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A picture is worth a thousand words—especially if the picture is by master colorist Zhang Yimou and the words are lies. That is, very roughly, the gist of Hero, which is both the highest-grossing movie in Chinese history and its director’s return to the vivid hues and exquisite compositions of such films as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.

This imagistic masterwork is also Zhang’s first costume action epic, featuring spectacular sword battles and wire-enhanced acrobatics. Yet it’s far more abstract than most such films, even ones such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which were made with one eye toward the Western art-house market. Because it’s constructed as an elusive memory piece, Hero has been widely compared to Rashomon. With its dream-world vibe and extreme stylization, however, the film more closely resembles an enthrallingly colorized, third-century-BCE version of Last Year at Marienbad.

Scripted by Zhang with Li Feng and Wang Bin, Hero is ostensibly a tale of China’s first emperor, also the subject of two other recent Chinese films: Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin and Zhou Xiaowen’s The Emperor’s Shadow. Some have argued that Hero is Zhang’s attempt to top Crouching Tiger, but it’s also a challenge to Kaige’s film, which it rivals in budget and eclipses in martial pageantry. Yet despite the elaborate fight sequences—and the presence of two of Hong Kong’s top action stars, Jet Li and Donnie Yen—Zhang’s movie is more wistful than visceral. Indeed, the casting of Li and Yen seems less crucial than the reunion of In the Mood for Love’s ill-fated paramours, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung.

Whether set in the fancifully rendered past or the naturalistically depicted present, Zhang’s films usually focus on women. Hero, however, opens with the two men who will serve as its narrators. The man who calls himself Nameless (Li) is ushered into the august presence of the King of Qin (Chen Daoming), who is not yet emperor of a united China but already has a Darth Vader–esque official color. A small-town prefect, Nameless has been so honored because he says that he has killed the three assassins who most threatened the king: Sky (Yen), Broken Sword (Leung), and Flying Snow (Cheung). Nameless is given an extravagant reward, then asked to relate how he defeated these master warriors.

What follows are five color-coded flashbacks, rendered with balletic grace, lyrical special effects, and dazzling hues. As Nameless tells it, he bested Sky in a gray courtyard on a drizzly day, amid slo-mo raindrops every bit as dramatic as the combatants’ swinging blades. Then he confronted Broken Sword and Flying Snow at the two lovers’ calligraphy school, where the ink, the students’ clothing, and just about everything else was red. In the midst of this tale, a jealous Flying Snow attacks Moon (Crouching Tiger star Zhang Ziyi), Broken Sword’s devoted servant; wearing matching red robes, they battle as yellow leaves swirl around them. It’s the catfight of Quentin Tarantino’s fondest dreams, starring two of the loveliest actresses in contemporary Asian cinema, but staged with dancerly abstraction and a color scheme that would make Gauguin swoon.

At this point, the king proposes his own alternate versions of the events: a meeting between Nameless, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow, which is overwhelmingly blue; a three-way battle between the characters, who are dressed in white, in an ivory desert; and a final clash between Nameless and Broken Sword in and around a green island in an emerald lake, the surface of which the two men skim like dragonflies. All of these rapturously stylized episodes represent ruses, conjectures, and interior strategies—the tactics of peerless swordsmen who above all think a good fight.

Zhang is also peerless, but for Hero he’s recruited collaborators known for their work with many other esteemed Asian directors: Emi Wada, who costumed Akira Kurosawa’s Ran; Tan Dun, who scored Crouching Tiger; action choreographer Ching Siu-tung, whose credits include Swordsman II; and Christopher Doyle, who’s done cinematography for many filmmakers, foremost among them Wong Kar-wai. A handheld-camera ace, Doyle here employs a more stately mode, also trading his neon-keyed urban palette for equally rich but more nature-oriented tints. Zhang, who began his career as a cinematographer, inserts such trademarks as billowing fabric that registers as pure color, but Doyle’s sensibility is equally visible.

Released more than a year ago in most of the world, Hero is yet another movie that dwelled too long in Miramax limbo. (Imported DVDs of the film have been widely available in local Chinese-video and kung-fu shops.) Now it’s getting a wide, late-August break, suggesting that the distributor wants to make a quick and dirty score with action-film buffs. Though some stateside Jet Li fans may well like the movie, it’s no more a slice-and-dice flick than was The Twilight Samurai.

Formalist and meditative, Hero is concerned with such matters as the import of calligraphy, the proper roles of violence and vengeance, and the unification of China. This last point may well rile advocates of Taiwanese and Tibetan independence, but this China is a beguiling reverie, not the pitiless real country documented in such recent Zhang films as Not One Less. Just as Broken Sword comes to revere the homeland he has conceived with the strokes of his brush, so Zhang is in thrall to an idealized China created by the heroic trio of light, color, and movement.

There are no swords, no kings, and no action sequences in Sun Zhou’s Zhou Yu’s Train, yet temperamentally the film is not unlike Hero. The story of a contemporary woman who commutes by train between workaday life and a romantic idyll in another city, the movie is pretty, pensive, and clearly also in the mood to emulate Wong Kar-wai. Rather than admire Maggie Cheung in lyrical slow motion, however, the film idolizes Gong Li, Zhang’s former girlfriend and muse.

The actress, who starred in all of Zhang’s late-’80s and early-’90s films, plays the title character, who lives in Sanming, a northwestern Chinese city. She toils in a ceramics factory but is more artist than peasant: Her skill at painting vases is widely noted. Indeed, the sensibilities of the film and its principal characters are utterly bourgeois—and rather bohemian. Zhou Yu (Gong) and her acquaintances live quite comfortably, and they have the freedom to pursue beauty and love whenever it strikes them.

Appropriately, the narrative is artily fragmented, so the exact chronology of events is slippery. The story is no great puzzle, however: Zhou Yu falls in love with a poet who works as a librarian, Chen Qing (played by the other actor known as Tony Leung—not the one in Hero). Twice a week, she takes the long but not unpleasant train ride to visit him in industrial Chongyang. Chen writes poems extolling her grace, which are eventually collected in a volume titled Zhou Yu’s Train.

On her journey, Zhou Yu regularly encounters Zhang Qiang (Honglei Sun), a veterinarian who is less sensitive than Chen but is soon every bit as smitten with her. Chen begins to withdraw, first emotionally and then actually, having himself transferred to Tibet. Zhou Yu finds herself spending more time with Zhang. Meanwhile, the mysterious Xiu (also Gong, but with short, lightly permed hair) makes a pilgrimage to Tibet to see Chen.

Like Wong’s films, Zhou Yu’s Train ritualizes repetition: a recurrent violin riff, the lighting and extinguishing of cigarettes, the slo-mo swirls of Zhou Yu’s hair and skirts, a symbolic vase that shatters again and again, the back-and-forth hurtling of the rail cars themselves. (In Sun’s cosmology, trains equal sex, while buses are death.) Derivative as the cyclical motif is, it’s not inappropriate: This is the tale of a woman on a perpetual round trip.

Ultimately, the director decides to validate all the milky light, soft-focus imagery, and rapturous longing with a romantically fatalistic coda. It’s a mistake, as is anything that calls attention to the particulars of Sun, Bei Cun, and Zhang Mei’s script: Although based on a novel, Zhou Yu’s Train is not much of a story. But for anyone susceptible to the charms of train travel, handheld camera, or Gong Li, it is an alluring tone poem.CP