Director: Zhang Yimou
Hero is one of the most visually spectacular examples of the Chinese “wuxia” genre – martial arts films with historical settings, often highly stylised. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive film in the history of Chinese cinema. Epic in scope, Hero contains enormous battles, massively varied locations, and incredibly detailed costuming, choreography, and special effects. In Hollywood, such lavish production values are usually reserved for Star Wars films and similar popcorn entertainment. Hero, however, proves that excitement and spectacle can also be combined with intelligent and cerebral storytelling.
Hero begins with a nameless warrior who has been summoned to a meeting with the King of Qin. The king has been living in fear of three assassins of legendary skill: Long Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. The warrior claims that he has slain all three assassins single-handedly and, upon invitation, recounts his story to the king.
The king is a shrewd man, and is immediately suspicious of the warrior’s story. He responds with an alternative version, which he believes more likely, in which the warrior has colluded with the assassins to kill the king himself. This conversation continues in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where the same event is described through several, conflicting narratives. The warrior’s true intentions become a mystery. Tension is skilfully built as the audience, like the king, is unsure what the true version of the story is.
Zhang Yimou is renowned for his breathtaking use of colour, most famously in his early film Raise the Red Lantern. However, Hero takes it to a new level. Each version of the warrior’s story is told with a different dominant colour. The initial telling is in white. Subsequent versions are bathed in red, then blue, then green. Apparently, the colours align with Wu Xing colour theory, which I confess I do not understand. Luckily, the pure visual beauty of the coloured scenes is accessible to any viewer.
Hero is what happens when a hyper-budget, historical action epic is entrusted to a talented director who knows what to do with it. Every aspect, from the set design to the musical score, helps build the film up to mythic proportions. There are few films more visually captivating or intellectually stimulating, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.