With its Taoist endorsement of both pacifism and mass slaughter for the greater good, Zhang Yimou's Hero is no Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Rife with paradox and ideological frailty, Yimou's film neatly transcends Tiger's too-easy sentimentality; its very contradictions make it stick to the medulla for days after viewing.
In pre-unified feudal China, an assassin known only as Nameless (Jet Li) gains an audience with the warlord king of Qin province (Daoming Chen). Nameless announces himself as a friend, one who killed three other storied assassins: Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). But the savvy king finds holes in Nameless' story, and soon realizes that his visitor really plans to kill him instead. Both men, however, share a passion for the ultimate truth, and the film becomes a mystery story as they try (via alternating, dramatized hypotheses) to piece together the reality of Nameless' path to the palace and perhaps experience some philosophical epiphany that will transcend it.
A skilled pictorialist best known in the United States for films (such as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern) heavy on classic Hollywood style, Yimou here revels in his first outright action outing. Not only does he prove himself entirely comfortable with the genre's demands, but he adds to the requisite airborne sword jousts a unique dramaturgical dimension, with his blood-free fight scenes working as literalized metaphors for his players' passions. His narrative formalism and elliptical, Rashomon-style plotting (in a sense, the entire film is a series of digressions) become visceral via these martial-arts set pieces, while his characters' in-flux emotions become comprehensible/indelible courtesy of their elegant, breathlessly beautiful color coding.
In their first battle (which, among many other things, establishes a film-long thematic connection between conflict and creation), Nameless and Long Sky fight under a downfall of silvery rain, to the accompaniment of a court musician. We see the scene from the points of view of both participants, with rhythmic time-outs to limn their evolving strategies (in black and white). Incredibly, delightfully, Yimou finds time for a quick joke: Nameless' fighting energies flag, and in a split-second toss-off he calls out, "Play us another tune, old man."
Another scene ripe for future film studies shows the whirlwind of one character arc getting literally reaped: Two female enemies wearing flowing crimson robes fight amidst a swirling storm of autumnal yellow leaves. Elsewhere, steely grays, black and red represent the king's power, violence and death. Particularly shocking is a scene in which Nameless and Broken Sword float-fight over a mirror-surfaced lake, next to the white-draped body of a lover; in death, the color scheme of the natural world finally intrudes.
As these attempts indicate, the imagery submitted by Yimou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle is beyond the descriptive power of words. What we're seeing here is nothing less than literary ambition given a one-film-only visual syntax. Although there's plenty of dialogue, these are images that (to push the cliché envelope to an extreme) talk, scream and most often weep. The likelihood we'll see better this year is nearly nil.