“A dead man begs you to remember; a warrior’s ultimate act is to lay down his sword.”
Hero (2002) dir. Zhang Yimou is a cerebral experience that stops at the retina. It is rapturously beautiful, enchanting in its colours, and it’s a film that has grace. When the characters don’t speak, their swords do. And when nothing else on screen makes a sound, the music does. A martial arts Fant-Asia costume epic, it encompasses every aspect cinema was made for – sweeping imagery, an unusual narrative, a stirring soundtrack, and heartbreaking performances from the leads.
As Hero unfolds, it’s multitude of different accounts of one man’s story is beguiling. The film opens with stunning visuals, intercutting between the frenzy of horses running and the calmness of blue mountains. The storyteller is Nameless, who arrives at the imperial court of the dreaded King of Qin. Nameless tells the tale of how he singlehandedly overcame the three most dangerous assassins in Qin. The narrative tells and retells the story three times differently, each flashback coloured by a separate personal perception.
The following are some points I found that stood out to me the most in the film.
THE RESILIENCE OF CHINESE PEOPLE IN THE FACE OF HARDSHIP AND ADVERSITY
天下 (tian xia) : all under heaven
I saw the Qin army in Hero as a ruthless war machine with no face, no identity, and a kindling for shedding human blood. They were like soldier ants, a black mass, with no individual thoughts or opinions. The Qin army’s unison cry of “Feng! Feng!” is faintly reminiscent of the Nazi salute “Sieg Heil!”
In stark comparison, Nameless, Broken Sword and Flying Snow were resilient in bringing revenge for their fallen kingdom Zhao, seized and destroyed by Qin. The characters were motivated by uniting China, albeit their different personal feelings for killing the king.
In the end, the sacrifice of all three lives of Nameless, Broken Sword and Flying Snow warranted the unity of China, 天下.
STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS
This is a film where women will fight to the death for what they believe in. In a field where men are traditionally seen on screen in duels, the women in this movie, Flying Snow and Moon, wield their own swords and fight their own battles.
The woman warriors in Hero serve as both a multi-faceted characterisation and a definitive style in 21st century Asian cinema. Equipped with the deadliest martial arts skills in China, Flying Snow and Moon are two very different woman – one who acts on emotions, is bent on unadulterated rage for the king and who kills without thought, and another who is submissive, servile and completely obedient to her master.
The battle between Flying Snow and Moon is an enthralling experience, two beautiful women fighting to their deaths, whirling in a sea of falling leaves. As Moon falls, the leaves fade to blood red, signifying the finality of her death.
While Hero surely features a multitude of memorable elements – captivating performances, stunning fight choreography, gorgeous set pieces, it’s use and understanding of colours are exceptional. A single colour of each episode fills the entire screen, covers each character’s bodies and paints every set. They separate three different accounts of the story told, each colour drawing out a different emotion from the audience.
Zhang claims that there is no link between the story lines and the colours but then, maybe he’s just messing with us.
Red – Wrath
Blue – Imagination
Green – Harmony
White – Passing
Black – Dynasty
The most stunning mise en scène by far is Blue, where red has bled dry and has calmed down for a lake that awaits, as still as a picture. Nothing else around the screen moves except for two warriors that acquire the most dangerous weapon – anger. Blades slice through the water, their warrior yells cut through the mist and it seemed like nothing could stop them but a single drop of water that falls on a lover’s cheek.
To conclude, below is a quote I resonate firmly with from the director, Zhang Yimou.
“A few years later, if someone mentions Hero, you are going to remember the colors. You are going to remember in a sea of golden leaves, two ladies dressed in red dancing are in the air. You are going to remember, on a lake as still as a mirror, two men are using their swords to convey their sorrow, like birds flying on the water, like dragonflies.”