HERO (Ying Xiong) (director/writer: Zhang Yimou; screenwriter: Feng Li/Bin Wang; cinematographer: Christopher Doyle; editors: Angie Lam/Ru Zhai/Vincent Lee; music: Dun Tan/with violin and fiddle solos performed by Itzhak Perlman; cast: Jet Li (Nameless), Maggie Cheung (Flying Snow), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Broken Sword), Ziyi Zhang (Moon), Daoming Chen (King of Qin), Donnie Yen (Sky); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Bill Kong/Zhang Yimou; Miramax; 2002-China /Hong Kongin Mandarin with English subtitles)
“One of the most beautiful films ever as far as imagery.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Hero is a dazzling martial-arts epic directed by two-time Academy Award nominee Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lanterns”/ “Ju Dou”). The Australian Christopher Doyle’s photography is a feast for the eyes, making it one of the most beautiful films ever as far as imagery. Pulp Fiction’s director Quentin Tarantino’s name appears on the film credits, even though he had nothing to do with the production except to present it.
Yimou tells the story of the soon to be First Emperor of China, the ruthless King of Qin (Daoming Chen), with a visual and special effects flare reserved for special films like The Lord of the Rings and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His Majesty is living in the third century B.C. when the country was not unified and there were seven warring feudal kingdoms. The harried King lives in fear because of three fearsome rival Zhao assassins of legendary swordsmanship qualities who are determined to rub him out–Sky (Donnie Yen) and the lovebird couple of Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the best swordsman in the land. The film opens as Nameless (Jet Li ), a mysterious lowly prefect from the Lan Meng province, passes through the King of Qin’s Imperial Guard as a hero for killing the King’s three enemies and is allowed eventually to come within 10 paces of the King, separated only by a table holding many burning candles. Normally the paranoid King would let no one get that close to him while he’s unprotected, but breaks his tight security because he’s interested in hearing how Namelesss defeated such superior fighters. When Nameless tells his tale, the King begins to become suspicious of his accomplishments and finally rejects his accounts of the events. Yimou’s intentions slowly unfold as a questioning of the hero concept and finally on transcending war for world peace. It becomes not only a tale of assassination for honor and duty, but a story of self-sacrifice for unification of the country and personal enlightenment. It’s interesting to note that the Fifth Generation director’s earlier arty and more urgent films were banned by the Chinese government, but this big-budget film of $30 million supported the official ‘party line’ on domestic affairs and the Communist government endorsed it. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that this safe political pic was a sellout, somehow justifying China’s subjugation of Tibet and unifying plans for Taiwan. Also troubling is its hero worshiping pose, its imperial warlike sets that reminded me of a fascist military fashion show and its simpleminded deification of such a callous ruler as the savior of China (thereby the savior of the world). This film was approved as the ‘real thing’ by the people of China who have made it a major hit in the box office, something not done for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger (which was popular only in the west).
The film is told mostly in flashback and is filled with fight scenes that are magnificently choreographed on treetops, over a crystal clear lake and with the stylized fighters in aerial ballet-like moves while their swords are put into play; an abundance of colorful bright autumn leaf yellows, wispy sky blues and bloody red images are breathtaking when splashed across the screen (this includes an unforgettable image of thousands of black arrows shot in the air and raining down on their target); swordsplay that is audaciously compared to the art of calligraphy and music, and the all-star Chinese cast making even the banal dialogue seem passable while the crafty director brings his art-house aesthetics to the martial-arts genre. These are just some of the reasons for seeing this crowd-pleasing lightweight film, an incredibly well-crafted work that has its brilliant and exciting moments but thins out as a whole (it never reached my heart or made me believe that the cartoonlike characters were real). You can also include in its plusses the music by composer Tan Dun and, especially, the violin solos by Itzhak Perlman.
REVIEWED ON 8/30/2004 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ