Hero without a face
Nameless warrior fights for Chinese empire in colorful martial-arts spectacle
For all its epic scale, Hero is oddly lightweight. Even with a plot full of Rashomon-like convolutions, its extravagant and brilliantly visualized martial-arts action remains emotionally detached—and almost abstract.
That said, Yimou’s film is a frequently dazzling spectacle, with a number of fascinating undercurrents. The basic story is perhaps inevitably remote for U.S. audiences—after all, the battle to establish the first Chinese empire in the third century B.C. is not an easily exportable subject. But this film still has several points of considerable appeal—a strong, attractive cast (Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Chiu Wai, Zhang Ziyi, etc.); a zig-zagging set of enigmatic stories-within-stories; and that ravishing, color-drenched visual design.
Li plays Nameless, a warrior who has been charged with the task of killing three rivals (Leung, Cheung and Donnie Yen) before they can assassinate the king of Qin (Chen Dao Ming), who is trying to unite the seven states of China under his own rule. The film begins with Nameless reporting to the king that the assassins have been killed, with the reports taking the form of extended flashbacks. But the king has his own notions about what has happened, and his versions of the reported events play out in a kind of alternative flashback form as well.
As further revisions ensue, Hero becomes a kind of puzzle in which tales of heroic exploits get revised and realigned in a variety of ways. It’s intriguing to see fiction and truth become so intricately intertwined in what is otherwise a grand-scale patriotic legend. But that remains a rather cerebral pleasure, somewhat apart from the film’s exceptional visual dynamics.
The overall results are mixed, though not exactly muddled. This is a big film with a relatively short running time (99 minutes); a vast spectacle punctuated with mysterious moments of close-up intimacy; a full-tilt action epic that is equally devoted to contemplative digressions; a martial-arts movie whose possible central event takes place in a calligraphy school.