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Hero (2002)
Director: Zhang Yimou

review by Amy Harlib

Famed mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Raise The Red Lantern, among others), helms his first historical swordplay (wu hsia) epic film, Hero (aka: Ying Xiong) with dazzling results that nevertheless, emulate Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a tad too closely. Lavish production values and a stellar cast made this picture a hit in its home country but this opus, a 2002 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, strangely enough, at long last gets released in North American theatres in August 2004.

This movie puts a fantasy martial arts spin on certain legends surrounding the assassination attempts against the 3rd century B.C. megalomaniacal First Emperor of China, Chin Shi Huang-di (Chen Daoming) who ruthlessly brought the Warring States of the time under unified control. To quell repeated strikes against his life, the ruler offers a substantial reward to anyone who can capture and slay the culprits. The plot then focuses on an obscure minor official and skilled swordsman going by the (shades of Clint Eastwood!) moniker Nameless (Jet Li, one of the premier wu shu artists in the world). He presents himself to the imperial court asserting that he succeeded in performing this erstwhile impossible deed.

Admitted into the august monarch's presence albeit at a safe distance, Nameless tells the tales of his victories (shown in flashbacks), and presents the defeated assassins' blades to prove his claims, each triumph rewarded with gifts and permission to advance closer to the royal seat. The shrewd sovereign swiftly surmises (as does the audience), that this storyteller may also be a threat whose cleverness outfoxes other earlier schemers, if he can get close enough to his target and beguilingly allay the suspicions of everyone else, especially the guards. The wily king then begins to relate some scenarios of his own - fantasised versions of duels, variations on Nameless' themes literally given different shades in the masterful set decorations of the intercut scenes. Thus royal and commoner engage in a verbal contest - a contest of wills with each person highly respecting the skills of the other even when they are totally opposed ideologically.

But the interaction between Nameless and the Emperor actually serves as a Rashomon-like framing device for the extensive scenes that dramatically illustrate the anecdotal accounts. Therefore, we see a significant amount of time devoted to the tangled relationships and stormy emotional connections between the protagonist and likewise the charismatic, physically attractive, and consummately athletic Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Sky (Donnie Yen) and Broken Sword's loyal yet impulsive disciple Beautiful Moon (Zhang Zi-yi). This quartet along with Nameless, engages in spirited dialogue and numerous swordplay exercises (some approached with remarkable Zen-like attitudes) with the protagonist and with each other, leading to a riveting and wrenching conclusion. Along the way some outstanding set pieces to be savoured include: the two women fencing amidst swirling autumnal leaves; calligraphy practice and the value of same followed by the imperial armies attacking a school for teaching that writing art; and a spectacular duel in the rain between Nameless and Sky.

Who are the real heroes? The movie thoughtfully raises that question even while it dazzles with sumptuous, archeologically accurate sets, costumes and props; spectacular scenery; exquisite score blending orchestral and traditional instruments that not surprisingly reminds the listener of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon since the same composer, Tan Dun, did the job here; and gorgeous cinematography by Christopher Doyle that makes each scene resemble lovely scroll paintings. The lead performers, all mega-stars in the Chinese and Hong Kong film firmament, radiate all the charm, vivid personality and physical adeptness that one could hope for, the strong women being an especial delight.

A major problem with Hero comes with the over-reliance on wirework and antigravity effects mixed in with the martial arts. Now, some of the fight choreography, skilfully staged by veteran Ching Siu-tung, exemplified the intricate, graceful, dance like movement that makes this type of movie so memorable and special. But then, by trying to out-do the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style of fantasy (a type of genre that goes way back), some of the effects became ridiculously extreme and unintentionally hilarious, especially in a scene involving aerobatics over a lake.

Sometimes the mix of fantasy with history became irritating in this film about well-known historical events and personages, when realism would have been more appropriate. Fantasy special effects work fine in a tale of pure imagination based on legend or entirely invented. In Hero, they became intrusive, called too much attention to themselves and spoiled the otherwise perfect recreation of a distant and complex epoch and detracted from the far more interesting agility of real martial arts. The Emperor And The Assassin, directed by Chen Kaige in 1999, another movie concerning Hero's issues and themes, gets the verisimilitude right and is superior to the more recent production in many ways. Hero also tends to be rather grim in overall ambiance, but then, one of the harshest, bloodiest periods in all of China's history serves for its background. One could say that this picture glossed over the Emperor's cruelties by keeping them largely off screen and therefore was not grim enough.

Flaws aside, Hero does achieve an adroit balance between the elegiac and the excitement of adventure and martial arts derring-do with enough thoughtful subtexts about the differences between a tyrannical regime and a responsible government to give the proceedings heft beyond the stunning visual splendour, colourful characters and haunting music. It may take a heroic but worthwhile effort to get to see this cinematic epic before its autumn 2004 USA release date, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon similarities notwithstanding, for videos and DVDs are not readily available. Do see the easily obtainable The Emperor And The Assassin too and then double your fun by comparing it to Hero.
Hero

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