Hero, Zhang Yimou’s impeccably crafted, all-star martial arts extravaganza, is the essence of shallow gravitas. Told, largely in flashback, by a nameless warrior to the third century B.C. king of Qin (eventually China’s first emperor), the movie is proudly two-dimensional. The heroic Jet Li has no name and less personality, particularly as he’s surrounded by the likes of Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi.
The filmmaker’s follow-up, House of Flying Daggers, due to open later this year, may have more humor and greater narrative intricacy, but Hero is a virtuoso performance. The action is wittily aestheticized, with swordplay variously compared to music, calligraphy, and theater. The heavens rain arrows, and in one choreographed number Maggie Cheung takes them for partners in a whirling-dervish dance. The most spectacular duel is an aerial ballet in which the combatants skip like stones over a sylvan lake. Many scenes are color-coded: The autumn leaves turn red as one character dies. Hero was shot by Chris Doyle, and although it’s not nearly as expressionist as his work for Wong Kar-wai, its look is loud.
Hero‘s backstory is also action-packed. Having acquired the most costly movie ever made in China back in 2002, Miramax sat on its U.S. release, diddling with the running time, until other forces came into play. Quentin Tarantino persuaded his padrone Harvey Weinstein to restore the movie to its original length. Then, Weinstein’s estranged padrone Michael Eisner released some extra bucks to facilitate the movie’s release, acting to placate the Chinese officials whose help he needs for his Sino Disney World.
Such power politics are not inappropriate given the film’s cartoon ideology. There’s more than a bit of Leni Riefenstahl to Hero—and not just because of the implied “worship” in the title or Zhang’s homage to Star Wars‘ famous Triumph of the Will swipe. Hero‘s vast imperial sets and symmetrical tumult, its decorative dialectical montage and sanctimonious traditionalism, its glorification of ruthless leadership and self-sacrifice on the altar of national greatness, not to mention the sense that this might somehow stoke the engine of political regeneration, are all redolent of fascinatin’ fascism.