Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) is based on a true story. Once upon a time, there was a rogue general with a bounty on his head. He wanted to fight back, and he did so in one of the most desperate attempts ever. The general agreed to commit suicide in order to have an assassin deliver his head delivered to the King of Qin. This allowed the assassin to gain the King’s trust, which he did. The assassin was allowed a private audience under pretenses of delivering maps. The assassin drew a hidden knife and chased the King around the palace to kill him. He failed, which resulted in the King stabbing him to death. That King went on to become the first Emperor of China.
Not to venture too far into spoilers, but I’ve often been fascinated by the changes Zhang made to the story. Why fool around with motivations? Was it politically driven? Can this be a goodwill gesture to Hong Kong, who were, as of 2000, under Chinese rule? It’s further complicated by the fact that Zhang was chosen to put together the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics, a display involving hundreds of coordinated performers that some saw as a celebration of fascism.
None of this, though, takes away from how absolutely gorgeous this movie looks. Trailers, focusing on the palace scenes, had me believing that Hero suffered from that early 2000’s trend in the wake of the Lord of the Rings where every scene looks gloomy and oversaturated. (In fact, there are Chinese movies like that. 2007’s The Warlords, for example.) Zhang Yimou, though, is all about shocking your retinas with bright shades of every single color he can think of, making the movie both a weird throwback to the pop art technicolor ‘60’s and weirdly ahead of its time, beating the comic book colors of Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy. (His latest movie, The Great Wall, almost looks bandwagon-y in comparison.) It’s bright, optimistic… and the bold style of the unified Chinese people, Zhang seems to argue.
In the framing device, Jet Li gets an audience with the king by saying, “I totally beat up Donnie Yen,” and he has his sword to prove it. (It’s not quite Donnie Yen’s severed head, but, you know… artistic license.) This piques the king’s interest, as it should.
“Ah!” says the King. “Come closer so you may regale me your stories of the brutal ass-kicking you delivered to Donnie Yen.”
Li then goes on a Rashomon-esque magical journey of the mind where he recalls confrontations with other assassins. After each story, the King allows Jet Li to come closer. In one flashback, the entire room and the fabric worn by its inhabitants are covered in red. When told again, everything blue instead. The transition is played with zero subtlety.
There’s fight sequences a-plenty of course. When the cast includes Li, Yen, and Crouching Tiger‘s Zhang Ziyi, you sorta have to. The martial artists are filmed with attention paid to their graceful moves and flowing robes as if they were dancers. Combined with the striking color palette, the scenes achieve an almost dreamlike quality.
Zhang Yimou, after all, is already taking liberties with the official record. Why play anything with a modicum of realism? Interestingly, the movie was brought to the US with the help of Quentin Tarantino, a man who once released a movie that showed Hitler being apocryphally assassinated in a theater by a team of Jewish commanders. Typically in stories about competing versions of reality, the viewer wants to get to the bottom of things. What is the truth? Not so in Hero. Who cares what really happened? Not when the alternate version of things is so beautiful.
Perhaps that’s what Zhang Yimou was trying to say all along.