Fighting for the right to fight

Zhang Yimou offers a meditation on the individual versus the state

by Tom Horgen

You don’t as much watch Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” as you witness it. This is the Super Bowl of kung fu war epics. A film seeking to surpass all those that have come before it. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” put its warriors in the treetops. “Hero” makes them do the man-dance while walking on water.

Everything is writ large here. Great halls look as if they were designed for Godzilla and not humans. An army’s enormous arrow assault on an unsuspecting village makes the “unleash hell” opening of “Gladiator” seem like acupuncture. And to top it off, an A-list cast of Chinese actors flies around in colorful robes. This is indeed conspicuous filmmaking.

These are bold strokes from a director who’s never made a fight film before. Zhang, regarded by some as a near master, usually sticks to small, tedious stories that have something to say. It should be no surprise, then, that he has something to say here, now working with the most expensive budget in Chinese cinema history.

But herein lies the film’s lone problem: Zhang’s message comes across a little naive for a director who repeatedly scared the communist state with his early films.

Zhang’s big story takes place during a period as big as any in Chinese history – in 300 B.C. when one king united warring fiefdoms through conquest, creating one rule and one China. A warrior simply called Nameless (Jet Li) has been brought before this ruthless (but visionary?) ruler to explain the manner in which he was able to kill a trio of master assassins who have threatened the king’s life.

Nameless recounts his victories in gorgeous color-coded flashbacks where we are treated to some of the best fight choreography ever filmed. But the paranoid king questions Nameless’ accounts and counters with his own versions of the assassins’ deaths, suggesting Nameless might be in cahoots and an assassin himself.

In these encounters with assassins Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky, we find individual stories of men and women who do not want to be conquered, but might be willing to give their lives for the promise of peace, even if it means their own deaths.

Here is where Zhang’s message falters. He celebrates the essence of individuality, crafting these assassins as dissident voices in the king’s unilateral and violent campaign to unite the land. But he then ends the film in historical fact (knowing this won’t give away the true fate of Nameless and the assassins). The king lives on to unite China through war.

Zhang wants us to celebrate the spirit of individuality in the face of omnipotent rule, but then watch it die for the greater good of the many (even when that greater good comes bathed in blood). That sounds like having your cake and eating it too, right?

Actually that sounds like party sentiment coming from a director whose breakthrough film, “Ju Dou,” was banned for being, well, too individualistic.