Will Zhang Yimou's dazzling swordplay ballet Hero (which opens Friday, Aug. 27, at Cinerama and other theaters) be his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a magic catapult from the art house to the global metroplex? History won't simply repeat itself, since moviedom has long since assimilated the wire-work wonders that made CTHD famous. Now it's grist for parody: Princess Fiona in Shrek 2 and the leaping larval lizard in Alien vs Predator both do slo-mo homage to Ang Lee's aerial-combat method. Jaws won't drop to see Zhang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle echo the method.
Jaws will drop because this is a floating world of a different color. Few directors since Peter Brook have had Zhang's sweet tooth for intense hues, and nobody has his rainbow eye for poetically nuanced detail. Hero is a series of tales told to the prudently paranoid king (Chen Daoming) who struggled to unite China about 2,200 years ago. The tale spinner is an obscure rural official named Nameless (Jet Li), who claims to have slain the three superassassins stalking the king. Each time Nameless tells about a duel (or the skeptical king counters with what he thinks really happened), the story undergoes Rashomon-ish variations, for which the camera's palette alters. Zhang's not after subtle effects—his bold strokes of color seize the screen with the force of demonic possession.
Whirling leaves in an ancient Mongolian oak grove shift from blinding yellow to sizzling crimson. A pellucid lake turns green. Doomed lovers in white sigh their last breath together in a desert the shade of bone. His flying warriors defy gravity with more gravitas than Ang Lee's, and he pays way more attention to their visual setting, and the tinted air they sail through. After years of sad times and bad stabs at new styles (the gangster film Shanghai Triad, anyone? Anyone at all?), Zhang is getting back to the look and fablelike simplicity that made his name in Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. He can wring as much drama from a falling bolt of dyed cloth as Milton did from Satan's fall.
If Li is a deadpan narrator, he soars in the (rather meditative) action scenes. His first flashback fight, with the chess player assassin Sky (Donnie Yen), is galvanic, yet the combatants are also like a couple of cunning grandmasters trying to psych each other out. The combat with assassins Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) is both a head trip and a heart trip, with Nameless strategically playing on their ill-starred romance. Meanwhile, Broken Sword's young servant Moon (Zhang Ziyi, who has just a flicker of the young Gong Li's sass) moons over her master, occasioning voluptuous rumplings of scarlet silk bedsheets and a blizzard of stern words from Snow.
Each of these battles crafts an illusion of absolute skill and infinite calculation. When a calligrapher snatches an arrow from midair, snaps it in half, and uses it for a calligraphy pen, it's because all his arts, including the martial, are one. Swords slice through hair, feathers, and silk, or bisect a single translucent water droplet. Zooming duelists maneuver above a lake like World War I flying aces but never splash down—they tap at the surface as gently as water skeeters. When we thrillingly view their airy acrobatics from underwater, the intersecting surface is perfect as glass.
The performances are all finely etched, if a bit chilly and abstract. Only Leung and Cheung supply anything remotely resembling passion or sorrow. Their romantic death scene will live on in memory. For the most part, emotion is signified through lurid color, vivid props, opulent costumes, portentous music (some of it performed by Itzhak Perlman), and a camera that can move like Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.
Hero is an epic, evocative of another epoch and of landscapes beyond time. It's overwhelming. And yet, I miss the animating anger of Zhang's early masterworks, in which penniless young lovers were oppressed by impotent old men. Some inferred symbolic criticism of China's unbelievably geriatric rulers. I couldn't help identifying the thankless, bratty bastard in Ju Dou as a jab at the Red Guard.
Chinese authorities once hassled Zhang. Now they back him, surely in part because the moral of Hero is that the ruler is always right—he only bloodily crushes all dissent out of tender concern for his people. Quite apart from any specific social critique, there's a Shakespearean tension between youth and age in early Zhang. Hero has a certain Polonius preachiness instead. But if Zhang really is selling out, I can't say I blame him. He deserves millions of dollars and millions of fans. It's just that his dramatic engine used to be sexual and inarticulate political rage, seething like a banked fire. Hero has earth, water, and air, but its fire is more in the camera's eye than in the heroes' souls.