• Hero is a significant artistic achievement. Yimou Zhang’s film is simultaneously one of the great Wuxia films (martial arts films set in ancient China) and one of the most considerable visual achievements in 21st century cinema.
  • It was one of the most expensive Chinese films made to date in 2002.
  • The prologue introduces the scenario. There are seven warring nations in China. “In any war there are heroes on both sides.” Jet Li plays “Nameless”- with a complex strategy to assassinate the king. To get close enough to the king (Daoming Chen) he has to kill Sky (Donnie Yen), and  either Broken Sword (Tony Leung) or Flying Snow (Maggie Ceung)- the last two back working together just after their landmark collaboration a few years earlier with WKW in In the Mood For Love (2000).

each frame is symmetrically perfect, the décor is rapturously handsome, and the color scheme is meticulously married to the strands of the story- first starting with black…

…then red…

…then blue and so on.

  • Speaking of WKW, the cinematographer at work here in Hero is WKW’s chief collaborator Christopher Doyle. There are many stories of Yimou Zhang’s fastidious detail as he designed the endlessly exquisite production.

a thorough dedication to storytelling structure, costume, foreground/background, and composition

  • Hero has stunning action choreography and epic scope (there were reportedly well over 10,000 extras used to give it scale) yet also seems to have the elegance of an art-house color-immersed Kieslowski film. The rigidly symmetrical compositions, the character blocking and work with architecture recalls The Conformist while the exaggerated sound-mix (water dropping) combined with combat duels recalls some of the best of Leone.

it isn’t enough to have the poetic wire-fighting on the glass-like lake reflecting a beautiful mountain range… Yimou Zhang has to design the frame with this floral arrangement as well

The exposition is minimal (which makes this feel like poetry as much as prose) and the dialogue is simple, so it helps to have some of the best actors in the world circa 2002 (especially Leung and Cheung) to portray complex emotions as efficiently as possible. These two in particular, are able to ooze action star cool one minute, and profound sensitivity the next.

  • Told in a sort of Rashomon style (Yimou Zhang has said as much) flashback structure with each point of view strand told in a different wholly dedicated color scheme. So, the formal storytelling pattern is as dogmatic as the film is beautiful. First black, then red, then blue, then white, and green. Nameless is telling the story (first his encounter with Sky) and then the king takes the baton.

It is not a difficult film to find immaculate cinematic paintings in Hero, it is a difficult find to find a place to stop. One highlight that must be mentioned is trees with the yellow leaves (apparently Yimou Zhang organized the shades of yellows leaf by leaf) at the 35-minute mark right before the battle between Cheung’s character and Ziyi Zhang’s Moon.

  • The wire-fighting choreography seemed to be at an all-time artistic high in 1999-2002 with The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (it is tough to read a review of Hero where this film is not mentioned—and Dun Tan does the music for both- and Ziyi Zhang stars in both). Yimou Zhang uses wind machines (the handsomely colored robe and fabric seem to float) and slow motion as cinematic tools as well.

this is an artist in complete control of his craft

The absolute stillness of the lake, Yimou Zhang’s choice to go with meditative dissolve edits as the mountains reflect off the water—sublime.

  • A masterpiece – it serves as confirmation of the talent that created Raise the Red Lantern in 1991. It would be seem inappropriate to talk about some of the greatest uses of color in cinema without talking about Hero.