Hero is visual poetry. A stunning collection of tales, some based in fact and others in fantasy, told by a Nameless hero (Jet Li) to the forceful King of Qin (Daoming Chen) who seeks to unite seven warring states into what will become China. During his audience with the King, Nameless presents the weapons of the king’s vanquished foes: Sky (Donnie Yen: Blade II ), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). These three formidable warriors have been a constant threat to the king and have caused him not to have a peaceful night’s rest for many years. Nameless receives a reward of gold and land for each assassin he overcame, and more importantly, as we find out later, obtains the privilege of coming within 10 paces the king. (Anyone who comes within 100 paces of the king is immediately killed by his guards).
The account of how Nameless came to defeat his enemies is told in several versions, each with a corresponding hue: red (fantasy); blue (supposed reality); white (actual truth); and green (epiphanic). Each time he tells the story it becomes more reasonable, more noble-- until finally you reach the climatic moment where Nameless becomes a true hero. The movie is not just a chronicle of duplicity, conquest, and imperialism set among awe-inspiring fight scenes, but ultimately a tale of how two visions of the same goal can have dire and tragic consequences.
The story of Hero and all the various interpretations thereof, are particularly serious and rather solidly acted. The action is methodical and deliberate, at a pace and angle that allows you to absorb every movement in its entirety. There will be a plot twist that most viewers will easily guess before the film reveals it, but the core plot is not what sustains the movie. Hero is a very artistic film, with nothing trite or comical to cheapen its merit, even the fight scenes were a martial art ballet that related the story in a physical vocabulary. One of my favorite scenes that makes crafty use of this method is Broken Sword using his calligraphy brush to script the word “sword”. The other stunningly breathtaking scene was the battle between Flying Snow and Moon (Zhang Ziyi) in a storm of swirling leaves that change color from orange-yellow to red.
There will be obvious comparisons to Ang Lee’s 2000 blockbuster, mainly because it stars Zhang Ziyi, among the several other elements that the two films share. However, Hero is a film that stands out in its own right and on its own value. The movie's cast is a veritable line-up of A-list actors in the martial arts genre. However, the stars of the show aren’t just the actors but the cinematographers, choreographers, and costume designers, along with a stirring score by Dun Tan (who also scored Crouching Tiger) that includes the Kodo Drummers and Itzhak Perlman. Zhang Yimou’s adroit utilization of color, elemental effects (wind and water), and detailed subtleties sets Hero apart from Lee’s tale of unrequited love, secret identities and yearnings, and fast-paced action. We also care much more about the characters in this film than in CTHD, especially Snow and Sword and the many facets of their relationship. This film possesses an equally fabulous and surreal quality to it, making it an indulgent spectacle that has rarely graced the screens of U.S. cinemas.
Largely seen as an action star to audiences in the U.S., Li shows that he can carry off a leading role that relies more on his depth and skill as an actor, and less on his martial arts abilities. He carries the part of Nameless with a quiet dignity who brazenly faces a barrage of arrows and soldiers who threaten him and his mission. Zhang Ziyi plays a role of opposite station than that of the spoiled aristocratic Jen as the passionate and devoted servant of Broken Sword. Zhang, a dancer by training, shows us why she is becoming one of the most sought after young actresses in Asia. The beautiful Maggie Cheung comports her character, be it jealous lover or faithful wife, in a most compelling manner and maintained an inspired screen presence. Her chemistry with Tony Leung is open and comes easily, probably because the two have co-starred in other productions. Leung, who gives a strong and powerful performance, turns out to be the most conflicted of the three assassins. It is upon his decisions and actions that key turns in each of the colored stories occur.
There are a few moments where Hero becomes tedious, and the subtitles are not terribly concise during periods of heavy dialogue and are non-existent during some action scenes. Also, for some the photographic pageantry and vivid tinges could become overwhelming and lead to an optical overload. More importantly, the movie supports the disingenuous and complicated message about war and brutality by a self-righteous leader being the paramount way to bring peace among warring lands; that imperialism is the only noble way to achieve harmony. Not a notion that U.S. viewers should be exposed to at this time in our history, but to its credit, the movie did not belabor this point.
This masterpeice, originally released in 2002 in other parts of the world, sat in the tin and collected dust over here because Miramax (who owns the distribution rights for the U.S.) would not release it in American theaters. It took much lobbying and advocacy from Quentin Tarantino for it to be seen on the big screen in this part of the world. Whether you see it on DVD or at the theater, Hero is a movie that will astound, impress, and dazzle you. Clearly one of the best movies of this year !
Notes: Hero is the most expensive Chinese movie to date – ($30 million budget).
Czarina's Caustic Comment or Captious Compliment: This movie excels to heroic proportions.
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