Amidst the balletic swordplay, tragic romance, and troubling politics of Hero lie a number of interesting structural devices that serve to frame the narrative and point out different aspects of the characters’ personalities. From the Rashomon-esque retelling of events to the use of colors to signify the different levels of truth, the film fleshes out its characters as much through their surroundings as through their actions or words. One set of signs that stands out in particular is the film’s use of the four literati arts: music, chess, calligraphy, and painting.

The first battle between Nameless and Sky takes place in a chess hall while a blind musician plays the zither nearby. The actual fight takes place in the characters’ minds as they stare each other down: each one trying to plot one move further than the other, reading the shape and the flow of the match; each one trying to listen for nuances in the other’s style, the two fighters creating a counterpoint with their blades. The second battle takes place at a school of calligraphy. Broken Sword’s strategy and philosophy are to be found in the strokes and serifs of his characters; Snow’s flowing, decisive movements reflect the spontaneity and finality of setting ink to paper.

But what about painting? While not presented textually, a painterly sensibility permeates Zhang Yimou’s direction, Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, Ching Siu-Tung’s choreography, and Emi Wada’s costumes. The expansive halls and landscapes dwarf the actors; crowds of soldiers and courtiers look more like a lake than a crowd; flowing robes and wire-fu suspend the main characters within the scenery, giving the movie an impressionistic feel, like the spare and delicate brushwork of literati painters. As with a lot of films I like, it puts the “picture” back in “motion picture,” which makes me happy.