Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) there have been many highly stylized, fantastical martial arts films to be shown to wide audiences in America. Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) which is a poetic, visual triumph may be a difficult film to analyze from a western point of view. It deals very heavy with Chinese emotions, but it also takes place in ancient china, therefore ideals and emotions may be more difficult for Americans to understand. When examined closely the red calligraphy sequence clearly is not only used to show the characters inner passions but also exemplifies the films anti war message, and when compared with the whole film, elucidates the films pro Chinese propaganda.
Hero tells the story of a man called Nameless, who comes to the King of Qin because he has killed the countries the three most dangerous assassins. The main action of the film takes place in flashbacks as the king asks Nameless to regale him with the story of how he managed to kill these three assassins single-handedly. Nameless tells his versions of the story, which the king believes to be false. As the king tells his version, and each re-telling gets closer to the truth, the films color changes. In one particular sequence, the calligraphy sequence, Yimou uses a deep red, because it is in this sequence that Nameless uses Broken Sword and Snow’s passion against one another. By examining the scene in the library, the characters feelings toward one another are clear. When Nameless tells Snow and Broken Sword that Sky said Snow would avenge his death, Yimou makes particular use of close ups. The first is of Broken Sword’s reaction to Nameless’ revelation that Sky had loved Snow. His heart breaks and you can see it on his face. The director then cuts to a close up of Snow, as she looks away and to the ground, in sadness. It is left up to the viewer whether the sadness is caused by the pain she caused Broken Sword or over the news that Sky had been killed. In the next scene, when Snow is shown piecing Sky’s broken spear back together, it is clear that her sadness has come from Sky’s death, and the close up of her in the previous scene was one of pain and wonderment of what could have been. Later in this same sequence, after Snow has seen Broken Sword and Moon together, the director uses tracking shots as Snow and Broken Sword passionately storm up and down the hallways of the calligraphy school to depict the confusion that each of them feels. As Broken Sword lies dying from a wound inflicted by Snow, she again cries and looks away in sadness, putting further emphasis on her confused state.
But closer examination of this same sequence shows that the use of color does not just denote the passion of the scene but also represents pro Chinese undertones. Each of the different stories is told with another color. In Chinese tradition the colors red, green, black, and white make up the four cardinal directions, while yellow represents the whole earth. Each story is told using one of the four colors of the cardinal direction. The true story, which the king tells last, combines elements of all the previous stories. The stories and colors all unite like the warring states of China under the kings rule. It is in this respect that the film acts as a Chinese anthem. Throughout the film, there is a theme of words vs swords, each one being intrinsically connected. In the red sequence, the calligraphy professor makes his students continue to write even as the arrows are falling upon the city showing the power of words over violence. In a movie where every shot seems to be carefully selected Yimou chooses to show Broken Sword practicing his calligraphy while snow and Nameless repel the arrows outside. Broken Sword snatches an arrow out of the sky and breaks it to use it to write in the sand. This small scene, which can easily be over looked clearly represents the power of writing and communication over war. Historically, it was this king who united China and gave created one written language, to make communicating easier. Ultimately, the film leaves it up to the viewer as to who the “hero” is. Is it Nameless for sacrificing himself for the greater good of the country, or is it the king, for having the vision to unite china for the better.
Source by Jesus Smith