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Hero   A

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2002 (USA: 2004)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Zhang Yimou
Writers: Li Feng, Zhang Yimou, Wang Bin
Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Dao Ming, Donnie Yen, Liu Zhong Yuan, Zheng Tian Yong, Qin Yan.

Review by Rob Vaux

Hero is apparently the single most pirated film in history, and it's not hard to see why. Director Zhang Yimou aims to do Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon one better, and the results exceed even his sky-high expectations. The mythic tapestry of martial arts legends creates an atmosphere of bold visual beauty, drawn in simple strokes but evoking a sense of awe on par with anything seen this year. The story is easy to grasp, yet rich in detail and containing enough thrills, romance, and tragedy to fill a dozen summer blockbusters. And like so much of Zhang's other work, it is a superbly cinematic experience, achieving its full effect only when seen on the big screen. If this is the movie that closes the summer, we're definitely going out on a high note.

Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger had the benefit of setting the bar -- Western audiences, at least, had never seen anything quite like it -- and the comparisons with Hero are easy to make. Zhang's effort lacks Lee's complexity and poetic symmetry, but so too does it avoid the clinical detachment that dogged Crouching Tiger's every frame. The characters here are briefly sketched, but much warmer than Lee's, full of passion and humanity where Crouching Tiger was all ciphers and archetypes. It keeps pace visually as well, too late to match Crouching Tiger's innovation but finding an original cinematic look that makes its identity unique.

Indeed, the most direct influence is not Lee but Kurosawa, whose Japanese epics contained the same mixture of melancholy and grandeur. But while Kurosawa worked largely in black-and-white, Zhang goes the opposite route and embraces a wondrous color palette that takes the breath away. Hero actually uses it as a key element of its plot structure, which develops through a Rashomon-like series of flashbacks, memories, and shifting perceptions. Each new alternative is rendered in a different dominant color: white, red, blue, black, white, and a stunning shade of green. The characters' clothing, the landscapes they inhabit, the flapping banners, and bunting of the soldiers... everything is painted in the chosen tone for that sequence. The effect is overwhelming, both in the sheer power of the imagery, and in the way it highlights and separates the varying accounts of the action.

The story itself is steeped in Chinese legend, as seven kingdoms war against each other in a futile struggle for dominance. The King of Qin (Chen Daoming) has visions of uniting them all under his rule, but his legions have perpetrated much suffering and bloodshed in pursuit of that goal. He now lives in fear of three master assassins -- Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Sky (Donnie Yen) -- which has kept him permanently isolated and surrounded by an army of guards. But then a wandering official called Nameless (Jet Li) appears with the assassins' weapons, claiming to have killed them all in armed combat. Amazed, the king allows him to enter his presence and share the details.

The truth of what happened -- and the implications of each new perspective -- forms the central question of Hero's narrative. Its meditations encompass the warrior-poet's philosophy, pondering such notions as duty, honor, and how far noble ends justify violent means. It also includes a heartbreaking love story (Broken Sword and Flying Snow are mates) as well as eliciting another wonderful performance from Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi, as Broken Sword's servant Moon. And it's a return to form for Li, whose American efforts never reached the potential of his earlier Chinese films and who now finally has a project worthy of his talent.

And Hero is never slowed by its loftier elements. The subtext is posited simply and cleanly, and the overall tone is light as a feather. Its martial arts sequences are as good as they come, even in this post-Matrix world of eye-popping wirework. Fight choreographer Tony Ching Siu Tung has crafted an extraordinary series of fight scenes, as noteworthy for their seeming effortlessness as they are for their imagination. Hollywood movies in the same vein have a sense of undue competitiveness about them; each new film tries to outdo the one before. But Hero's actionmeisters are too wise for such chest-beating, following their own path and reaping the rewards for it. Zhang adds an exquisite pacing to the mix -- you'd never know that this is his first real action picture -- which, when combined with the production design, creates a vision exceeding the most lovingly crafted special-effects landscape.

Perhaps Hero's greatest strength comes in the coy way it plays with the title, and how the visceral excitement combines with the quieter undercurrents in the process. We're never entirely certain who the word "hero" applies to; it would appear to be Nameless, the fulcrum of the plot, but it touches all the other principle characters as well. Few American directors understand the willingness to maintain such an enigma without definitively answering it, or the benefits the film may gain by doing so. More than a glorious visual treat, Hero provides a brilliant new take on its director's native land, a swiftly drawn philosophical essay, and an engrossing adventure story that thrill-seekers and art-house devotees alike will devour whole. As summer slowly gives way to fall, Zhang Yimou has thrown down a gauntlet that few movies can hope to match. Shazaam.

Review published 08.27.2004.

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