Hero (2002)

Yimou Zhang | 1hr 39min

There is a scene early on in Hero in which our Nameless swordsman confronts the first of three assassins, Long Sky, at a chess house. As the two square up, prepared to fight to the death, an elderly man sits in the background with his violin, restrung with the silk strings of a traditional Chinese sanxian. Through the following combat, he plucks and strums it with as careful a precision as those graceful manoeuvres the warriors in front of him so elegantly perform. Nameless’ reasoning for playing the combat out in such a manner is simple.

“Martial arts and music share the same principles. Both wrestle with complex chords and rare melodies.”

A black chess house sets the scene for the first martial arts sequence of the film, lightly imbued with the texture of dripping water from every roof.

These two schools of art are intertwined all through Hero in Tan Dun’s gorgeous score and Yimou Zhang’s deft choreography, but such refined virtuosity does not end there. Later we enter a calligraphy school where the two other assassins, Broken Sword and Flying Snow, have taken refuge, and where Sword in particular has spent many years of his life refining his craft in the sophisticated writing of Chinese characters. The undercurrent which runs beneath each of these skills is precision, grace, and beauty – the same ideals which Zhang infuses into the very fabric of Hero’s cinematic construction. After all, what is filmmaking if not an extension of those rich, artistic expressions of human achievement?

There is no overstatement in calling Hero one of the most breathtakingly handsome films of this century. Through Zhang’s meticulously detailed production design and staging, he crafts a legend of epic historical proportions framed entirely within one ancient Chinese swordsman’s meeting with the king of Qin. This is his reward for having killed three assassins who had previously made attempts on the monarch’s life, and within the palace’s cavernous great hall several stories unfold to explain how he accomplished this.

Symmetry in production design, camera angles, and quite impressively, the staging of thousands of extras. The definition of artistic perfectionism.

In recounting different variations of a single tale in Hero, Zhang adopts a Rashomon-like structure, keeping the truth of the matter elusive in favour of a more emotional appreciation of history. He also calls in Wong Kar-wai’s frequent collaborator, Christopher Doyle, to bring his own expressive sensibilities to the cinematography, curating dark shades of grey and black within the king’s great hall and notably emphasising the keen symmetry of the magnificent set piece. Even more impressive though is his skilful use of specific colours schemes to define each narrative strand that unfolds here, saturating every inch of Hero’s painstaking mise-en-scène with vibrant visual expressions. It is through these that he also clues us into the specific brand of subjectivity that each unreliable narrator adopts.

Red defines our first flashback to the calligraphy house. In some of these shots, it is often harder to identify any piece of decor that doesn’t conform to this aesthetic.

Red is the chosen colour for the calligraphy house where Sword and Snow are hiding out in the first version, and where Nameless sets in motion a plan to turn them against each other. Both being past lovers, this tale burns with a fierce anger and passion, and in a later conflict between Snow and Sword’s pupil, Moon, their deep scarlet robes make sharp imprints against the yellow and orange leaves of the forest.

It is said that Zhang hand graded the colour of every leaf in this forest fight scene. The red against the yellow makes for a striking contrast, and the colour change at the end to let red take over the whole mise-en-scène is superb.

When the king realises the lie in Nameless’ story, he puts forth his own hypothetical, considering a circular room flooded with a soothing blue palette which sees Nameless working with, rather than against, the three assassins. Even as the swordsmen venture out into the desert, Zhang tints the sand and sky with a pale indigo, letting the mournful heartache of this story reach out across gorgeous Chinese landscapes.

Blue hues flooding the colours and sets, but even in these exterior landscapes Zhang tints the sand and dust with a pale indigo.

The complex politics in this version still sees Nameless go up against Sword in duel, though the conflict is driven far more by sorrow than it is by anger, as the two dance lightly across the top of a still blue lake, disturbed only by the ripples of their swords and feet skimming lightly across the surface of the water. Where other combat scenes in Hero are tightly edited, here Zhang luxuriates in long dissolves of Nameless and Sword’s faces lingering over picturesque wide shots of the scenery, savouring each second with gorgeous slow-motion photography.

One of the great stylistic set pieces in a film already full of them. The fight between Nameless and Sword atop a still, quiet lake luxuriates in long dissolves and picturesque scenery.

Finally, the truth comes out as Nameless takes hold of the story again, delivering a take as pure and honest as the white palette which permeates its aesthetic. The blue room we previously saw in the king’s tale is now a pale, bleached hue, and so too are the sands and sky, untainted by embellishments of subjectivity. And yet even within this flashback emotional bias cannot be escaped entirely as we hear one more historical account, this one from Sword. It was years ago that he faced up against the king in the same great hall Nameless is in now, though in his memory it is lined with large, billowing sheets, rippling a pale green around their duel. So too do we find the once-red calligraphy house cloaked in the same verdant colour that dominates the rest of his recount, within which we discover his turn to pacificism and reluctant support of the king as a means to achieve peace.

An almost identical shot to the one above, though here the set is entirely white – we are getting the honest, unbiased truth.
In this flashback contained within a flashback, we see a bit of Sword’s perspective, cloaked in green hues representing his desire for peace.

Rashomon is evidently not the only Akira Kurosawa influence at play in Hero though, as colour continues to play a part in Zhang’s staging of thousands of extras within magnificent battle scenes, evoking similarly epic sequences from Ran. It isn’t hard for any of our main characters to stand out among the military forces of Qin, whose black armour and red feather crests serve better to identify them as a single cohesive unit moving in tight formations than as individuals. Even as the king’s followers persuade him to execute against Nameless towards the end, they speak as a single chorus under the unified vision of China he is dedicated to advancing.

Establishing shots of colourful armies staged in tight formations echoes similar scenes in Ran.

As Zhang’s narrative winds towards its conclusion, questions around the ideals of a warrior begin to arise in Nameless’ quest. Determining what makes a hero is integral to the martial arts traditions he is so dedicated to honing, and as such, so too is it crucial to the formation of a culture that can thrive. Hero is dedicated to all those interpretations of history that have sought an answer to such questions, and through Zhang’s vibrantly colourful expressions we find the majestic value in each of them.

Hero is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

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