Come on, Christopher Doyle! Hero, a movie we've been waiting a handful of years to see on the big screen, is here at last in its Tarantino-sponsored American theatrical release, and it's been in the oven too long. The dramatic, moving story of some people who get in slow, really arbitrary fights for a murky, unexplained political justification, Hero has been acclaimed for, among other things, its caaaaaaarefully arranged visual presentation and Rashomon presentation. The two are tied together by roughly assigning a segment of story-retelling to a color palette depending on the character recounting it, its place on the truth-o-meter, and its theme. It doesn't work here, as it wouldn't have worked in Rashomon; in fact, it negates the point.
Crayola Presents: Hero is its own film and shouldn't be directly compared, but we can look at the telling-and-retelling motif the same way in both films. Would Rashomon have benefitted from a color wash on each segment? It's not an aesthetic argument, either - the idea is that without something literally or figuratively coloring the different stories, they take place in the same nebulous gray (neither black nor white, nor black-and-white) space of an unsubstantiated personal account, and if they all look the same to us, we don't know which version would have deserved to be impassioned red, nonjudgmental blue, fraudulent purple.
Now, Hero isn't trying to be eXistenZ. It's prepared to admit that some versions are true and some are false, but it's not entirely sure why. The concept of presenting a version of a story, illustrating the nuances of it, and then later retracting it isn't necessarily an unpleasant one. Presumably you might want to throw your audience off by giving them certain loyalties and interpretations, then causing them to reconsider their thoughts and choose to reverse their ideas later on. I'm not averse to trying to stimulate thought. Little of that is done here, though. Removing a scene that has been retold by a character is worthwhile, but Rashomon knows it teaches you about the character, not the scene. Watching a fight scene and then finding out it didn't occur - when the revelation means nothing to the development of the character beyond a very stock Surprise, It's a Twist! - means we have watched only a kata, a martial arts demonstration to show you what a fight might conceivably look like. If Hero starred Jackie Chan, okay, no problem, but a fight scene in a drama - especially an overblown, windy Zhang Yimou drama - must have some meaning and weight to it. This is to say nothing of sub-fight scenes, scenes (and there are several) that are tangential even to the fictional segments containing them. For a movie with pacing problems, this kind of padding is unforgivable; it seems Zhang Yimou was compelled to make a martial arts film where he really wanted a drama. This compelling force adds unnecessary fight after unnecessary fight, but no fight has any real energy or meaning.
If this wasn't bad enough, he slows them down. He slows them way down. He throws on color washes and computer graphics, but digitizing Jet Li into What Dreams May Come adds neither meaning nor all that much appeal. It's not without its moments, but enjoying a fight scene to find later that it didn't exist is not a way to get the crowd to like your characters, trust your storytelling, or warm to your movie. It's fine if all you want is to show some fightin' action, but if you are going to aspire to higher things, to blending action and high drama as a handful of films have shown us is possible, not least famously Crouching Tiger, you have to combine them by having the action mean something.
The action is lacking. The overall drama, shed of the viewing window of segmenting, is simple, though the varied iterations of relations between characters gets tedious, and somehow manages to make it feel both confusing and oversimplified. Christopher Doyle knows what he's doing, and the cinematography is professional and sharp, but the art direction is so uninspired (Let's use red / let's use yellow / let's use green a while) that even the vague allegorical concepts being projected onto it are of little interest. Zhang Yimou seems to want to claim that the colors mean something - kind of a martial arts The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover - but fails to back it up in any interesting way, let alone a meaningful one. The unifying concept behind this film seems to be that it should look nice, and it kind of does, but in the same way that a box of crayons (a disappointing 16-pack, not a nice wide 64-pack) looks nice: it contains some interesting pigments, but you have to use them for something. Shots are carefully composed; Doyle's a photographer and a cinematographer, and half the frames of the film would probably make nice stills, or paintings. Hero is dying to have people laud it for looking like a series of paintings. This movie would be rotoscoped, if it could, but, like paintings, in the end it's just two-dimensional.