“To reconstitute political life in a state presupposes a good man, where to have recourse to violence in order to make oneself prince in a republic supposes a bad man. Hence very rarely will there be found a good man ready to use bad methods in order to make himself prince, though with a good end in view. Nor will any reasonable man blame him for taking any action, however extraordinary, which may be of service in the organizing of a kingdom or the constituting of a republic…For it is the man who uses violence to spoil things; not the man who uses it to mend them, that is blameworthy. A prince should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel where it enables him to keep his subjects united and loyal. For he who quells order disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course and so result in chaos…for these hurt the whole state…It is essential therefore…to have learned how to be other than good or not use goodness as necessity requires."
Thus spake Niccolo Machiavelli, and thus heard Zhang Yimou. And it’s ironic how he should follow up a movie about criticism of the Chinese government and its policies (Raise the red lantern) with another that in a way justifies a different, if not contradictory philosophy – that outlined above – and raises some interesting questions. The aforementioned excerpt from Machiavelli from The prince and the discourses pretty much sums up the essence of the film.
The land of China is ruled by six different dynasties that are embroiled in never ending conflicts with each other. Out of these the Qin dynasty, ruled by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, is the most powerful. However, constant attempts are made to assassinate Qin, who is spending sleepless nights fretting over his life. Among all the assassins, Qin is particularly mortified of Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Long Sky (Cheesy names, I know!), who are supposedly the best warriors (and I really mean best – they are oblivious to concept of gravity or physical constraints) in all of China. He is so paranoid that he has ordered everyone to maintain a distance of atleast a hundred paces.
Qin’s prayers are answered, as a mundane warrior who goes by the name of Nameless (Jet Li) appears out of nowhere as a Godsend who has relieved Qin of his worries by eliminating his infuriating arch-nemesis trio. An excited and grateful Qin wishes to hear the tale from this humble servant, who has done the impossible. As Nameless narrates the tale to the king of how he wiped out all three of them with his ingenuity and skill, the wise king realizes that he’s been taken for a ride. But it’s too late! He has come too close to the unguarded king, who sees through the deception and tells him his version of how the events must have progressed. But for few changes here and there, the king’s version is surprisingly accurate and Nameless tells him the truth. But why would the warrior do so? He – as you guessed it by now – intends to kill the king as well, for which he has to come within 10 paces of the king’s throne - his flawless technique can only be executed within that distance. What is the warrior’s reason to do so? Who is he, and how did he manage to subdue his invincible opponents? What was his strategy? Does he succeed in killing the king?
The story is told in flashback mode and the audience is made to jump from the present to past, back and forth, as different versions of a story are told visually. (Remember Rashomon? Yimou was inspired by this legendary movie.) However, since it is told from different perspectives, the viewer is left to believe his own instincts about the validity of each version (King’s, Nameless’s, Broken Sword’s). Each version is distinct and where some involve hatred, jealousy and destruction, others convey the most perfect understanding, loyalty, and love.
If treated better, Hero could have been an engaging tale with its larger-than-life characters, fantastic imagery, gravity-defying action sequences (typical of Chinese martial arts movies) and some really flamboyant sets. It is made on a mammoth budget (it is THE most expensive Chinese movie ever made)!, but in terms of impact, it leaves a lot to be desired. For starters, almost every actor has been under-utilized, especially Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Why he picked two of the most accomplished actors known for their intense performances (In the mood for love; Lust, Caution) and turned them into flying superheroes is beyond one’s comprehension. Yimou’s self-confessed love for Wuxia (Martial Arts Chivalry) is very evident in Hero and he surely got carried away. Perhaps he was fascinated with his fellow director Ang Lee, whose action oriented Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a worldwide hit. But he solely focused on the outcome of gripping action sequences than the script quality and this is where the movie falls apart. CTHD and Rashomon were far better movies if we take into account originality, histrionics and story structure.
However, "cinematically" speaking, Hero is one poem of a movie in which every line sounds more beautiful than it really is – the mind-games, the sheer superhuman fighting skills, the details, the impeccable strokes of a calligraphy maestro – all are indicative of an elusive genius in a filmmaker. Yimou has an eye for details for sure.
Yimou’s movies have always had a strong political connotation to them, and this one is no different. As I mentioned earlier, if other works hint at the decadence of a communist society (Raise the red lantern), this one obliquely supports the sacrifice of a few for the greater benefit of all. It is a controversial topic to debate upon, depending on which side you’re on. How many are “few” – Hundreds, Thousands, Millions? Is it okay to kill few righteous ones to bring about order? Is bondage a good trade-off for order? Western movies preach the importance of choosing freedom over order – Ostensibly, Mr. Yimou does not concur.
So what’s the best part about the movie? Cinematography for one! The breathtaking visuals just blow you away. Infact, I must stress at this point that the tea-cup scene (where Nameless proves his skill to his collaborators) is often used by high definition audio-video equipment vendors (including TV, HD-DVD players, receivers, etc) to demonstrate the dexterity of the TV/DVD, etc to handle colors and details. Other scenes that show detail down to the level of a water drop being split by a sword’s steel, or a straw pierced along its length, really blow you away. Another remarkable aspect of the movie is the generous and clever context-based use of color. Nameless’ initial version shows Broken Arrow and Flying Snow in red robes, whereas the king’s version shows them in blue. In later parts of the movie, they are shown in shades of green and white. This helps in keeping the multiple threads distinct from each other (According to Yimou, they represent different point of views).
I wouldn’t call Hero Yimou’s best movie – but it is definitely his most beautiful movie. Definitely worth watching atleast once, preferably on a gigantic screen – the bigger, the better. It is as good as they get...visually speaking of course!
Another well researched and more elaborate review of Hero can be found at The Case for Global Film.