The Chinese director Zhang Yimou made his international reputation with a series of stunning films that set the festival world on fire: his "Red Sorghum" (1987) was in fact the first modern Chinese film to be shown outside the country. It was followed by the four films I believe to be his masterpieces: "Ju Dou" (1990), "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991), "The Story of Qiu Ju" (1992), and "To Live" (1994). Perhaps not by coincidence they all starred the extraordinary beauty Gong Li, whose expressive screen face was married to a heart both strong and loving. She quickly became the toast of the film world, as did Zhang. In those years no one made more powerful or beautiful films than he.
I've been less impressed by his work since then, and now his 2002 film "Hero," held off the international market by Miramax until now, seems nothing more than a series of tableaux in search of a meaningful story and people to populate it. Though the tableaux are stunning, they only point up the weaknesses in the rest of the film.
"Hero" is set in the third century B.C. and begins with a master swordsman, an assassin called Nameless for reasons that needn't concern us and played by Jet Li, coming to the emperor of one of the several states that existed before the country was unified. He has fulfilled the emperor's mandate to kill the swordsmen and swordswoman of another state who represent a threat to assassinate the emperor. If they are dead, he can proceed with his plan to unify the whole country. The assassins are Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Sky (Donnie Yen) and Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk).
He tells the emperor the story of how he killed them, and we see it played out on the screen. But the emperor (played by Chen Dao Ming) does not believe him, and so Nameless tells another story of what happened. Before the film ends he will have told it four times, in four different versions.
This is a thin structure on which to build something intended to show how a great country came to be, and what interest there is in the film comes from the separate episodes, particularly the one in which Broken Sword and Snow have come to live at a school of calligraphy, where a servant, Moon (the ravishing Zhang Ziyi, whom we first met in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), is part of a three-cornered love story with Broken Sword and Snow. That love story is carried through to the end of the film, and because the actors are so extraordinarily sympathetic we are able to care for them. Although the varied sword fights involve flying as well as ground work, the stunning impact we felt in "Crouching Tiger" is gone; what remains is the most sumptuous use of color I can recall ever being used in a feature film. Each story has its own color - a cool blue, an intense red that comes right out of Chairman Mao's color wheel, a luscious light green, and a perfect yellow the color of quaking aspen leaves as they fall.
The cinematographer and probably the true hero of the film is Christopher Doyle, the Briton who works out of Hong Kong and shot many of John Woo's and Jackie Chan's best films. He has found a way to saturate the screen images with a single color, without its ever seeming obtrusive or out of place. This is a technical marvel, as well as an esthetic triumph, and it is likely that he will be recognized for it when awards are handed out at the end of the year. See the film for his work, and for the love story, but you'd do well to forget the rest.