Hero's first fight sequence puts martial arts...
...on a par with chess.
The opening sets up water and rain...
...as a motif that will be repeated throughout the film.
Parallel editing across a series of 14 cuts integrates a bind man playing music...
...with the first big fight.
Parallel editing ties martial arts to calligraphy. We see Broken Sword doing calligraphy inside the "writing school"...
...cut against FlyingSnow fighting outside against thousands of arrows.
The fighters' movements, including the swirling hair,...
...resemble the art of the calligrapher.
The master of calligraphy remains unmoved in the midst of chaos. This also hints at the seeming superiority of Wen (skill of words/pen) versus Wu (skill of fighting).
The students of the art (of calligraphy) are doing the same.
Ephemeral yellow leaves create a strong impression of the art of fighting/dancing.
The tradition of Chinese landscape painting is replicated in the film.
Putting martial artists (vs. monks, fishermen, etc.) ...
... inside a Chinese painting.
An underwater shot angling up to the sky shows the martial artists' "footsteps" on water, leading to a sense of the sublime.
Flickering candles betwen the Emperor and Nameless occupy much of the screen.
The moving flames create a sense of unpredictability.
The emperor attributes the wavering flames to Nameless' "killing spirit."
Juxtaposing martial artists with landscape (sky and mountain).
Juxtaposing martial artists with landscape (waterfall).
The use of black and white/light and shadow in the first fight scene created a fantastic dance between fighters and camera.
Hero is a martial arts poem painted in color. Similar to Eisenstein’s theory of color, Hero connects color with sound, emotion, and meaning. Hero plays out its art in lush tones and textures. One can even say that the camera and color not only tell the story, they are the story. The different color schemes — black, red, golden yellow, blue, white, green, and black again —themselves comprise the stories. Black was the color of the Qin dynasty (the dynasty of the First Emperor of China, to whom the film alludes). In the film black surfaces shine. Black as the solemn and stately color marks the beginning of the story, in which heroes meet, big things happen, epics begin. Saturated red is Zhang’s color for intense passion and jealousy (a negative form of passion), as one can also see in his films Red Sorghum, Judou, Raise the Red Lanterns, and even in his realist film Story of Qiu Ju. In Hero love demands loyalty, blood, and life. The use of golden yellow, which Hero's cinematographer Chris Doyle compared to Van Gogh in his shooting diary, is full of life. It is ephemeral. Nothing can describe better the fight/dance of the two beautiful women (Flying Snow and Moon), who amidst the golden dancing leaves and barren empty branches, fight and kill for the love of one man. After that, the translucent green curtains of the palace illuminate the heroism of Flying Snow and Broken Sword as they try to kill the emperor and fail.
The poetry is composed of ravishing images:
The unforgettable scene of the fight over the lake actually visualizes the classic literary description of the delicacy of a movement of a "dragon fly (lightly) dipping over the water." The film's congealment of powerful images, mood, and energy reaches the level of the sublime, surpassing any cinematic presentation of martial arts made before. Hero is a superb example of cinema being an art form by itself while expressing the sublimity of another art.
Hero as discourse on art
While most critics, Chinese and Western, have focused on the film's narrative and characters, they miss Hero’s unusual discourse on the art of martial arts itself. As the first martial arts film made by a major art film director from mainland China, Hero surprisingly uses martial arts in a way that transcends action. Most martial arts films mainly draw viewers' attention to the "acrobatics" or "the skill of fighting." This stylistic focus, made familiar to the West by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, has attracted two major types of academic studies of the genre. Thus we find an analysis of the aesthetics of movement, as found in Aaron Anderson’s and David Bordwell's theories of kinesthetics, and the study of the body, as in Chris Berry's work on Bruce Lee's body and Lo, Kwai-Cheung’s study on martial arts masculinity. But these studies, useful as they are, do not touch deeply enough on what is central to Hero. This film portrays martial arts not simply as bodily movements with force to subdue but as an expression of the human spirit.
In this vein, Hero begins with a discourse on martial arts as an art form, comparable to the four forms of high (versus popular) art most respected within the Chinese tradition — music, chess, calligraphy, and painting. This is a radical point for Zhang to make since up to this point traditional Chinese culture in general and socialist Chinese cinema had not considered martial arts as a form of high art. In some ways, Zhang’s insight here, parallels some French artists’ vision for cinema during the early 1900s when most writers did not find cinema comparable to any form of high art. The artists argued rigorously with their contemporaries, both through critical writings and filmmaking, that cinema, however different from traditional arts, could be the seventh art.
Hero's discourse on martial arts begins in the first battle scene occurring between Nameless (Jet Li) and Sky (Donnie Yen) in a chess-house. The scene opens with a close-up shot of a quintessential Chinese game, called "Go" in the West. The first two-shot of the fighters in which they meet and face each other is framed with a chess board in the foreground, Nameless in the mid-ground and Sky in the background. Also present is a blind musician playing a "Zheng," a Chinese musical instrument similar to a lap harp. The fight scene is intercut with images of unfinished chess games, the musician, and close-up shots of his instrument. These Eisenstein-like montages clearly mark the connection between martial arts, music, and chess. In the fight's final round, Nameless invites the departing old man to play his music one more time. Nameless says, "Swords and harps are two different instruments. But their (art) principle is the same. They both reach for the 'supreme (ultimate) state,'" a state of human perfection.
The ultimate state is also a state of purity. This first fight takes place after a rainstorm, and the water motif recurs throughout the film. The scene's first shot shows a white chess piece in crystal clear water, and the rest of the scene features many close-ups of water droplets: dripping from the roof, splashing around the fighting/flying bodies, and swirling around the blades in slow motion. Water cleans and purifies. The editing and the unusual non-diegetic sound all accompany the light and shadow created by a fantastic dance between fighters and camera. These are moments of attraction, to use Tom Gunning's sense of "attraction," but the narration (versus narrative) does not stop.
It takes just as much mental concentration and discipline to do martial arts as it does to practice other arts. (Later we hear Broken Sword speaks of "good martial arts as good calligraphy.") That precision with which the blade slices through water droplets is the same precision that we see later when the sword pierces through the center of an oncoming arrow. Again, the art here does not just reside in the movement of the human body but in the elegant control of the sword. In a state of perfection, the sword cuts with absolute clarity. Here one can make a connection with the popular culture connotation of the sword as a symbol of moral power. The image of the perfection of the sword might suggest the perfection of the human spirit.
The art of martial arts also has parallels with the art of music. As the blind man teaches the young fighters, "music, when it reaches its state of perfection, is "soundless." In the first fight scene the strings of the Zheng break at the musical climax, rendering it "soundless." Nameless and Sky, both experts in motion, remain motionless for seemingly hours. The perfect fight happens, but in their mind. This spiritual dimension of martial arts and its comparison with music, calligraphy, and chess is a repeated theme throughout the film.
Later in the story, after Broken Sword achieves this higher form of martial arts, he is reluctant to fight again. As he explains to Flying Snow, calligraphy and martial arts have the same principle. Broken Sword now realizes that calligraphy is the art of the brush as martial arts is the art of the sword. Since his blade is in his mind, he needs only to practice calligraphy and there is no reason to participate in fighting physically any more. Similarly, at the end of the film Nameless, who finally realizes this art of non-action, gives up his chance to kill the emperor.
Narrative and characters
Some critics see a similarity between the narratives of Hero and the Japanese classic Rashomon. Upon close inspection, however, one can observe certain narrative strategies and foci that mark stark differences between the two. Even though both films' narration relies on a sequence of flashbacks, the two have a very different central dramatic tension. Rashomon posits the question of truth, i.e. whether one flashback gives a more truthful recounting of past events than another, whether human beings can tell the truth, or whether “truth” is possible at all. Hero's narrative tension, however, does not lie in the issue of “truth.” Less than half way through the film, the emperor recognizes, and Nameless admits, that the original story is actually a lie. The emperor firmly pronounces Nameless' murderous intention, and his recognition of that intent drastically changes the film's dramatic direction. This plot point reroutes the initial narrative questions of, “Can Nameless kill the emperor? If yes, how will he do so?” to a new set of inquiries: “Now that the emperor knows Nameless’ real intention, what is going to happen? Will the emperor order Nameless’ execution? Can Nameless save himself? Or, is he doomed?”
This restructuring is almost Hitchcockian, in that the key narrative propellant, the protagonist or the main quest of the protagonist (e.g. to assassinate), is terminated or aborted in the middle of the story. One good historical example of this is in Psycho, when after the death of the main protagonist, Marion Crane, the narrative takes a sharp turn and her quest — running away with stolen money, (which the audience was led to believe was the main story up until this point) — is finished off in the midst of the film.
Spirit of “Xia” (knights-errant)
Because of this narrative rupture, the film opens up the possibility of a very different focus. Soon after the emperor’s pronouncement, we see a second “flashback.” It is in fact not a flashback but the imagination of the emperor — now trying to ascertain how Nameless met and plotted with Flying Snow and Broken Sword to kill him (blue sequence in the film). Thus, a new dialogue begins that focuses not on the “story” per se, as all the flashbacks/stories are largely similar from this point on, but rather on the spirit/character of the “xia” (knights-errant, cavaliers) — Sky, Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Nameless. The term “xia” has long been applied to persons who roamed around the country and used force to right wrongs. Such fictional characters existed since the early history of Chinese literature and constituted a genre called "wu-xia" (armed knight-errant). Wu-xia genre films, which are loosely classified as martial arts films in the West, became dominant in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 60s. Unfortunately, many critics do not grasp that the spirit of “xia” is the genre's central issue. Most reviewers, when criticizing Hero's narrative, do not seem to recognize the film's use of a folkloric genre structure. Consequently, they analyze the film as though it were a plot-based, character-driven, modern drama.
It is worth looking closely at the way the emperor learned to distrust Nameless’ story. Nameless took advantage of the rift between lovers, Broken Sword and Flying Sword. But the emperor's subsequent reasoning is based on his understanding of the spirit and temperament of Flying Snow and Broken Sword. The emperor remembers that he has met Broken Sword and Flying Snow before and that he can see “[they are] chivalrous, honest, and not narrow minded,” i.e. they are people of great virtue and full of self control. They are loyal to each other and will not get jealous over small matters. Thus, it is the very spirit of the two as knights-errant, not the rationale of Nameless’ narrative — its cause and effect structure — that renders Nameless' story illogical.
While the emperor may be confident of having mapped out Nameless’ plot, the latter has yet an astonishing story to tell. The third flashback is a “real” flashback, in which Nameless recounts his meeting with Flying Snow and Broken Sword (most of the white sequence). But within this flashback sequence, another flashback is inserted (green sequence). It is the flashback of Broken Sword, who recalls how he and Flying Snow attempted to assassinate the emperor three years prior. But during that encounter Broken Sword suddenly realizes that for the sake of “Tian xia” (the world) he should spare the emperor’s life. His failure to kill the emperor even when he had the opportunity angered Flying Snow. In this meeting with Nameless, Broken Sword tries to dissuade Flying Snow. But again Flying Snow is furious. She almost kills him in front of Nameless. Throughout these four flashbacks, a clearer picture of Flying Snow and Broken Sword begins to emerge. Broken Sword is most skillful in his martial arts. But through his practice in calligraphy he realizes that the highest state of swordsmanship lies not in fighting a war but in stopping a war. He is unwilling to kill the emperor, whom he believes has the power to bring peace. For that reason Broken Sword changes his goal. He now longs for a peaceful place called home, where “there is no sword or skill. There is only a man and a woman.” He longs for the day when Flying Snow can take him home.
Flying Snow, on the other hand, believes she must fulfill her duty to seek revenge for her father, who was killed by the emperor’s army. For that cause she is perfectly willing to die. In Nameless’ version of the story, when she and Broken Sword are on their way to a duel with Nameless in front of the emperor’s army, just to pretend they are enemies, she deliberately stabs Broken Sword. In her doing so, Broken Sword is spared, and she duels with Nameless all by herself. Throughout the film we can see that Flying Snow is a woman of great courage and deep love. She honors her commitment and is not afraid to sacrifice for her cause. She demonstrates a consistent strong "xia" spirit. In the end, she does exactly what she promises: “We (Broken Sword and Flying Snow) will not separate, our swords will not part, if we die we die together.”
Tension between “Wen” (skill of words)
Even though Broken Sword and Flying Snow are great lovers, Broken Sword has a different temperament. He is capable of changing his goal and responding to a different “calling.” Here is where the film creates a problem, at least for most of its East Asian audience, because the basic character of a "xia" does not always conform to (Confucian) society. According to "xia" code of ethics, peace does not necessarily have the highest value. Justice does. Peace without justice only indicates weak complacency. Broken Sword’s change from sword to brush (calligraphy) is a shift from “wu” (skill of fighting) to “wen” (skill of words), which indeed signifies what was described by sinologist David Nivison as a shift from “protest against (Confucian) conventions” to “conventions against protest.” To depict such a change in character indeed subverts the genre. In the end, Broken Sword accepts the consequence of his decision — the piercing sword of Flying Snow.
The spirit of Nameless is presented in a direct and different way. His undeniable virtuoso swordsmanship is seen throughout the fights he engages in. One also hears about (versus sees) his ten year devotion to perfect his martial arts. Showing his capability as a man of strategy, he designs a clever plot to assassinate the emperor. He has the trust of Sky, another hero, who gives his life so that Nameless can carry out his plan. In the end Nameless also spares the emperor and accepts the result of what he does. The emperor executes him but also honors him with an unusual funeral. Thus, the character of Nameless also poses a genre problem similar to that posed by Broken Sword. His change of mind resides outside the "xia" tradition.
The prolonged dialogue between Nameless and the emperor also takes up ideas of heroism and peace. Dramatic tension re-surfaces every time that the kneeling Nameless calmly converses with the mighty and yet equally calm emperor. The viewer feels a strong sense of unease with a constant suspicion that something is going to happen, but like a ticking bomb, one does not know when it will explode. The danger embedded in the scene, which one knows but cannot see, is largely created through mise-en-scene. Rows of candles sit between Nameless and the emperor and usually occupy from one third to half the screen space. As the dialogue approaches its end, more and more of the action and reaction shots between the two characters are framed with almost two third of the space filled with the candles. Sometimes there is a windy draft, which one cannot see but can sense through the movement of the flames, creating a sense of unpredictability. One cannot know whether or which candles will be blown out. At one point the emperor even points out to Nameless that his “killing spirit” has caused the candle flames to waver.
Hero's narrative is composed of four flashback sequences, with the end of each sequence cutting back to the main plot, namely, the conversation between Nameless and the emperor. But instead of seeing the repeated scenes of the two characters simply as transitions from one flashback to another, even amidst the tension "to kill or not to kill," the viewer finds in these repeated scenes an ongoing verbal dialogue, about "xia" and its heroic spirit and their connection with "tian xia" (world) and peace. The flashbacks are all literally tinted, presented in different color sequences, just as the lie, the imagination, and the remembrances are based on perspectives that are “tinted” and not objective. In the end, the idea of the "xia" spirit itself also is not objective and perhaps questionable. Thus, if one recalls the prologue — “there are heroes on both sides” — the "xia" can be considered heroes even within the confines of their own subjectivities and worldviews. A postscript, which explains how this emperor eventually unified China, implies that he too is a hero of his time.
The problem of history
Hero's political problem lies in its ending. Since the parallel between the film's emperor and the historical First Emperor is too obvious to ignore, viewers must evaluate how acceptable they find the film’s subversive re-reading of history. One can address that question through a number of traditions. First, the film belongs to the martial arts genre. Hero is not a documentary or even a docu-drama, but literally a fantasy film in which people can fly and arrows can be shot hundreds of miles. Its genre type puts it into a category different from say, Leni Reifanstahl’s infamous documentary Triumph of the Will. In considering Hero as fiction, historical accuracy is not necessary. The “real” Emperor’s motive for uniting China is quite irrelevant to the motive of the fantasy emperor in the film. Historical dramas have long used drama in a way deemed "inaccurate," and the audience need not burden Zhang with such a responsibility for accuracy. Under these standards even Shakespeare’s Macbeth proves problematic. (According to one scholar, Shakespeare villainized the Scottish king Macbeth who was in fact a benevolent leader.) In the case of a fiction film's depicting the First Emperor, it should pose even less of a problem given that the historical figure is two thousand years old and history has already given its verdict. Thus, as long as Zhang’s story is not taught as history, the task of “keeping a straight record” should not be the goal of this film. Furthermore, concern over level of accuracy here may differ if one were dramatizing a contemporary event, which because of the lack of time and distance, might more likely create misinformation and ethical confusion. Even Triumph of the Will, which was banned in some places after World War II, was deemed “safe” to watch a few decades later, when enough time-distance had been gained and the reality of the War had been culturally explored.
However, the more serious problem lies not in the film’s historical inaccuracies but in its contradictory internal narrative logic. But the contradiction, I would argue, is not a matter of Zhang's political complicity with socialist authorities. For it would be hard to imagine that the Chinese government needs a film to defend its semi-dictatorial practices. Otherwise, one would have to wonder why another film about the same First Emperor in which the dictator was portrayed negatively, The Emperor and the Assassin by Chen Kaige (1998), did not suffer censorship.
Rather, I would suggest that the political questions surrounding Hero be considered from a global/local context. This approach is appropriate given that the filmmakers (producers and director included) made their intention very clear — to make a global hit. On the one hand, locally speaking, traditional Chinese teaching believes that true bravery lies not in one's willingness to fight but in one's willingness to stop fighting. The film carries out this sense of the perfect (ultimate) action realized through non-action; the major characters make a transition from "wu" to "wen," sword to pen, consistent with a message of non-violence. On the other hand, this message conflicts with the film’s defense of an Emperor constantly engaged in warfare and bloodshed. To argue that security and national unity take preference over individual life sounds feudal if not imperial to an audience with modern liberal attitudes. Even though “peace,” a notion that resonates within contemporary international discourse, is mentioned a number of times, a peace that builds on killing is not convincing and contradicts any notion of non-violence. As a film which attempts to break the national barrier and represent the emerging sense of China's internationality Hero is caught in the contradictions between narrow nationalism (security and unity) and self-conscious cosmopolitanism (world peace — "Tian xia" peace). This confusion, perhaps, can also be seen as a reflection of China's own situation since the country is still in the process of balancing its semi-dictatorial feudalism with modern global internationalism. The film's narrative contradiction reveals China's deeper problems as it attempts to formulate its own philosophy as a new global citizen.
The problem of a blockbuster
No doubt, Hero succeeds in combining art and commerce; avoiding crowd pleasing superficial gimmicks and orientalist cheap sell. It presents Chinese culture with style and dignity. But still, one should question the very concept of a "blockbuster," a formulaic and rigid way of filmmaking, which limits forms and content. A blockbuster, by definition, has to dominate. As the history of Hollywood tells us, constantly pursuing it will create a mono-cinema culture. As I am writing this essay, Zhang Yimou has already made another film with a similar style — House of Flying Daggers. Even though that film's aesthetic is enchanting in a number of scenes and it sold well in China, its overall accomplishment, in my judgment, is not as profound as that of Zhang's first martial arts film. Recently, Zhang has returned to artisan practice and completed another small budget film Qianli Zou Danji (2005), which premiered in Japan in February, 2005, and was shown in the 2005 Hawaiian International Film Festival. At a time when globalization seems to drive global uniformity, what Chinese cinema needs is not world domination but ways to protect its diverse local expressivity.