Films that oppose the idea of revenge inevitably end up celebrating it: They revel in an antihero's killing spree while making a show of criticizing it. Zhang Yimou's Hero, however, manages to subvert vengeful cinema by appealing to the audience's mind, not its bloodlust. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2003, Hero plays less like a conventional action film than a grand master's chess game, and it unfolds with a cold yet dreamlike beauty.
Thousands of years ago, King of Qin (Chen Daoming) launched a crusade to unite China's seven kingdoms under his own rule. Hero opens as a minor officer known only as "Nameless" (Jet Li) arrives at the Imperial Palace, to find the security-obsessed king surrounded by hundreds of black-robed courtiers and wrapped in complex rituals to ensure his safety.
As King listens, Nameless describes how he eliminated Qin's sworn enemies, the super-assassins Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung). Nameless first flashes back to his battle with Sky, a duel that combines intricately choreographed swordplay with the trademark high-wire fighting of Hong Kong action flicks, made famous in the United States by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Hero's fight scenes prove more elaborate than Crouching Tiger's, but frequently stop for moments of Zen, as if the script contains haikus in its scene descriptions. In the midst of his acrobatic struggle with Sky, Nameless' narration points out the similarities between martial arts and music. Later, when he confronts Flying Snow and Broken Sword at a calligraphy school, they talk at length about how lettering can reveal fighting techniques.
Snow and Sword are lovers, but Nameless turns them against each other by capitalizing on tensions in their relationship. Cheung and Leung maintained a charged, unrequited romance in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, while in Hero, their interplay suggests an affair that's nearly exhausted, with moody performances that convey sadness, betrayal and the dying embers of desire.
Hero's set pieces could be the stuff of mythology. The archers of Qin attack the calligraphy school and fire enough arrows to blot out the sun while Nameless and Snow stand on the roof and knock them out of the sky. In a grove of golden trees, Flying Snow duels with Sword's protege (Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi), and every time they swing their swords, leaves whip around as if in a whirlwind. Nameless and Broken Sword clash on a mountain lake, skipping across the surface of the water.
Nameless' stories reveal only part of the truth, however, and as the film digs deeper, Hero returns to previous scenes, only to provide fresh, contradictory information. The film's color scheme ingeniously follows the action: Each time we see a new sequence or a different version of one shown already, the key colors of the garments and backgrounds change. The calligraphy school contains vibrant reds, while Snow and Sword's early assassination attempt on King features billowing green fabric. The device not only makes Hero a sumptuous feast for the eyes, it helps us keep up with story's 180-degree turns.
But the film seldom sets your pulse racing, and Hero's gravity-defying stunts feel like cinematic rituals as formal as the ones at King's palace. Zhang Yimou deliberately puts emotional distance between the audience and the action. We're forced to stop and consider the film's ideas, such as the need to put aside a vendetta -- however justifiable -- in the name of the greater good.
Hero may not be a stand-up-and-cheer movie, but it calls into question the kind of revenge fantasies routinely served as entertainment. That accomplishment alone qualifies as a kind of heroism.