When every brain-dead, idea-bereft movie and moronic TV ad for toothpaste or whatever thinks it’s cool to go all Matrix-y on us, I guess it takes the genre that invented the cool slo-mo kung-fu fighting stuff to remind us how to do it right.
Choreographer Tony Ching Sui Tung also arranged the athletic-field fights in Shaolin Soccer, but with Hero, it’s practically an insult to dub them “fights.” They are ballets, not in a sense that glorifies violence but in a sense that glorifies the human body and what it can do. Ching takes dudes sailing through the air like gravity’s just a suggestion and makes it look real and natural. Extreme, sure: two swordsmen walking up walls and flying toward each other ain’t exactly an everyday thing, nor is a warrior chick spinning in the air, repelling a rain of arrows with the gauzy flapping of her diaphanous gown. But triathlons ain’t normal, either, and people really do them. Ching — and director Zhang Yimou and a cast so spectacular it’s scary — makes these feats seems less fantastical than merely exceptional, like they’re achievable physical skills most of us simply haven’t mastered, like bench-pressing 500 pounds or tap dancing like Fred Astaire. This is why all the hack filmmakers who’ve stolen the floating-fighting thing don’t get it right: they treat it as a joke, not as a pinnacle of human physicality and an expression of human grace.
I wouldn’t have been surprised to find, with Hero, that defying-gravity thing was merely a gimmick and that it had run its course, that we’d already seen all that could be done with, but I’m even more delightfully surprised to see that it can stay fresh. It really is like dancing: Who ever gets tired of Fred Astaire, and wouldn’t we love to see more like him?
But you know? It’s not just the choreography that so right here — everything is so right. It gives me chills just thinking about how amazing Hero is. Way more so than even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — which is a film I worship and adore — Hero puts the “art” in martial arts, and man, that is a corny thing to say but I’ve never felt uplifted by a movie about people fighting before. And not just fighting on a one-to-one level either: military strategy gets elevated into a realm with music and calligraphy as an art in its own right, not the ugly business of killing people but the worthy business of avoiding having to kill other people even in times of war. War, here, is the failure of the art of strategy.
The title really is ironic, because even though the film tells us that “in any war there are heroes on both sides,” there’s kinda no one who’s a clear-cut hero. At first we have the nameless medieval Chinese warrior (Jet Li: Cradle 2 the Grave, Lethal Weapon 4) who might be the hero: he’s been invited to an audience with the emperor (Daoming Chen), which no one ever gets invited to, because Nameless offed two assassins Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai: Infernal Affairs) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), who’ve been after the emperor for years. Or maybe he didn’t, and maybe the concept of “hero” here has less to do with championing the emperor than we’ve been led to believe: the tales of Nameless’s exploits may not be entirely believable, and he may be up to something the emperor might not like. With stories within stories that keep us from ever finding a comfortable place from which to smugly assume we know what’s coming next, Hero plays with our expectations of genre films so that they’re entirely dispensable… and if this is popcorn fun, it’s also provocative and challenging and may prompt you to ponder some life-and-death issues, like Just what good is war anyway? and Is something worth killing for also worth dying for?
It might all get very heavy and depressing if not for how Zhang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle handle it all, turning it mythical and magical and positively transcendent. The colors alone, a different primary supersaturating each of the flashback-told tales, are luscious and luminous. Two women dressed in bloody red do battle among falling sunripe-yellow leaves under an overly blue sky… I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful and so terrible onscreen. The whole movie feels like that, like you didn’t know people could do such magnificent things with film.