A film review by Craig J. Koban

HERO jj
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2002 (Hong Kong release), 2004 (North American release), PG-13, 96 mins

Nameless: Jet Li / Broken Sword: Tony Leung / Flying Snow: Maggie Cheung / Moon: Zhang Ziyi / King of Qin: Chen Dao Ming / Long Sky: Donnie Yen

Directed by Zhang Yimou /  Written by Li Feng, Wang Bin and Zhang Yimou

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Hero (double-sided) Original Movie PosterThe 2002 Academy Award nominated Best Foreign Language film HERO  has finally been released to western audiences.  Harvey Weinstein (just got to hate the guy) acquired it after it was achieving ridiculously high box office grosses overseas in its native country (not only is HERO China’s most expensive film of all-time, it also is the highest grossing domestic film in the history of that country). 

Amazingly, Weinstein postulated on trimming down the already short film by an absurd 30 minutes and dubbing it for North American consumption.  Yet, never fear, Martial Arts film nut and auteur Quentin Tarantino came to HERO’s rescue and allowed his name on the advertising of it in exchange for Weinstein permitting the film to play unedited and in subtitles for our audiences.  A big shout out must go to Mr. Tarantino.  Although his name can be seem as a shameless marketing plug (which it superficially is), he still acted as a predicating factor in letting us see the untainted film.  If HERO were 30 minutes shorter and dubbed, the magic would have been gone.

HERO represents a bit of a jarring change of pace for director Zhang Yimou, who here, for the first time, is trying to tackle the saturated market of the martial arts/kung fu picture.  His film that emerged will have many people whispering CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (HERO even has one highly conspicuous fight scene that occurs in the tree tops, much like a moment in Ang Lee’s wonderful Oscar winning film).  HERO owes its heritage to many films – CROUCHING TIGER and, most notably, RASHOMON.  The latter film’s influence can clearly be seen in HERO'S structure, which is an elaborately told series of flashbacks that speculates on past events from a variety of unique perspectives. 

HERO is a vastly ambitious and absolutely beautifully shot epic war film, with dazzling visuals, eye-popping cinematography, intricate and well-thought-out action scenes, and a keen and thoughtful eye for the use of symbolic color schemes and slow motion photography.  The film is a textbook and successful exercise in style and aesthetic beauty.  Yet, it’s so deceptively easy to be taken away with the astonishing visual grandeur of the world that Yimou presents to us.  The film that results is one that makes for wonderful and memorable eye candy, but reveals itself to be emotional negligible.  There is no doubt that the visual power of the film is its strong points, but it sort or strangles away any narrative life the film has, as well as completely overshadowing any characters that resonate in any meaningful ways.  HERO is lush, grand, and mesmerizing, but it is also convoluted, emotional sparse, and lacks any perceptive insights into its characters.  It’s a honorable failure in that respect.  Yimou's picture is  a mighty impressive visceral experience, but its kind of a bit vacant and distant with the real substance of the piece.

Like Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece RASHOMON, HERO is ostensibly a story told from multiple and divergent standpoints,  which only serves to complicate an already muddy and meandering narrative.  The film takes place in feudal China, long before the warring lands were collectively united together to form a cohesive country that had solidarity.  Jet Li (as emotionally barren as he’s ever been) plays the main character and narrator of the film, who is referred to as The Nameless Warrior (I guess “The fighter we dare not speak of” was taken).  He is brought before the King of Qin (played with nobility by Clen Daoming) to receive a hero’s bounty for a wealth of deeds. 

These opening moments of his arrival are virtuoso scenes of sprawling, epic filmmaking that inspires a definitive and honest sense of awe.  Nameless approaches the monarch’s residence passing what seems like tens of thousands of soldiers.  Through this he reaches entrance rooms and hallways of visual splendor and first-rate art direction.  When he finally arrives at the vast room of the king, he is forced to sit 100 paces from him.  Why 100 paces?  I guess no one has ever been allowed within that distance of him, without being killed, as the king’s guards warn Nameless of ahead of time.  If he moves so much of an inch towards the king, he will be killed instantly.  Now that’s royal power!

The king is humble towards his new guest, even allowing him to move closer to him out of respect to his great military victories.  Apparently, Nameless has assassinated three people who, at one point, wanted to terminate the king.  They are Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung).  The king subsequently and magnanimously asks Nameless to recount the tales of his extermination of the three.  Nameless wholeheartedly agrees.  He tells the king how his expert training and lethal abilities as a martial artist were not the chief architects of his victories.  Rather, Nameless was smart enough to look for emotional and psychological weaknesses in his opponents to help ensure timely victory. 

In one story, he reveals how Broken Sword’s abilities were betrayed by his calligraphy skills.  He also recounts how Snow and Sword were lovers and how he uses a beautiful woman, Moon (Zhang Ziyi) in a plot to drive out the jealous forces that could spell the undoing of everyone.  Okay, jealousy may not be that original of a choice to defeat your victims (seems to be in common usage today), but it sure worked for Nameless’ advantage.  Yet, ironically, Nameless is not prepared for the King’s stubbornness, as he begins to boldly challenge Nameless and the validity of his stories. 

There is just so much to admire and revere in HERO.  The film is a fantastic visual tour de force.  So many individual moments breathe so much life that they take on a level of visual poetry.  It's like these moments are fully realized paintings being told at 24 frames a second.  There is a lot of skill, precision, timing, patience, and overall technical panache that is clearly at play in HERO.  Consider the opening scene of Nameless’ journey through the king’s palace, which is a masterpiece of set design and spatial inventiveness.  I especially appreciated an early fight scene of real power between Nameless and Long Sky that takes place in a rainstorm.  The rain almost becomes a third character in the battle, as the two combatants fly through the air in a Crouching Tiger, gravity defying style that pierces throw the individual drops in slow motion.  Equally effective in that scene is the inclusion of an old musician that gleefully plays away on his harp.  I like the amalgamation of the kinetic energy of the fight with the simple and quietly powerful cords of the musician.  Clearly, this is a scene that is meant to transcend the martial arts genre.  It’s not kooky and campy like SHAOLIN SOCCER or a Jackie Chan film, nor is it a realistic depiction of violence.  HERO is so much more powerfully surreal.

Other key scenes also inspire great reverence.  There is another fight scene that takes place over a vast lake bed, where Nameless and Broken Sword glide effortless over the water, often using their respective swords to pole-vault themselves over the murky depths.  There is one eerily beautiful shot that shows the two fighters run over the water from a perspective under the water.  There is one scene of awesome brutal force where thousands on archers shoot an immeasurable number of arrows at Broken Sword’s school.  Broken continues on with his calligraphy as his school gets blasted with so many arrows that the surrounding sky looks dim and black.  Perhaps the films visual high point is a wonderfully realized and passionate fight scene that takes place in an orchid surrounded by trees lined with gorgeous orange leaves.  When a key character dies, the color shifts from orange to red in a moment that successful encapsulates the dreamlike state the film is trying to encompass.  It is for scenes like these that HERO proudly displays itself as a masterpiece of juxtaposing vivid colors and fluid motion.

Yet, that is kind of precisely why HERO  is ultimately a shallow film.  It’s a film of striking visual substance without any revealing or interesting subtext.  HERO is a failure at trying to form an effective emotional marriage between its various antagonists and protagonists with the audiences.  It’s a shame, because with so much heart and soul placed in the visual opulence of the film, there seems to be a glaring disregard for character development and rich performances.  Jet Li is a physically imposing presence, but his limited range kind of stunts the overall effectiveness of the role.  For a man of conflicting emotions, his performance is sparsely one-note throughout (Jackie Chan, a much more interesting choice, turned down the role). 

Other individual performances fare much better, especially the already mentioned Clen Daoming.  Zhang Ziyi (who was so much better in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) kind of plays her character for broad, over-the-top emotions.  Most of the characters felt like soulless voids, and not one death in the film struck me with any real power.  The film is violent, but ironically bloodless, thus negating any real power these moments needed.  If it’s hard to really feel or relate to any of the characters, it's especially more nerve-wracking trying to follow the film’s twisted plot structure.  It has cadence, but lacks a sort of cohesiveness, and plot lines and flashbacks are kind of thrown out all over the place.  It is HERO’s lack of narrative and character prowess that grapples it and holds it down from being a real masterpiece.

HERO is one of those hard to dissect films, critically at least.  Yimou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle create a fluid, enchanting, mysterious and consistently fascinating film of hypnotic images.  The battle scenes, albeit highly derivative, are also expertly paced and edited.  Yet, at its core, HERO is a film of strange contradictions.  It’s a vast void of poorly realized characters that simultaneously neither inspired my sympathies or, in the least, excited me.  Yet, the film is visually a powerfully inspiring one.  HERO nevertheless fails to work with the same sort of emotional or transcending power that CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON did, but it surely is its aesthetic equal.  There's no denying the level of artistic skill that went into HERO, because it stands on a level all by itself.  The problem with it is not that it lacks beauty, but that it lacks heart.

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