Zhang Yimou's lushly color-coded, RASHOMON-esque historical fable is a beguiling blend of traditional martial arts epic and operatic Western a la Sergio Leone, reworking a much-adapted story set in the second-century B.C., about the emperor who unified China's seven warring kingdoms and the assassins who conspired to dethrone him, into a sumptuous spectacle as tightly choreographed as a classical ballet. Told in a framing story and four flashbacks, it begins as a nameless warrior (Jet Li) relates to the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Chen Daoming) the circumstances under which he, an unknown prefect from insignificant Leng Meng county, killed three legendary martial artists — Sky (Donnie Yen) and lovers Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung) — dedicated to the emperor's assassination. When his story is met with skepticism, the baliff reworks it and then reworks it again. In each telling, the essentials remain the same: After the emperor's representatives fail, The Warrior With No Name first slays Sky, then travels to the desert kingdom of Zhao to confront Flying Snow, Broken Sword and Moon (Zhang Ziyi), Broken Sword's devoted apprentice, at the calligraphy school where they've taken refuge. But each version puts a different coloration — both literal and figurative — on the nature and motives of the assassins and their nemesis. The framing story unfolds in the Forbidden City, where monumental, hard-edged architecture and gloomy interiors overshadow the emperor's teeming, black-clad masses of guards and supplicants, while the jewel-toned flashbacks play out against vividly hued interiors and expansive open spaces. The first, awash in rich, intense reds, is driven by petty, violent emotions; the second, a study in cool, watery blues, inflects the same events with more elevated notions of self-sacrifice for the common good. In the interlocking third and fourth variations, dominated by white and mint green, respectively (the fourth version is embedded in the third, a flashback within a flashback), the story of Flying Snow and Broken Sword blossoms into a tragic love story of near-mythic proportions; their mutual passion, which takes root in her thirst for vengeance, simultaneously gives his life purpose and sets him on a path of spiritual growth that threatens to divide them. Even the lengthy closing quote from Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince can be spun into the draconian "the end justifies the means" or the more benevolent "the good of the many outweighs the good of the few," according to your inclinations. Though the specifics of the story may be unfamiliar to Western viewers, its broad outlines and underlying themes are universal, and Christopher Doyle's ravishing cinematography transcends language. (In Mandarin, with subtitles)
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