Breaking into the Chinese film market in 2002, Hero became the box office legend of the year. Though it still remains one of the biggest domestic releases of all time, many Chinese film critics at the time criticized the story for being too simple, that it only had beautiful pictures but lacked a soul. Internationally, however, Hero did extremely well as it was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2003 Oscars. Regardless, Hero marked a milestone for the Chinese film industry. After its release, the industry prospered in an era of big investment and big production business model, forging a period of immense growth in the film market in China.

Hero succeeded in its poetic and creative visual representation. For Yimou Zhang, Hero is the revolutionary transition which debuted a new audio-visual depiction that became intrinsic to his style. During a period of lack of Chinese productions in the global and domestic markets alike, Zhang presented this visual refreshment for his audience.

Colors in Hero

Color is an important strategy Zhang employed in the film. In Wuming’s first story, everything from clothing to drapery to decoration are red, symbolizing passion, suspicion, conflict, and impulse. During the scene when the Zhao students bravely face their death, red also represents the blazing, relentless patriotism and a spirit that immortalizes their lives. In the Emperor’s version of the story, blue is the dominant color, representing solemnness and composure and showing the wisdom and thoroughness in his thinking. Green indicates life: in the first plot against the Emperor, the black palace is adorned with bright green drapery, symbolizing the assassins’ hope and faith for restoring peace in the world.

Black is oppressive, cold, brutal, and, above all, lonely. In the film, black represents the prestige and strength of the Qin Empire. In the Emperor’s world, the palace is black, the armory is black, the soldiers are black. The hero is freed in the cruel darkness, but the Emperor is meant to fall into the restraints of that oppressive black crown representing ultimate authority. The black that surrounds him signifies that even if one day he does unite the world or amass all the wealth of the world, he will still be alone.

Additionally, during the martial arts sequence, Zhang utilizes a classic strategy of Chinese painting— freehand brush stroke. As opposed to the sharpness of the blade, the characters fight with the extraordinary conception of the mind. The lack of colors and the paucity of sounds during the action sequence create an atmosphere of heroic sacrifice. Through conveying the idea of ink-wash painting through martial arts, Zhang expresses the Chinese brand of philosophy, and perhaps, his attempt at advancing the Chinese culture in the international society.

What Is a Hero?

The other important part of the film answers the essential question: what is a hero? From a certain perspective, everyone in the film is a hero. For the students willing to give up their lives for their country, their staunch spirit makes them heroes. For Changkong and Feixue who spent their lives for the goal of assassinating the Emperor, their integrity and trust in Wuming make them heroes too. Wuming, in order for prosperity and peace to once again descend on the land, gave up the assassination. This righteousness, justice, and impartial morality make him a hero. As for the Emperor, his respect for his opponents and his vision and foresight that allows the end to the suffering of many millions also make him a hero.

And it’s precisely because of these heroes who fearlessly challenge death in face of calamity, who selflessly give up their personal goals for the greater good, who willingly take on infamy for the wellbeing of the world, humanity has been and will be continued.