Hero has had a strange journey to American movie screens. After becoming a smash hit back home in Hong Kong, the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film two years ago. Miramax paid a reported $21 million for the U.S. distribution rights. They sat on the film for a year before finally giving it a ďtest releaseĒ in one city last summer. Then they sat on it for another year. It was an inexplicably odd strategy, especially considering that Hero has been a critical and commercial hit around the world. Whatever their reasoning (they claim they wanted to run trailers before both volumes of Quentin Tarantinoís Kill Bill), itís great to finally have the opportunity to see it on the big screen.
The story is set during a time when China was divided into individual kingdoms. The King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) has a vision to unite China into one country, which he naturally would rule. Jet Li plays a character referred to (literally) as Nameless. He is brought to the palace when word gets around that he has killed three deadly assassins whom the kingís troops have fought valiantly to protect him from. Nameless tells the tale of how he killed the assassins, named Long Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow. (We meet them in flashbacks.) When he is done, the king suggests that the story Nameless has told is untrue. We then see a replay of previous events, this time from his perspective. To avoid giving anything away, I must avoid saying anything more about the plot, other than that it unfolds Rashomon-style.
Hero is one of the most visually poetic movies Iíve ever seen. Director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) has crafted a film that is astonishingly beautiful to look at. He approaches the action scenes with an artistic technique, so that they are not only exciting but surreal as well. Consider the scene in which thousands of the kingís warriors simultaneously shoot arrows at the compound where Broken Sword and Flying Snow are teaching calligraphy. The arrows fly in unison, creating a kind of moving wall. In one shot, they appear to be flying directly toward the camera. Flying Snow stands in a small courtyard and uses her fighting style to fend off the arrows. She spins and flips and rotates. When itís all said and done, sheís still standing, while the ground is covered with arrows.
Another great fight scene takes place in a park, where autumn leaves swirl wildly as the participants do battle. When one of them dies, the arrows suddenly all turn blood red in symbolism.
The visual beauty is what will likely make Hero appeal even to people who typically donít like martial arts movies. (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had the same effect.) This is not a typical chop-socky flick. Instead, Yimou uses the visuals to convey and deepen his themes of heroism and the motivations behind war. The crowd that normally enjoys the Hong Kong genre of action movies will no doubt be enthralled by the way Hero combines classic themes with breathtakingly original action. But in some ways this is an art film too, and it can be enjoyed by anyone looking to see a top-quality, intelligent piece of entertainment.
Jet Li has been a major star in his native country for years. In America, filmmakers have not really known how to effectively use him. After a promising US debut as a bad guy in Lethal Weapon 4, Li has mostly made generic action films - Romeo Must Die, Cradle 2 the Grave - that have attempted to Americanize him. Hong Kong action stars have their own cadences. They speak certain ways, move certain ways. They have certain attitudes that permeate their work and which are indigenous to their culture. This is part of the mystique of Hong Kong cinema. (Jackie Chan has had similar problems; his American films are fine, but not nearly as thrilling as the ones he made in his homeland.) I really enjoyed seeing Jet Li allowed to do what comes naturally. His performance is very good Ė and very subtle, as it should be.
Hero is an interesting film to release in this time when America is debating the morality of its war with Iraq. Although the movie was made long before our war was declared, the ideas it contains struck me as unusually relevant, especially the ending. One of the really compelling things is that you can choose who the hero of the story really is, depending on your perspective. Is the hero the one who uses war in the hope of ultimately creating unity? Or is it the one who stands and opposes war because of the uncertainty of the outcome and the short-term casualties it will cause?
Itís only coincidental that the film comes out during this national debate, but itís just another example of why Hero is so much more than just a martial arts movie. If you normally like this kind of thing, donít miss it. If you donít, then perhaps this is the one youíll want to take a gamble on. If you do, youíll be seeing one of the crown jewels in the martial arts genre.
( 1/2 out of four)
Hero is rated PG-13 for stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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