Hero (2002) is a modern materialization of Russian montage theory. Zhang Yimou isn’t overly concerned with mise-en-scene, continuity, or realism. In fact, the film is as opposite from these principles as I’ve ever seen. Except for a few long shots of large armies, the film is entirely shot in close- to medium shot-reverse-shot sequences. It can be hard to get an intuition about the space. A particularly confusing setting is the calligraphy school in the red timeline; there’s many transparent cloths, bamboo curtains, and thin walls. Consider another example where shot-reverse-shot misleads the audience as to the placement of characters in the scene. When white timeline versions of Broken Sword and Flying Snow have their lethal argument, close-ups of their conversing faces makes it seem like they’re talking at a close distance, but then at 1:24:42 a long shot reveals that they’re standing about 10m away from each other on the top of a sand dune. Fans of the Realist philosophy might find this film a bit claustrophobic. Not only does the extensive use of shot-reverse-shot hint at Russian montage, but the whole symbolic mood of the film harks back to Eisenstein’s inspiration for representational montage. He cites Eastern hieroglyphs as an example of the power of symbolism (Eisenstein, 14). Metaphors, symbols, and literal Chinese hieroglyphs are central to the film Hero and the culture and writing system that created it. Remember that two of the supporting character’s are not only masters of martial arts but calligraphy. Not only are the visuals beautifully symbolic in Hero, but the fight scenes are too. Every fight is a physical realization of an emotional battle. Two developed characters battle for honor, battle for love, or battle for vengeance. Contrast these symbolic fights to the flat fights of good vs. evil in modern American superhero or action movies. I think that Hero from 2002 would make old dead Russian film theorists proud.
Eisenstein, Sergei, “From Film Form,” Film Theory & Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Braudy, Leo and Marshal Cohen. Mew York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 20-40
Zhang, Yimou, director. Hero. Miramax Films, 2002.