I first saw Zhang Yimou’s Hero under unusual circumstances. Having spent nearly two years resisting the temptation to watch the film on DVD—Chinese imports were readily available, and many of my friends were raving—I finally got the opportunity to catch a print at the 2004 Rotterdam Film Festival, where it was suddenly announced as a surprise screening. Stoked beyond measure, I took a seat smack in the middle of an extremely long row with virtually no legroom… only to discover, almost immediately, that there were no English subtitles, only Dutch. (Almost all movies at international fests have English subs; no doubt they were missing in this case because it was a last-minute addition to the program.) Clambering over 20-plus people to escape seemed unduly obnoxious, and besides, I’d been waiting forever for this moment. So I decided “Hell with it. Let’s see how it works as a purely visual experience.” I stayed put.
As it turns out, Hero is pretty phenomenal even if you don’t understand a word anybody says. I had no idea who was who, or why various folks clearly wanted other folks dead, but that scarcely seemed to matter amid all the high-fructose kineticism Zhang serves up. My knowledge of the wu xia genre is far from encyclopedic, so I don’t want to risk overstating the case, but the extent to which Hero shoots for otherworldly beauty rather than conventional martial-arts excitement seems to me all but unprecedented. At the very least, it looks like no other movie of the kind I’ve ever seen—including the one that Zhang himself made just two years later, House Of Flying Daggers. In a film that’s practically wall-to-wall splendor, the most electrifying moment may be the curious quasi-battle between Moon (Zhang Ziyi) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), which offers a ravishing new definition of the word “autumnal.” Watch it now without any context to share the experience I had in Rotterdam that night.
Usually when I write this column, I sit down and rewatch the entire movie, but I deliberately chose not to do so in this particular case. And I haven’t seen Hero since it opened commercially later in 2004, so I don’t remember why Moon is pissed off at Flying Snow, or why Flying Snow refuses to fight at first. and opts for a strategy of apathetic deflection. Nor do I care. Cheung’s silent-screen charisma in this sequence requires nothing so petty or banal as “motivation”; her contempt and insouciance are every bit as expressionistic as the tornado of leaves she summons. Those shots of her gliding along in mid-bounce, looking as if she’s stuck in a dentist’s waiting room without a magazine rather than being hotly pursued by a homicidal chick with a sword, operate on a level that has precious little to do with rational thought. She’s whatever we despise that doesn’t know we exist, and can’t even be bothered to pay attention when we finally summon the courage to take a stand, and can annihilate us at will should we force the issue.
As if Cheung’s performance weren’t devastating enough, Zhang Y. further marginalizes Zhang Z. (rassafrassin’ unrelated director and actress sharing a surname!) with his camera, shooting her out of focus as she charges from a distance, or obscuring her with gorgeous swirls of foliage. His touch throughout is deceptively light. America got unduly excited about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a few years earlier, but with all due respect to Ang Lee, he demonstrates none of the compositional mastery that Zhang seems to toss off here. Look, for example, at the way he juxtaposes vertical and horizontal movements during the pursuit, alternating movements right to left and slashes left to right with bodies gently rising, the lock of hair slowly falling, all of it culminating in Cheung’s lovely gentle back-flip. The effect is cumulative, rhythmic, and sensuous. In other words, it’s cinematic, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of action setpieces nowadays, in Asian martial-arts flicks or Hollywood blockbusters.
And then there’s Zhang’s use of color, which I would call stunning if I could be confident that I’m seeing what you’re seeing. But there’s a reason I began with an anecdote about having watched Hero initially without understanding the dialogue, and I’ve opted to bury it down here so it wouldn’t overwhelm the entire article. Truth is, I see every movie under unusual circumstances, unless it was made in black and white: I’m colorblind. Not completely, of course—my specific variety, which is fairly rare, is called protanopia, and its main effect is to severely dim the reddish part of the spectrum, so that (for example) I have trouble distinguishing violet as a separate color from just very dark blue. Usually the only time I’m conscious of this while watching a movie is when the opening titles are red on a dark background, which makes them extremely difficult for me to read. Otherwise, I remain blissfully unaware, even though I know intellectually that I’m seeing some colors incorrectly.
So part of the reason I wanted to tackle this scene is to ask a question for which I’ve never had a very good answer: Just how detrimental is that? I had no trouble appreciating Hero when all the words sounded like gobbledygook to my ears, so it’s not as if obscuring one element of a movie necessarily destroys its impact. (Good luck trying that on My Dinner With Andre, though.) And my color vision is generally sufficient for me to recognize when filmmakers do something especially vivid, though it helps if they’re bold primary colors (as in Zhang’s earlier film Ju Dou). But I’m clearly missing something, and I do wonder how much. In an annual survey I conduct that polls participants for the year’s best scene (which in part inspired Scenic Routes), some folks called this one “battle in red,” which threw me, because apart from the actresses’ costumes, I don’t actually see a lot of red (until everything goes super-red at the end, obviously). I would have said the predominant color was, I dunno, maybe yellow-orange? I’d be guessing.
Seems to me one could credibly argue that I should be ineligible to be a film critic on the basis of this affliction, just as I’m ineligible to be, say, an airline pilot (because of the runway lights). On the other hand, though, I’m seeing dozens of movies every year in languages I don’t speak, and subtitled translations surely miss many of the subtleties in the dialogue. Perhaps I’m just missing equivalent visual subtleties here. That’s what I prefer to think, at any rate. And while there was at least a chance that I might like Hero less when I understood what the characters were saying, I feel certain that if my color vision were somehow magically corrected tomorrow, and I revisited this scene, it would only be more astonishing. How much more, I may never know.