simple: After 10 years during which no one has managed to find three legendary assassins, a country sheriff called Nameless (Li) arrives at the palace of the King of Qin (Chen Daoming) to report mission accomplished, with physical proof of his success. The audience between Nameless and the King — held in a vast, almost empty reception hall, the two separated by a bank of candles which later prove a crucial plot element — is the framework on which the several flashbacks of Nameless’ exploits reside and, especially in Chen’s sly perf, provide ongoing suspense. The grim, gray/black set also provides a continual point of contrast between the colorful flashbacks.
First, tightly told flashback continues the opening color scheme but adds the physical element of water, as Nameless recounts his duel with Sky (Donnie Yen) in a rainy teahouse courtyard.
Second, much more elaborate flashback, gets the film going. Seg starts from a small element — Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) practicing the calligraphy of his nickname with a stick in a sandbox — and broadens out to reveal first a whole class of students engaged in the same practice and then, in the dusty plain outside, the massed black-garbed army of Qin. As clouds of arrows (effectively augmented by CGI) rain down on the schoolhouse, the aged teacher orders his pupils to continue with their calligraphy.
In the first of several segs-within-segs, a tiny story of sexual jealousy also unfolds: that of Broken Sword’s partner, swordswoman Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), against her maid, Moon (Zhang Ziyi), who also loves Broken Sword. After taking on the bombardment of the Qin army’s archers in one of several music-and-image montages that pepper the pic, Sword and Snow settle their differences, and Snow — in perhaps the movie’s best showpiece, deals with Moon in an autumnal forest. Subsequently, Nameless kills Snow in a brief duel in front of his army.
When Nameless finishes his report to the king, it turns out this is only the start of the story. As the king questions Nameless’ version of events, a different set of variations unspool over the subsequent 50 minutes, with the characters’ change of garbs reflecting their different attitudes as the real story eventually comes to light. At pic’s end, Nameless has a major decision to confront.
Anyone in search of film buff reference points will have a ball with “Hero” — Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” and “Throne of Blood” are easy starters, plus a host of Chinese martial arts movies. That shouldn’t detract from the movie’s overall accomplishment in redefining the genre’s action elements.
In traditional martial arts movies — which “Crouching Tiger” conveniently saluted and rehashed to its immense profit — fighting styles express character (its weaknesses and strengths), with heroes winning by scaling a pyramid of opponents with contrasting styles that each test an aspect of the hero’s skills. Zhang Yimou & Co. largely dispense with this.
For the most part, duels, staged by Hong Kong action maestro Tony Ching Siu-tung are quite samey, more aerial ballets than form-heavy swordplay. Rather than expressing character traits or individual skills, Ching’s martial arts choreography describes an overall mood, often to jaw-droppingly beauteous effect, but without the kinetic excitement of acknowledged genre classics.
In fact, it’s difficult to separate the various elements in each showpiece, as lensing, color design, choreography and music all coalesce into what are virtually tone poems. For example, in a duel between Nameless and Sword on the surface of a shimmering blue-green lake, grief over the death of Snow is tinged with respect by Nameless for Sword’s devotion to her — the outcome of the duel hangs on a drop of water that lands on her face, as she lies on a bier in a pavilion in the lake’s middle. The aerial ballet is equally underscored by Tan Dun’s ethereal music (often supplemented by Itzhak Perlman’s violin solos) and Christopher Doyle’s tranquil lensing, both working in a totally different vein from the wild romanticism of, say, the pic’s desert scenes.
Indeed, the use of separate colors for each story seg — moving from black to red to blue, green and white — has been the pic’s most pre-publicized element. (Idea basically replaced Zhang’s initial one of using different cinematographers and shooting styles, which proved impractical.) The idea is not as rigidly executed as expected: As the story axis changes, and the protagonists become more shaded, so the use of color becomes freer and less dogmatic.
For those prepared to take the leap, “Hero” advances the genre. There’s a gutsy, rough-and-ready feel to the movie, recalling Zhang’s own “Red Sorghum.” In Chinese terms, pic is typically “northern” in its sensibilities, compared with the soft “southern” feel of a film like “Crouching Tiger.”
Doyle’s camerawork is sensational, surpassing even his flashiest work for Wong Kar-wai,
with one after another succulent composition — from the umbrous interiors of the King of Qin’s palace to the burst-yellow desert-scapes (shot near Dunhuang) and shimmering lake-scape (in Jiuzhaigou). The Snow/Moon forest duel, shot in Inner Mongolia at a precise moment of the year, rivals the classic bamboo forest battle in King Hu’s “A Touch of Zen.”
Performances vary from average to good, with Li, the titular star of the picture, just OK as Nameless, bringing as little warmth of personality and as much woodenness of performance as to most of his previous roles. He’s outgunned in the linking segs by Chen’s stentorian, sly authority as the ruthless king.
Of the others, Zhang Ziyi, in the relatively small role of the maid, is among the most eye-catching, though more convincing as fighter than lover. With their more colloquial, less elevated dialogue (sometimes used for comic effect), Cheung and Leung as the two swordfighting lovers seem at times to inhabit a different movie, though the lighter tone comes as a relief from the heavier scenes between Li and Chen. The two H.K. thesps’ voices have been dubbed by native Mandarin speakers after a decision that Cheung and Leung’s Cantonese accents were still too evident, no doubt a wise move in light of the linguistic train wreck of Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh’s efforts to speak Mandarin in “Crouching Tiger.”
Mandarin re-voicing is well done, and further enhances Cheung’s stately, magnetic perf as the lady Macbeth-like Snow, easily one of her best roles since the remake of “Dragon Gate Inn.” Leung is decent, but lacks stature; Yen, in briefly as Sky, is fine, though the role under-uses his genuine m.a. skills.
Other tech credits are tip top, from the flowing but not elaborately decorated costumes by Emi Wada (“The Bride with White Hair”) to production design by Huo Tingxiao (“The Emperor and the Assassin”) and his former assistant, Yi Zhenzhou. Latter’s sets for the King’s palace and the calligraphy school, both built at Hengdian TV & Movie City, in Hangzhou, recall the look of “The Emperor’s Shadow” in breadth and solidity.
Pic has already drawn criticism, even on the Mainland, for supposedly endorsing the government’s line on a unified China. In fact, like most of Zhang Yimou’s pics, any messages are there for the individual taking: finale can be read either as a triumph of unity over chaos or as a victory by militarism over pacifism. Irony is that both sides — “heroes” as well as “villains” — use the same methods, which is probably Zhang & Co.’s point.