A Look At The Color Narrative In “Hero”

A Look At The Color Narrative In “Hero”

Hero is a Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou in 2002. The story is based on true history in 227 BC that a swordsman Jing Ke prepared for ten years to kill the King of Qin. This is also the main storyline of the movie. The story is simple, however Zhang Yimou utilized color to narrate the story in different angles so that audiences can learn about the story through different characters and their situations. This kind of nonlinear narrative is not a new technology in film narrative, such as Pulp Fiction filmed by Quentin Tarantino and Rashomon filmed by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa which are both the most famous nonlinear narrative movies. But the biggest difference between Hero and other nonlinear narrative movies is that the medium of shifting perspectives in Hero is color.

The Color Narrative

In the movie Hero, there are five colors as the main narrative elements: Black, White, Red, Green and Blue. Different colors represent different characters, their inner worlds and situations. At the same time, colors are also regarded as the most important logical cues in the movie. When one color is shifted, it means the angle of narration is changed, which can help audiences avoid away from being confused with different story lines.


(1) The Black World:

Main Character: Nameless (the swordsman who would kill the King of Qin), the King of Qin.

Location: Palace in Qin.
The story line: Black scene is the main story line in the movie. At the beginning of the movie, Nameless accesses into thepalace to face the King of Qin. They are communicating, debating and then Nameless starts to kill the King. However, at the close call, Nameless gives up on killing the King and just says, “I am going to kill you only because I can. However, I give up it because of the peace of the world.”

Visual Style: In the black world, the palace, the soldiers’ suit of armors, Nameless’s garb and the king’s garb, are all black. Most compositions in the black scene tend to place the main character in the middle of the picture without camera movement (like the below picture).

Moreover, in the action plot between Long Sky (the first swordsman from Zhao) and the other Swordsmen from Qin, the battle is made powerful by a series of still shots. Thus, the black world is perceived like a hard stone, generally.

The Symbolization of Black: The black palace, soldiers’ garbs and cold building materials all show the cold bloodiness and majesty of the empire right. The characters’ clothing style combining with their performance also show they are feeling lonely; the still camera creates an objective and calm atmosphere too. Although this part of the story is about death, Nameless and the King both don’t feel scared. They are calm down and at peace, just like they are facing a fate. This is a kind of aesthetic from cold-blooded death.


(2) The Red World:

Main Characters: Broken Sword (the second swordsman from Zhao), Flying Snow (the third swordsman from Zhao), Moon (the student of Broken Sword).

Location: A college.
The story line: The collision and jealousy among Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Moon. Nameless utilizes the power of jealousy to destroy the three swordsmen separately.

Visual Style: In the red world, all of characters’ garbs are red and the material of clothes is silk which is soft and lithe. The clothing style combined with smooth camera movement creates a relative inner world which is an abstract and emotional world, rather than a real world. At the same time, a lot of shots are used to describe the calligraphy with smoothly moving camera, which also can show the different inner world. A thought and an action from the character are both hidden in the lithe wind and flying sand of the red world. Moreover, the lighting designs in the scene use a lot of hard lighting to describe the characters’ narrow inner world. Also, a narrow corridor exits many times in the scene which actually is a path toward characters’ depth of the inner world. As for the action scenes, they are totally different from that in black. There are a lot of flying shots to describe how they can fight against the hard power in a soft way. Thus, the red world is like wind flaming a fire.

The Symbolization of Red: Red in the scene means jealousy which is just like a fire flaming in Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Moon. With the wind around them, the fire becomes stronger and stronger and kills themselves. On the other hand, red is also representative to love, a strong power of love. If there was not any love among the three characters, there would not be jealousy and envy to push them into the worst trouble. Hence, envy and love constitute the red world and the fallen leaves scene is the most classical representative in the movie.


(3) The Blue World:

Main Characters: Broken Sword (the second swordsman from Zhao), Flying Snow (the third swordsman from Zhao), and Nameless.

Location: A Library.
The story line: Another truth of Broken Sword and Flying Snow’ death.

Visual Style: In the blue world, there are similar silk clothes and soft wind, but the different part is the environment which is a wide space, instead of a narrow corridor. There are mountains and sky. In the wide environment, the camera slowly follows Broken Sword and Flying Snow accessing the huge and wide world with bluish natural lighting. Everything in the scene is peaceful.

The Symbolization of Blue: Blue in the movie means freedom, peaceful love and the two swordsmen’s broad hearts. They are facing their death, but they are feeling peaceful. They are facing love, but know no jealousy. They are willing to give up their lives for another lover. Although blue is a cold color, in this scene blue is representative of the truth of love that the real love should be like an ocean, able to embrace everything. At the same time, compared with the powerful long shots with thousands of characters in the black scene and a lot of squishy close shots to show characters’ emotions, there are some long shots that show only one character walking in a huge and wide external environment. This kind of composition can exaggerate the limitation of one person’s power and the greatness of their bravery. As an old saying goes, the greatest bravery is that the man knows he is not able to fight against the trouble, but he does because of the faith in his mind. Thus, the blue also describe these swordsmen’s spirit, and being small but having enough courage.


(4) The White World:

Main Characters: Broken Sword (the second swordsman from Zhao), Flying Snow (the third swordsman from Zhao), Moon (the student of Broken Sword) and Nameless.

Location: A Library.
The story line: The third truth of Broken Sword and Flying Snow’ death. The four characters are divided into two teams, Broken Sword and his student Moon, Flying Snow and Nameless. Broken Sword wants to interrupt Nameless’ killing the King of Qin. By contrast, Flying Snow wants to help him make the dream come true.

Visual Style: In the same library, the director didn’t use obviously personal visual style. By contrast, he chose a neutral method to record the plot just like a gad angle. There is not a lot of slow motion to emphasize their fighting or special angles to draw out the details of characters’ inner world. The only things existing here are purity and neutrality. The reason to protect the King of Qin is pure, the relationship between teacher and student is pure, and the resolve of killing the King of Qin is also pure. All of decisions they made are to give the world a peace and insist the love in their hearts. Everyone has their special reasons, but no one is at fault. In fact, the shift of dynasty is never a mistake, it is just a choice of history.

The Symbolization of White: White in the movie represents the pure world, the turning point of history and the fair. Zhang Yimou uses the most simple color white to draw a picture about unification of countries, the purity of love and a little sadness about death. In China, white is usually used for funerals. On the other hand, white can be added into any colors and Qin Dynasty has the responsibility to unify China. Thus, white means a new world is coming soon.


(5) The Green World:

Main Characters: Broken Sword (the second swordsman from Zhao), Flying Snow (the third swordsman from Zhao).

Location: Landscape.
The story line: The past period between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, including their love and the reason why Broken Sword decides to give up killing the King of Qin and why Flying Snow insists her initial decision firmly.

Visual Style: There is a lot of B-roll to describe the beautiful landscape. The mountain is covered with green trees and the river is peaceful like a mirror. The still camera is trying to create a peaceful atmosphere and show the happiness in the couple’s hearts. Being different from other color scenes using extreme lighting such as lantern in red scene, bluish lighting, and reflection from metal and candles in black scene, in the green world there is a lot of sunshine shining on characters’ faces.

The Symbolization of Green: Green in the movie means hope, happiness and new lives. In the green world, there are beautiful memories about love and the new cognition about the world, and the King of Qin will still be alive for more hopes and happiness from the general public.

Xioyi Fu
TRF Graduate student in Newhouse. Film Lover