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Bloodless Steel



Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2002 (2004 U.S. Release)

Rating: 4.0



Posted: August 30, 2004

By Laurence Station

It’s critically lazy to label Zhang Yimou’s Hero (Ying Xiong) as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon filtered through a Rashomon-like framing device. For starters, Hero was conceived before Ang Lee’s ode to the wuxia (martial arts) genre, with its skywalking sword battles and heroic leads exhibiting superhuman abilities. (King Hu's classic A Touch of Zen and Hero action director Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the Death, A Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman II are more notable antecedents.) Secondly, where Akira Kurosawa’s flashback-driven Rashomon explored the subjectivity of truth, Yimou utilizes his backwards-glancing narrative to ratchet up the tension between would-be assassin Nameless (Jet Li) and his intended victim, future first emperor of China, Qin (Chen Daoming).

Yimou is less interested in crafting a genre-defining wuxia epic, or understanding what reality means, as he is in exploring the individual’s place in the larger fabric of society. Set during the end of the fractious Warring States period (221 BCE), Hero is structured around a meeting between Qin and the warrior Nameless, vanquisher of three dangerous assassins -- Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) -- who have been harrying the king for the past ten years. Nameless is granted a rare audience with the justifiably paranoid ruler, and asked to explain how he defeated such formidable foes.

Nameless recounts how he bested Sky in a duel, and then pitted estranged lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow against one another. Qin is impressed but sees through Nameless’ tale, correctly deducing that Nameless is actually in league with the three and somehow coerced them to die by his sword in an effort to get close to the king (a prime example in miniature of sacrificing oneself for the larger whole). Exposed, Nameless then explains the actual truth of how he conspired with the trio to assassinate the ruler.

The larger point being made is this: However terrible Qin is -- and he’s pretty brutal -- one rule by a despot is still better for the land and its people than prolonged war amongst rival provinces. Yimou fails to arrive at this conclusion as emphatically as he might have (the climactic “showdown” between Nameless and Qin lacks the pulse-quickening drama the scene all but demands). The director still deserves credit, though, for concentrating on weightier issues regarding the unification of China than worrying over artfully executed swordplay.

Not that the battle scenes are lacking. Yimou and ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, however, choose to emphasize the visual poetry of the gravity-nullifying fight sequences over hardcore gore. There is no blood in Hero -- it would disrupt the specific red, blue, white, and green color schemes defining each conflict. And the movements of the characters are more like bold, calligraphic strokes than realistic action movements. Yimou takes the internal struggle of his leads and externalizes them in hand-to-hand combat. What this lacks in visceral gratification (Enter the Dragon certainly has nothing to worry about), it more than makes up for with a deeper, more resonant examination of the struggle to define oneself in a larger collective. Nameless has the power to change history, and realizes what an awesome burden it is.

Hero, despite its epic trappings, is executed in a minor key. Yimou downplays melodrama and grand spectacle in favor of intimate expressions and melancholy emotions. He’s a director who prefers framing the face as opposed to orchestrating massive armies charging into one another. In that respect, Hero falls short of greatness, simply because Yimou rarely ventures outside his area of expertise. He doesn’t risk failure in the way Kurosawa often did, and, as a result, manages (by his lofty standards) but a modest triumph. It will be interesting to see what Yimou does with his second wuxia film, House of Flying Daggers due out in Asia this year (and, hopefully, stateside not too long afterward).

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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