A fable from the 3rd century B.C. refracted in modern skepticism, Hero views the birth of the Chinese nation through the murky motives of some of the first Emperor's potential assassins. The plot is a series of tales told by the warrior Nameless (Jet Li) to the Emperor (Chen Daoming). Any or none of the stories may be true; this is Rashomon with a Mandarin accent.
Nameless has three main adversaries: Sky (Donnie Yen), a master martial artist; Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a calligrapher who is as adroit with a saber as with a brush; and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword's soul mate. Flying Snow has a side skirmish with Moon (Zhang Ziyi), Broken Sword's smitten apprentice. Loyalties are tested, alliances made and sundered. Death is the price for betrayal of the Emperor or the heart.
The superb fight scenes (choreographed by Tony Ching Siu-tung) have a steely stateliness that suits the film's gravity. Each of these working warriors has the soul of an artist and believes every stroke of the pen or the blade must be justified. The film is similarly thoughtful and rigorous; there's not a wasted frame in it.
Film lovers will luxuriate in the extraordinary imagery: a sword point that slo-mo slices through drops of water; soldiers squatting in a circle, caked in clay; lovers curled into each other, sleeping under red silk; a sword fight in a grove of golden leaves that turn red, plum, magenta and fall like fat confetti. In the film's design, color creates context. Each story Nameless tells is draped in a different hue: gray, red, blue, white, green. (In the fifth episode, a lake shimmers like lime Jell-O.) At the end, reality forces a new color on Nameless: black, for death. The cinematographer is Christopher Doyle, who has shot most of Wong Kar-wai's films. You can sense the camera in his hands as surely as you could feel the brush in Jackson Pollock's. Doyle is a calligrapher with light.
Hero is a reunion of sorts for the principals. Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger's young star, is a Zhang Yimou discovery. Decades ago, Li and Yen trained together as teens in Beijing, which lends their rain-soaked battle the tang of an ancient schoolyard grudge match. Leung and Cheung, who smoldered so wistfully in Wong's In the Mood for Love, get to express the gamut of emotions as a couple who know each other's tricks. They are Rhett and Scarlett, Tristan and Isolde, and they end their time together in an image so startling and beautiful that it stabs the viewer's astonished heart.
The director recently made another kung fu film, House of Flying Daggers, a snazzier showcase for Zhang Ziyi; it opens in December. But Hero is the masterpiece. It employs unparalleled visual splendor to show why men must make war to secure the peace and how warriors may find their true destiny as lovers.