As with many beautiful non-realist films, watching Hero is a humorless quest. What’s surprising is how all the thrilling verb-qualities of the action have been stripped away from the glamorous punch-outs. To quote one martial arts film expert—i.e., my Dad, who has fond high school memories waiting in line for King Hu’s Dragon Inn—“There’s too much fighting!” Like the last two Matrix movies, the fight scenes hum with only physical or cinematic—rather than dramatic—energy. And because the lavish set pieces are merely props for the two men’s conflicting alibis, Hero is a film unwilling to make any commitments. Any character’s death, emotional baggage, or tear-flecked love life can be casually revised with a wry Qin dynasty retort. The personality-free characters resurrect themselves, are in love and then not in love, reformulating themselves like bloodless equations. Lacking the urgent fate-like inevitability of plot, Hero is more like a video game than an epic. But is Hero bad? Or somehow avant-garde?
Viewed sympathetically, the film looks glazed over with the aesthetic chilliness of modernism: vaguely alien, halfway engaging, artificially sentimental, eagerly flaunting the completely aestheticized world that Zhang Yimou has created. Hong Kong martial arts movies are often gaudy and theatrical, but while most wuxia flicks have the jokey, epically playful, bodily theatrics of Chinese opera, Hero appropriates the more self-conscious, sullen theatricality of Beckett. The fight scenes are often boxed in the background of long shots, close-ups being avoided in favor of symmetrical long shots, a Zhang favorite. When Zhang stays with the action, the editing is uninterested in the logic of punch and counter-punch, ignoring the “plot” of the fight; he often cuts away to someone walking upstairs or an old man playing a zither. Two of the fight scenes even occur via the ancient Chinese art of telepathy—only in the characters’ heads! In most Hong Kong action movies, say, Jackie Chan’s update on Buster Keaton or Chow Yun-Fat’s cheesy coolness, the choreography is really less about fighting than about the type of dancey intimacy that the fighting induces; Hero is one of the most subversively distancing martial arts movies ever made.
The excessive prettiness, meanwhile, gives the film a sleek, synthetic non-texture common to non-Hollywood special effects vehicles, like Andy Lau’s The Storm Riders. All this glamour smothers the characters away from themselves, makes them seem intentionally, ornately hollow, hollow as knights, angels, and other people who day-job as symbols. Perhaps, we say to ourselves, the characters’ lack of individuality is intentional! Always saying the same things over and over again (“How swift thy sword”), always clacking broadsword to scabbard, always showing the back of their heads to the camera, the characters repeat themselves into the non-human ritualistic shapes—i.e. heroes. What at first seems like a sell-out Crouching Tiger cash-in, begins to seem oddly consistent with Zhang’s oeuvre: rhetorical, in a way that uses the abstracting power of rhetoric to wall off sentimentality, and still—but passionately still. Who else would make a kung-fu movie that aspires to be static?
For all its red-shawled, rain-stabbed flourishes, Hero is actually an exercise in austerity. Watching it is like talking to a shy fashion model—there’s nothing here but beauty to work with. This lack of a there there makes Hero’s pleasures almost neorealist—and, in spite of its historical lushness, more like Zhang’s mundane, later films like The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less than his earlier, often bright-red period pieces. (The Road Home, Zhang’s 2000 Zhang Ziyi vehicle, frames a sentimental period fable in his flatter Qiu Ju documentary style, exaggerating his narrative techniques at both ends.) As though Hero’s own circuit of meaning is too weak to generate any electricity of its own, many have read it as a political allegory: it is the first Zhang Yimou movie to come out foran oppressive totalitarian dictator! The debate in Beijing has cutely mimicked the ambiguity of the movie: the progressives hate it, seeing Chen Daoming’s emperor as a signifier for the government’s conservative hardliners; the conservative hardliners hate it, seeing the same character as George W. Bush!
Hero suggests allegory because allegory and formula look almost identical. The film fails where Zhang Yimou’s films so often succeed: in Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum, and Ju Dou, Zhang walked a rickety dialectic between small personal details and a larger political subtext. These three films are as impersonal and free of context as Hero—can you name the exact date and location for any of them?—but all of them are nailed in place by one overwhelming special effect: Gong Li. Li has the job requirements of auteur’s muse down pat: like Monica Vitti and Catherine Deneuve, she is sensual and sublime, and capable of emitting light from her pores. Li focused Zhang’s early films, acting like a prism through which he could shine his impersonal, aesthetic impulses and have them radiate out human on the other end. Hero, however, is a subtext-less epic. Everything that would make us care about it—the characters and their facts, for example—flutter off unanchored like abandoned kites. Perhaps we can accept that the characters have no depth—Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi’s, at least, are unnecessary—if we can see them as illustrations for ideas. But what are the ideas? The different narratives feel blurry, not in plot (it’s always easy to figure out which story you’re in), but in theory: the characters and scenes aren’t distinct enough, not idea-like enough, for Hero to really work as an allegory. Throwaway rather than suggestive, the nested storylines never acquire the intense contingency that makes metafiction interesting: we don’t have any stake on one reality ending up truer than any other. Hero thus comes off like a disposable jewel, the most beautiful film Zhang Yimou’s ever tossed off.
To be fair, Hero is the most expensive Chinese movie
ever made and the film’s talent is amazing. In addition to two Crouching
Tiger hand-me-downs (composer Tan Dun and Zhang Ziyi in a brattily sultry
supporting role, which might be credited “Zhang Yimou’s late
career stand-in for Gong Li”), Hero features the choreography of
Ching Siu Tung, director of the most fun wuxia franchise in Hong Kong
film, Chinese Ghost Story. More obviously, Hero showcases the beautiful,
imprecise cinematography of Wong Kar-wai regular Christopher Doyle, which,
as one friend said, is “so beautiful I started crying.” But
if Hero is one of the most beautiful movies of the decade, this distinction
is boring; it makes it merely like every other Zhang Yimou movie. As an
antidote to the film’s luscious beauty-swamped hypnotism, here’s
a fun experiment you can try at home: buy the low-resolution VCD edition
of Hero and watch it on a laptop with headphones. This is obviously unfair,
like watching stand-up comedy without the sound, but it may be a way to
find out whether mere beauty is enough.