In the luminous “Hero” (“Ying Xiong”), master filmmaker Zhang Yimou presents a slice of historical material he approaches as if it were a great short story. He keeps it simple at first, spinning his fable in a straightforward way, and then he backs up and tells it again – and again – until it takes on unexpected complexity.
Working with the great Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who specializes in Asian cinema), Zhang goes for style over substance, using a rich palette of colors in lieu of dense details to tell a story that is largely political – the attempted unification of China in the third century B.C.
In the tradition of Leone's films, Li plays a lone assassin named Nameless who uses a sword instead of a gun. At this point in its history, China is divided into seven warring states, and the king of Qin (a commanding Chen Daoming) wants to bring the seven states together and serve as emperor. But he has enemies who have hired assassins to kill him, three assassins in particular.
Nameless has been assigned to assassinate the assassins and at the outset of “Hero” he has an audience with the king of Qin to tell him the deeds have been done. He says the three assassins – Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) – have been successfully dispatched. But the king of Qin is a little suspicious.
His doubts are conveyed via a series of flashbacks in which Nameless' story is told and retold in a highly mutable way and in an array of vibrant colors, with each color representing a different perception. We get three versions. One may be true, the other two are false.
“Hero” is divided into five sections, each color-coded – the framework plot involving Nameless and the king of Qin, in which gray and black are the dominant colors, and a series of flashbacks colored by red, blue, green and noncolor, white.
The first showdown is between Nameless and Sky, and the dominant color is white, represented by water – raindrops in particular, which are artistically sliced by the fighters' swords as they fall from the sky.
Broken Sword and Flying Snow are fabled lovers, and their involvement is dramatized in a blue sequence. But then there is a sword-wielding showdown between Snow and Moon (Zhang Ziyi, the ingénue of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), who is Broken Sword's servant and possible paramour.
As in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the confrontations here have been carefully choreographed (by the estimable Tony Ching Siu-Tung), facilitated by the use of invisible wires and computer-generated effects – all of this accompanied by an evocative score by Dun Tan, featuring violin solos by Itzhak Perlman.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2002 Academy Awards, the Smith Opera House screens “Hero” at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 and 30, at 2 p.m. Oct. 31 and at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 and 2. It has a running time of one hour 39 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles, it is rated PG-13 for stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality.
Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens. All seats are $3 on Thursdays and $2 on Tuesdays. Call 315-781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to reserve tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.