A mighty wind blows through Yimou Zhang's martial arts epic "Hero," filling the air with dust, ruffling the curtains, setting the candle flames asputter, and blissfully sending Maggie Cheung's raven hair afly in the sunlight. This may be the windiest movie ever made, and the wind isn't just actual, it's also metaphorical: It's the wind of history roaring through the story, but it's also the wind of romance, courage, opera and, uh, rubbish.
It's a brilliant movie, fluent, spectacular, breathtaking and basically, uh, wrong. But let's save the wrong stuff till the end; the upfront message is more than 90 minutes of gushy joy, of old-time movie pleasures.
Zhang is generally considered one of China's two great directors (Kaige Chen being the other), as "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Shanghai Triad" have proved. In this film, he's working in a somewhat less esteemed genre than those three serious dramas, but he takes it utterly seriously. So what you have is a brilliant filmmaker making a grindhouse chopsocky.
Clearly influenced by the global success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (another brilliant director, Ang Lee, doing chopsocky), he has set out to duplicate its pleasures on a far greater scale, making, reportedly, the most expensive movie in China. It's basically a rumination on the Great Man Theory of history with lots of sword fighting.
The story can be summed up quickly; it's that basic.
Two-hundred-odd years before the birth of Christ, the king of Qin, the largest of six Chinese states, is trying to conquer an empire. Naturally, the other five kingdoms object, which has led to ceaseless war and slaughter as armies rage this way and that across the land. It has also led to a time of assassins. Hmm, sound familiar? Well, yes, Kaige Chen's 1999 film "The Emperor and the Assassin" covered the same situation, though it was twice as long and had a tenth of the action.
Zhang has gone all kung fu on the old story. There isn't one assassin, there are three. The king of Qin (Daoming Chen, beaming feral intensity) lives in mortal terror of these extraordinary martial artists, named Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), Flying Snow (Cheung, who co-starred with Leung in Kar Wai Wong's "In the Mood for Love") and Long Sky (martial arts up-and-comer Donnie Yen). Poor fella hasn't gotten a good night's sleep in years.
Then word comes. A humble police officer in a rural province has hunted down and killed all three of them! He is a hero! He is the savior of Qin.
Thus the king calls him to the Great Hall in Beijing (and that's really the Great Hall in Beijing), surrounded by a thousand warriors (and that's really a thousand warriors) to tell his tale.
So humble is the pale, quiet young man that he refuses to give his name, for he believes himself so unworthy. He is simply called Nameless. Jet Li, that pale boy who moves faster than any man on Earth, is in the role, and alas, he's 10 times more interesting in action than in repose. Nameless tells of each encounter -- recounted in flashback -- and the king listens intently, and after each one he beckons the nameless one closer and closer until he is so close that --
Hmmm, could things not be as they seem?
The frequent martial arts sequences, I should say, are brilliant after the Chinese fashion. They are showy, flamboyant and exquisitely choreographed, mainly built around the use of the Chinese straight-but-flexible sword, which hums and sings as it sizzles through the air at jet speed. Fabulous fights; I didn't care for them at all.
Sometimes it all comes down to preferences. I love the Japanese martial arts, particularly the iaido featured in samurai films, where the key is blade-speed out of the scabbard, followed by tightly controlled, almost ceremonially decreed moves, also at jet speed. The violence is short, sharp and brutal; the blood spurts like ketchup at a Kerry barbecue. Then the hero shakes the blood from his blade, resheathes his sword and sits with dignity. The Chinese style is more circusy; it features wire work which moves the fighters through improbable but flashy acrobatics, a lot more expressive sound (whiizzzzzzzzz! whannnnnggggg!), and its choreography is far more Broadway-like with larger, longer movements demanding a lot more space. Gee, if I'm right, a billion Chinese must be wrong.
But beyond the issue of simple preference is a larger point. The movie, spectacular as it is, in the end confronts what must be called the tyrant's creed, and declares itself in agreement with the tyrant. The argument: The great man wishes to unify the six Chinese kingdoms and give them the same language, the same monetary system, the same mores and traditions; then he will protect them by building a great wall. (The historical king of Qin did these things, and from the word Qin descends the name China, if you haven't guessed.) To do these things, alas, hundreds of thousands of people must die.
But, the tyrant argues, it's better that way. So the movie, in the end, endorses his right of conquest and unification on the grounds that fewer people will die than if the six nations continued to war against one another. To make an omelet, one must break some eggs, though nobody ever pays too much attention to the poor eggs. That's the justification of all tyrants -- tyrants in nations and tyrants in offices: Do it my way so there's less conflict. Obey me and it'll be better. Why do all this fighting against me; peace through conquest.
That was the king of Qin's reasoning and it was all the other big bad ones as well: Hitler and Stalin and most particularly that latter-day king of Qin named Mao, another great unifier who stopped the fighting and killed only between 38 million and 67 million in the process.
Hero (96 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense battle scenes without much gore.