2002, PG-13, 99 min. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, Chen Daoming, Zhang Ziyi.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 27, 2004
Had Hollywood film director Douglas Sirk made Chinese martial arts movies instead of the fabulous Fifties melodramas that he did, they most probably would have looked something like Zhang Yimou’s Chinese drama Hero. Zhang’s rich-hued, methodical, and emotionally expressive color palette here rivals Sirk’s saturated Technicolor templates, although Zhang’s subtlety of shading stands in contrast to Sirk’s lurid hues. Zhang, whose more recent work (The Road Home, Not One Less) has seemed more modest in its scope and design, returns with Hero to the more stylistically ambitious and visually lavish films of his earlier career (Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, for example). In many ways, Hero is Zhang’s answer to the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: another elegant, gravity-defying, visually magnificent martial arts epic. Yet Hero is not a standard martial arts movie in which physical virtuosity, swordplay, and fighting techniques are the real stars of the stories while the characters are merely the conveyers of the action. Instead, Hero gives equal measure to the dramas that instigate all the action and even uses elements of the action to expressively accentuate various emotional or dramatic aspects. A sword slashes through a raindrop, a torrent of arrows blackens the sky like a colony of bats emerging from under the Congress Avenue Bridge, rows of candles flicker and become an integral plot point, fighters skim the surface of an ethereal lake while engaging in a sword fight. And not since Ju Dou has Zhang used dyed textiles and billowing fabrics as such an essential story attribute. In fact, even though Hero is ostensibly a martial arts film, it is also rich with many melodramatic moments, key among them a love story that underpins much of the action. The story is set 2,000 years ago at the dawn of the Qin Dynasty, the same period of time addressed in The Emperor and the Assassin. The King of Qin (Chen) has many enemies in his effort to unite all seven Chinese kingdoms into one land. He is so fearful of assassins that he remains in full armor at all times, and no one can approach within a set distance. Jet Li plays a provincial sheriff with no name who comes to the king bearing the swords of his three most devoted enemies. What follows is the telling of the stories of their demise. The story is told three times – each complete with its own color scheme and each version somewhat different. Nameless relates the first version, followed by what the king surmises really happened. The third variant reveals all and then brings the story full circle. Interspersed throughout the tellings is the movie’s theme about heroics and how the warrior’s ultimate goal should be the laying down of his sword. Thematically, this is somewhat double-edged, allowing for all the martial arts action while also towing a more pacifist line. It’s hard to know how this might be interpreted by Chinese audiences, but it is known that the movie was quite successful in its homeland and was submitted as the country’s nominee for an Academy Award in 2002. Miramax Films has dallied with releasing the film in the States ever since then, although it has been available on Chinese DVDs in your finer American video stores. As far as I can tell, nothing (or extremely little) has been changed from the original for this belated American release. That’s a good thing because Hero is a terrific piece of work.