HERO Movie Review
The most expensive and highest grossing film in Chinese history, Zhang Yimou's "Hero" went on to snag one of 2002's Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film. Unfortunately, the notorious Miramax snapped it up and sat on it for two years, as if somehow ashamed of their newest acquisition. Indeed, naysayers quickly dismissed the film as a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knockoff.
Earlier this year, Miramax very cautiously allowed "Hero" to open the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and now they've suspiciously dumped it at the end of August, where unwanted films usually go to die.
Despite all this, when Hero finally exploded on the big screen it quickly and effortlessly established itself as one of the two or three most exceptional, spectacular and beautiful martial arts movies ever made.
In fact, it makes "Crouching Tiger" look slow, stuffy and arrogant.
Based on the some of the same historical events as Chen Kaige's 2000 epic drama "The Emperor and the Assassin," the film stars Jet Li as a nameless assassin (referred to as "Nameless") whose goal is to kill a Napoleon-like warlord, the King of Qin (Chen Daoming), who has brutally conquered six other kingdoms to unite China for the first time. But to get close to the king, he must first defeat three dangerous killers, Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) -- the king's most dangerous enemies.
These scenes, however, take place in flashback. In the present, the king has granted an audience to this warrior who has done him such a great honor, and Nameless's heroism allows him to move closer than the security-regulated 100 yards from the throne.
But the king is no fool. He quickly deduces that Nameless's story is a fabrication and questions the assassin, trying to figure out what really happened. What follows is a "Rashomon"-like narrative, relying on the distorting nature of storytelling, in which the king and his would-be killer each spin their own version of the preceding battles, trying to throw each other further and further off-guard.
Director Zhang Yimou ("The Road Home," "Raise the Red Lantern") presents each of the various tales drenched in their own bold colors: red, blue, green and gold. But unlike "Rashomon," the true story does ultimately come out -- only to lead to a much tougher decision on which the very future of China hinges.
The film's real selling point is what happens within these extraordinary swatches of color. These breathtaking action scenes threaten to virtually rip the screen apart.
In one, Nameless and Flying Snow ward off a veritable hailstorm of arrows while balletic Broken Sword feverishly paints a calligraphy scroll. Other scenes feature Broken Sword's jealous apprentice (Zhang Ziyi) attacking Flying Snow in a forest full of swirling dead leaves, and a fight that takes place while the players sprint and dance across the surface of a serene lake.
Zhang Yimou is not a kung-fu director by nature, but he knows beauty and tragedy when he sees them. "Hero" eschews his recent, neo-realist work ("Happy Times") and harkens back to his earlier films like "Ju Dou," in which brightly colored cloth hanging in the breeze made for similiarly stunning visuals.
He was also smart enough to hire Christopher Doyle, the celebrated Australian-born cinematographer who has worked almost exclusively in Hong Kong, lensing such classics as Wong Kar-wai's "Ashes of Time." Doyle understands not only the concept of making fight scenes clear, but also how to move his camera with the action, heightening it rather than obscuring it with cuts and shakes as most American filmmakers do.
The film's cast comes from the uppermost echelon of Hong Kong elite. But unlike "Crouching Tiger's" Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li is an accomplished martial artist who can actually perform the stunts required for this film. "Hero" fits him perfectly, calling upon his stock-in-trade steely-eyed stoicism. When the king hurls a sword directly at his face, the actor does not flinch a millimeter as the weapon sticks in the table directly in front of him. This is truly a warrior worth watching, and it's easily his finest role since 1992's "Swordsman II."
Zhang takes his great cast and crew and celebrates with them. Rather than a pretentious attempt at turning kung-fu into high art, "Hero" is a film of movement and color and poetry, an all-time cinema classic that deserves our unrestrained applause, with or without Miramax's help.