What do assassins look like? Are they strictly agents of chaos and disruption, leaving only bloodshed and terror in their wake? Or are they artists in disguise, navigating an already-violent world with grace and compassion? Assassins take on many roles — scourges of empires, political philosophers, perhaps even the heroes of the story. When brought to the big screen, these questions demand an answer that honors the colorful moral complexities underlying the high-flying action and masterful swordplay. Director Zhang Yimou delivers all this and more in “Hero” — a martial arts film that transcends genre, time, and the laws of gravity.
Zhang’s film drops viewers into ancient, warring China, where the Qin empire nears total conquest of all rival kingdoms. Nameless (Jet Li), a small-town officer, is granted an audience with the king (Chen Daoming) after claiming to have slain three assassins opposing Qin imperialism. The king, rendered suspicious after previous attempts on his life, normally forbids anyone from coming within a hundred paces of his person, but Nameless’s feat is enough to earn a chance to recount his battles over closer conversation. The king and his guest trade tales and plot twists, offering viewers a glimpse into the multifaceted lives of the three assassins — Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung).
In the same way the warriors’ brilliant combat mirror their talents in other pursuits — chess playing, calligraphy, storytelling, etc. — the complex themes in “Hero” are informed by striking visuals and aesthetics. Zhang breaks the film into chapters, not just chronologically, but to portray different retellings of the same events. Each of these chapters is intentionally washed with a dominant color that contrasts with the king’s neutral-toned palace and the grey hordes of the Qin army. For instance, the harmony and ambition of two young lovers is accentuated by a vibrant green forest home, while the same characters’ impulsivity and zeal manifests as their fiery red robes. The movie’s exploration of color amplifies the various emotions portrayed in each description of the past, actively painting each version of history and underscoring the message each storyteller seeks to impart.
Zhang complements this chroma-coding with deliberate attention to scale. The movie opens with alternating shots of the intimidating, mountainous landscape and the vast armies of Qin, whose might mirrors that of the infinitely imposing terrain. Yet this immensity is juxtaposed with the skill of the individual: A calligrapher changes the course of Chinese history by warming the king’s heart with the illustration of one masterful character, while the fate of the Qin empire rests in Nameless’s execution of a single sword move. Intense close-ups of assassin’s calculating, emotion-laden faces in combat achieve a quality of intimacy that feels increasingly immersive in the face of Qin dominance.
This juxtaposition leads to even more compelling revelations on ideas of home, self, and political progress. As hinted at by Nameless’ oxymoronic title, there’s much to be resolved about identity both in and above warring China: Who is Nameless relative to the king? Nameless to the masters he encounters? Each master to their homeland, and their homelands to China? The characters in “Hero” grapple with weighty questions surrounding the future of their country, forcing viewers to reflect on and reevaluate their own patriotic attitudes.
Fighting, however, takes center stage, and audiences must revel in the warriors’ competence — “How swift your sword is,” Flying Snow remarks while dueling Nameless. “Hero” falls squarely within the wuxia genre — a collection of films celebrating martial artists and their adventures. Indeed, there is potential for the movie’s numerous battle scenes to impede on its more profound subtext. Yet Zhang skillfully circumvents this distraction with meticulous choreography and extreme attention to sensory detail, transforming the genre into an effective vehicle for exploring rhythm and nuance: Between shots of the first sword swings in the film, viewers are forced to acknowledge individual raindrops that fall during the course of the battle while listening to the staccato plucks of a guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument. Zhang manages to honor the genre, the artistic sensibility of the audience, and challenges to Chinese identity all in one effort. Oh Zhang, how swift your sword is.
While the plot of “Hero” is rooted in the livelihood of ancient warriors wielding blades, the movie feels particularly relevant to life now and for years to come; asking ourselves who we are, what we want, and what we believe in is always an important exercise. Zhang’s work remains deeply entertaining two decades after its release — a testament to the director’s ability to package such meaningful themes into a story so thrilling. “Hero” deserves audiences’ attention, in China and everywhere.
—Staff writer Charles W. McCormick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.