“I was orphaned at an early age. I had no name, so people called me Nameless. Being a nobody I studied swordsmanship. After 10 years of practice I acquired a unique skill. The King of Qin has summoned me. My deeds have astonished the Kingdom…”

Circa 220 B.C., before the reign of the first emperor, China is split between six kingdoms. Qin is spreading through the other regions, propelled by the might of its army and the leadership of the King (Chen Daoming). This displeases the people of the other provinces, hence the King of Qin must face constant assassination attempts. After allegedly defeating the three deadliest enemies of the Kingdom, Nameless (Jet Li) is called to the royal palace to tell his story.

In a nod to “Rashomon”, events unfold in contradictory flashbacks framed by Nameless’ testimony to the King. A lot of the running time is devoted to epic confrontations with the three assassins, but director Zhang Yimou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (the virtuoso who shot all of Wong Kar-Wai’s films) are after much more than cheap thrills. As in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (with which “Hero” shares Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun) but to an even greater extent, the fight scenes are so graceful that they transcend violence and achieve a state of physical poetry.

For instance, one of the most exquisite sequences has two women in bright red robes fencing as countless yellow leaves swirl around them until all we see is a dazzlingly colorful impressionist tableau. In an earlier duel pitting Nameless against Sky (Donnie Yen), their minds clash as much as their swords, quite literally. They even bring an old man to play at their side under the notion that martial arts and music “both stress attaining a supreme state”. There are also some epic, viscerally impressive attacks from the Qin army and its thousands of archers, but the most affecting scenes belong to the Zhao-born assassins Flying Snow and Broken Sword played by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, whose understated yet passionate love story is not unlike the one between Leung and Cheung in “In the Mood for Love”.

Their relationship is one of love and hate, dedication and betrayal, trust and jealousy… This could easily fall into cloying melodrama but Yimou treats the romance like the fights, keeping dialogue and waterworks to a minimum while conveying the intensity of the emotions visually. In most scenes, all of their clothes and surroundings are the same color: deep reds, blues, greens, whites… The only character who wears her heart on her sleeve is Moon (Zhang Ziyi), Broken Sword’s dedicated young servant; the scene where her Master carelessly uses her to get back at Flying Snow is particularly heartbreaking.

Whereas the plot seems inconsequential early on, things become more ambiguous as we gradually realise that the King is a tyrant who draws his power from aggression and repression. It doesn’t take long for us to switch our allegiances to the so-called bad guys, whose regicidal intentions come in reaction to the King’s wish to eradicate their culture. Nameless, whom we assumed to be the titular Hero, reveals himself as not only an unreliable narrator but one with questionable motives, and that’s just the beginning.

“Hero” was released in the fall of 2002 in Asia, it played in a bunch of festivals and it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture at the 2003 Oscars (it lost to Germany’s “Nowhere in Africa”). Miramax holds the distribution rights for North America but it’s unclear when they will release it. Keep an eye out for it, it displays a rare level of artistry, thematic depth and emotional resonance.

UPDATE: Miramax will FINALLY release “Hero” August 27th 2004.