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'Hero' puts up a beautiful fight

Zhang Yimou's martial-arts poem "Hero" is an exemplary feat of filmmaking, a movie so pretty, popular (in its native China, anyway), color-coordinated, and willing to have fun that you could probably ask it to the prom.

Set 2,000 years ago, the film depicts a China divided among warring states. One man, the king of the Qin dynasty (Chen Daoming), wants to unify them all so he can rule as the first emperor. (Chinese viewers have said that Zhang lets off the king, historically quite hideous, far too easily. And it's true that Chen, who laughs and weeps, does seem rather swell.) The king has long been the target of assassins, the most dangerous ones being Sky, Snow, and Broken Sword, played, respectively, by Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. The king's put out a challenge stating that the genius who knocks off the three of them gets riches and some royal face time.

Jet Li is summoned, a man with no name who claims to be that genius. He has the hardware of the dead warriors to prove it. But how, the king wonders, did it happen?

And almost instantly "Hero" becomes a "Rashomon" ditty, in which Nameless, as we'll call him, offers different versions of what could have transpired between him and the dead warriors. There is, in nearly every version, the possibility of conspiracy: Could Nameless have been sent to whack the king?

Zhang at last appears to have shaken off the schmaltz of "The Road Home" and "Happy Times," and he has a high time getting us lost in the square-offs -- rigged, imaginary, and otherwise.

There are romantic entanglements, too, chiefly between Cheung and Leung, who, at last, consummate the yearn-off they carried on in Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love." The cinematographer Christopher Doyle even offers an exquisite sequence of the two running up and down narrow wooden corridors that rhymes with similar shots he created in Wong's movie.

In addition to the jaw-dropping cast of stars, there's also a DeMille-like load of flesh-and-blood extras who sit, stand, shout, and run in unison, but the camera is always close enough to show you the stubble and sweat on the tanned, tired faces.

Their realness is more special than any computer-generated effect, and there are a few of those in "Hero." But Zhang and his team -- which includes the costume designer Emi Wada and production designers Huo Tingxiao and Yi Zhenzhou -- work hard at building enough rough enchantment around the impossible to make you think twice. Take, for instance, a lovely showdown between Cheung and Zhang Ziyi, who played the teen hothead in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and does so here as Broken Sword's besotted apprentice.

The most ethereal woman on earth fights the most truculent girl in Asia amid an autumnal downpour of leaves, and the whole thing is so beautiful that its origin doesn't matter. (But it all looks pretty real to me.)

Beauty has always been a Zhang specialty -- he's one of the few directors whose cosmetic excesses, in movies like "Ju Dou" and "Shanghai Triad," imply a pulsing soul. Speed, though? Not so much.

But "Hero," with its swift, precise editing, zooms by. This is not to say there's nothing on the movie's mind. This one might be more contemplative than any of Zhang's others; the picture just happens to be fleet as well. The actors launch themselves at one another like torpedoes, yet the film reduces their velocity so you can appreciate the contours of its human projectiles, like alluring cars passing on a small, busy street.

Doyle has the tough assignment of following bodies as they pirouette, leap, and levitate toward and away from one another in a series of sensually intimate ballets. The picture feels epic, but deceptively so. Those human extras are often doing things like shooting swarms of arrows and clearing the dusty ground to create a makeshift arena for Li and Cheung to dance -- I mean fight.

That's the sort of confusion "Hero" likes to perpetuate: conflict? seduction? both? In some way, it's about the marriage between violence and beauty. To clarify that, we learn that Broken Sword, in addition to being a great warrior, is also a fearsome calligrapher. That's a discovery akin to learning that Muhammad Ali could dance like Martha Graham and paint like Jackson Pollock. But -- sorry, champ -- Broken Sword also floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, and knows how to take a compliment.

"Beautiful calligraphy," Nameless tells him after a rain of arrows has fallen around them. "Beautiful swordplay," Broken Sword replies. And there you have this movie's charm. These people may be really, really dangerous, but they're also really, really polite.

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