2004Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Jet Li; Tony Leung; Maggie Cheung; Zhang Ziyi
here's something I should probably admit upfront here. This will be the third movie I've reviewed this year—after Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and Goodbye, Dragon Inn—that, if not a martial-arts film per se, is a movie to which martial-arts cinema is an integral element or influence. My confession is that—though I'm a pretty huge enthusiast of contemporary Asian cinema—my familiarity with martial-arts movies is severely limited; which is to say, I know roughly as much about the genre as your average Crouching Tiger-loving American moviegoer.
I'm considerably more familiar, on the other hand, with Zhang Yimou's work; Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang's moving portrait of an educated woman who sacrifices her own future to financially support her family as a concubine, and Shanghai Triad, his distinctly Chinese take on gangster cinema, in particular, are personal favorites. Hero is, after the better part of two decades of filmmaking, Zhang's ticket out of the (American) art-house ghetto. Unlike the work of many of his contemporaries, it's currently screening at virtually every multiplex in this country, and, if it's not already, it'll almost certainly end up the most profitable foreign-language film to hit these shores since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—not coincidentally, another artful, eloquent martial-arts movie. Hell, Hero might even go on to surpass Ang's film's numbers seeing as how it has an already-marketable star in Jet Li.
It's the most impressive Ginsu knife you've ever seen...
The extraordinary appeal of both of these films is rooted squarely in the cleverness of their duality. Though their primary spectacle is their gravity-defying fight sequences, they're hardly violent in the usual sense (though the same can certainly not be said of Tarantino's Kill Bill movies); the characters seem rather to engage in an exquisitely choreographed ballet-like combat, bloodless enough to pass with even the most squeamish of viewers. At the same time, these films are chock-full of enough suppressed romantic yearning to satisfy Wong Kar-wai fans. The real kicker is that they're stunningly gorgeous works of film-art, set to swooning Tan Dun scores (which sound fairly similar, but work wonderfully in both films nevertheless).
Speaking of Wong, Zhang borrows quite a bit from him here. I could've easily guessed who shot Hero without checking out the credits; the film's painterly sheen is unmistakably the work of Christopher Doyle, Wong's DP of choice. Zhang also casts Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, who co-starred in Wong's Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, as warrior lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow. The pair has stronger, more intrinsically erotic chemistry than any other duo working in movies today.
The Asian master Zhang seems to draw most heavily on structurally, however, seems to be Akira Kurosawa, Japan's and probably Asia's most internationally famous filmmaker. Its contrasting narrative strands—woven through a dialogue between Jet Li's "Nameless" hero/assassin and the King of the Chinese province of Qin—vividly recall Rashomon while the film's broader canvas suggests that Zhang likely also had Kurosawa epics like Kagemusha and Ran in mind.
"All right, now try the green lightbulb."
Zhang's final product here proves nearly as fruitful an amalgam as Kill Bill. Somehow, though, it's ultimately less exciting a ride and less thoughtful a character study. Zhang deftly handles the plot gimmick of dramatizing Nameless's calculated fabrications as well as the King's imagined versions of what he assumes has taken place, but this structural juggling act deprives the film of genuine narrative thrust and of any real sense of who these characters actually are. I understand that it's an exercise in ambiguity, which I generally admire, but that doesn't change the fact that Hero left me somewhat cold in the end.
I actually had the same complaint with Kill Bill's initial volume, but in the follow-up, Tarantino displayed a level of humanity and maturity that he'd barely even hinted at in his previous films. These are virtues I'd apply to much of Zhang's prior work, but they're conspicuously absent here, with the exception of the wonderful-as-always Leung and Cheung, who lend Hero an air of gravitas every time they're on screen together. See the movie for them. See it for those eye-popping monochromatic compositions. See it for the supremely graceful martial-arts sequences. Just don't say I didn't warn you when you leave the theatre wanting something more than Zhang delivers here.
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2004-09-17