Released 2002. Director: Zhang Yimou
WHAT MAKES A HERO? ONE WHO BUILDS A POWERFUL EMPIRE with tyranny, one who removes such a ruler to spare the lives of the oppressed, or one who dies to protect either the tyrant or the assassin?
Zhang Yimou’s gloriously photographed Hero is a fictional thought exercise set in the historical context of 3rd century BC, when what is now China was ruled by Emperor Qin with an iron fist. Is tyranny a necessary evil for nation-building in tumultuous times? Is tyranny the only way to unify a fragmented kingdom?
As Hero begins, a swordsman who goes by the moniker Nameless is granted a rare audience with the emperor. He presents proof of the death of three of the kingdom’s most feared assassins and the Emperor is intrigued.
So begins six accounts of swordfight and sacrifice, each filmed using a dominant colour: grey, red, yellow, blue, green and white. These colour-coded segments are highly stylized, a visual flourish the work of cinematographer Christopher Doyle that perhaps carry deeper symbolism than mere aesthetics.
Chinese martial arts enjoyed a renaissance in the cinemas in the early 2000s thanks to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The balletic fight sequences carry a measure of thrill in its gravity-defying leaps and complicated but graceful manoeuvres in Hero, though in comparison, the choreography is less exhilarating than the work of Yuen Wo Ping in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Maggie Cheung essays her role of a deadly killer with the languid weightlessness of a cat. Tony Leung marries swordsmanship and calligraphy whilst balancing love and patriotism. They have such evocative names: Flying Snow and Broken Sword. But the assassin lovers’ mission eventually diverges and the final decision rests on a stoic Jet Li as Nameless, on whether the emperor should live, or be killed, as he gets within striking distance of his target.
The history of how a turbulent and fractured China came to be consolidated under one ruler makes this fictional account of heroic sacrifices a stunning work of the imagination. Contrary to the view that Hero celebrates brute power and authoritarian rule, the movie suggests a challenge to evaluate Emperor Qin in a different light.
Conquering seven warring kingdoms, Emperor Qin brought about stability and governance, unified a vast and scattered population, standardized language and writing, built the Great Wall, and laid the foundation for China in the geopolitical sense. His legacies include hundreds of thousands who died under his murderous rule. But would China have evolved to become what it is today without someone like Emperor Qin?
Regardless of who the enigmatic title refers to, Hero is poetic, austere, ravishing.