Have martial-arts movies like Kill Bill and Hero arisen among us to satisfy our ancient need for ritual? We methodically expel ceremony from most of life, stripping church liturgy down to basics and draining the esoteric meaning from royal and military rites. Egotism and TV have long since eroded formal political tradition -- during Question Period, Parliament looks like a yapping kindergarten class.
But in Zhang Yimou's Hero, ritual recaptures its old role as an essential element in human society, at least for an hour and a half. Our secular culture has been living through generations of (as they say in comparative religion courses) "desacralization," turning public activity mundane, formless and emotionally empty. The dean of religious anthropologists, Mircea Eliade, gave in The Sacred and the Profane his opinion, since frequently echoed, that "Desacralization pervades the entire experience of the non-religious man of modern societies."
Not, however, the world imagined by directors such as Yimou, who made Hero (his earlier films include Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum). In ancient China, he creates a stylized theatre of war where freelance soldiers give sacred meaning to their every action -- even when, as in this film, no formal religion is mentioned by name. These renegade killers commit themselves first of all to refinement and style. For them, calligraphy matters as much as swordsmanship; when you are practising one, you are preparing for the other. The beauty of calligraphy will reappear in the grace with which weapons are thrown and wielded.
They also believe in a chivalric warrior's code. Not surprisingly, these Chinese virtuosi of the sword resemble the heroes who have always influenced oriental action films, the gunmen of the American West, now relatively unfashionable but once Hollywood's favourite protagonists. Even when their lives were in danger, the western gunmen maintained (so the movie-created myth tells us) a code of honour as strict as the Marquess of Queensberry rules.
A true martial-arts warrior learns the nobility of restraint. In Hero, some of the swordsmen who set out to assassinate the king of Qin, a tyrant, decide instead to let him live. They recall the men in the Shakespeare sonnet that begins "They that have power to hurt and will do none." In the end they inherit heaven's graces: "They are the lords and owners of their faces,/Others but stewards of their excellence."
The Chinese cinema has also borrowed one of the standard characters developed for the imaginary Old West by John Ford's American generation of legend-building directors: The renowned fighter who longs to hang up his weapon and live in peace, a convention last put to good use by Clint Eastwood in his classic Unforgiven.
To that tradition, China has added conventions of its own, including the one that always looks as if it were borrowed from the Magic Realism of Latin America: Great warriors not only use their weapons faster than the eye can see, they also float through the air like birds, dancing over mountains, sometimes even fighting in the sky. A martial-arts film director ignores the surly bonds of Earth.
Yimou has said that he was inspired by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Ang Lee film that became famous for its highly aesthetic approach to martial arts. As far as we can tell from Hero, Yimou lacks Lee's ability to import a compelling narrative into an action film. Hero's plot sometimes becomes engaging when the filmmakers tell and retell it in different versions, as Akira Kurosawa did 54 years ago in Rashomon, the first Asian film to reach a large audience in the West. Otherwise, the story verges on the simple-minded.
But as a work of visual art, Hero effortlessly improves on its model. While there's no denying the beauty of Crouching Tiger, Hero sets a higher standard.
It exhibits the talents of four remarkable actors, but the real stars are the cinematographer (Christopher Doyle) and the production designers (Huo Ting Xiao and Yi Zhen Zhou). They show us so many magnificent images, and use colour with such precision and imagination, that we never get around to wondering why we don't care about the characters or the plot. They spell out one scene in red, another in blue, another in white, and finally an exquisite passage in pistachio green. At one point the designers make vibrant art out of the movement of fabric falling to the floor. The garments of the actors have an almost ecclesiastical dignity.
The foley artists who built the soundtrack intensify the experience; every clank of swords, every crash of arrows hitting a building, creates a slightly distinct aural effect. The swish of a sword coming out of its scabbard becomes a little sound poem that could be the opening notes for a modernist concerto. Tan Dun's music, with violin solos performed by Itzhak Perlman, has a wondrous urgency.
An old rule holds that a movie doesn't work when you notice the sets, the costumes and the music. That's true sometimes, but false in martial-arts films. Not to notice such details here would be like not noticing the sets of an opera or the costumes in a production of Shakespeare. It would be missing the point, or part of the point.
But of course ritual must always be charged with meaning, and the ritual in Hero is no exception. It carries a political message, and it's not at all subtle. The theme is national unity. Warriors sacrifice themselves so that the King of Qin can govern all seven Chinese kingdoms and thereby organize for the first time (this is 2300 BC) a unified China, reverently described in the subtitles as "our land." The hyper-efficient massing of soldiers and their fanatic dedication provide a hymn to nationalism that recalls Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi film, Triumph of the Will, or maybe the knockoff of Riefenstahl in Star Wars. Today, computer enhancement makes those effects even more powerful.
In the past, Yimou has had his troubles with the authorities in Beijing, but they stand solidly behind Hero, for obvious reasons. It presents Chinese unity as an unquestioned good. Chinese audiences have made Hero their most successful film ever, and from a distance we can appreciate it as a work of art. Residents of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet may have a more sardonic reaction.