Hero

November 11th, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Director: Yimou Zhang

Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Daoming Chen, Donnie Yen.

We’ve been seeing the trailer for Hero for ages now — it was circulating the Internet almost a year ago. The most expensive movie ever made in its native China in 2002, it struggled for a long time to find a distributor in the English-speaking world.

Looking as it did like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it’s amazing it took so long to reach us. But it did, thanks to a bit of Hollywood wheeling and dealing by the world’s most famous fanboy, who gets a ‘Presented by’ credit above the title.

It doesn’t mean he had anything to do with the production — it was probably in the can before he was even aware of it. But when you’re a bigwig in Tinseltown, calling your pal Harvey Weinstein at Miramax and saying ‘You have to buy this movie’ is enough to get your name on it (and if you’re Quentin Tarantino, you can get your name on virtually anything you want).

The trailer — which had sword fights, acrobatic feats straight out of the Crouching Tiger fantasy world and lavish staging aplenty — had most moviegoers giddy with excitement. It looked like it was going to be the action film event of the year. It was filled with a brooding menace, the promise of an explosion of martial arts and swordplay action, tinged with wire-work fantasy midway between Ang Lee and Jackie Chan (ironically, Chan was offered the part of the king of Qin province).

The qualities the trailer contained are all highly visible in Hero; it’s a filmmaker’s film. Every scene is like a work of art expressed in colour and movement. Relying heavily on primary colours for all the sets and costumes, director Zhang certainly brings us the most visually striking film of 2004 so far.

The sets are both sparse and grand and the visuals edge on magical at times. When Broken Sword battles the King of Qin amongst a forest of billowing green silk, you realise you’re watching something made by a pioneer of motion picture design. Each episode or scene is like a different colour palette, all of them arresting and all of them beautiful.

And the whole thing moves with the quality of a beautiful poem rather than a chop socky action film. In fact, you get the feeling Zhang was interpreting an ancient Chinese mythic poem akin to Homer’s The Iliad just the way he read it instead of just trying to extract the battles and rippling muscles that would appeal to modern audiences like Troy did.

Scenes like the hero, Nameless (Li) walking down the steps of the palace surrounded by black and red-clad guards all pointing spears at him seem to be an exercise in the artistic use of colour contrast as much as part of the story.

So it’s beautiful, but is it entertaining? The jury’s out and will probably never come back in; as many people will hate it as those who love it (as has already happened in the US).

One of two things most likely happened; Zhang had no intention of making an action movie, but Miramax knew that by slapping Tarantino’s name on it, every young man who can quote the execution scene at the beginning of Pulp Fiction would be queueing up for miles. Or maybe he just forgot to put any action in it.

Crouching Tiger was just as beautiful to watch, but it still knew people love watching martial artists kick the shit out of each other. Despite the fight scenes, Hero just doesn’t seem to contain any action based in the sort of violence we see action films for. It’s more like watching ballet.

The story picks up the arrival of a nameless hero (whose name, somewhat ridiculously, is thereafter ‘Nameless’) who comes to the court of the King of Qin to report on his neutralising three master assasins from a neighbouring province who planned to kill the king and stop his plan of conquest/unification.

In flashback, he tells how he fought the enigmatic Sky and turned the just as mysterious Snow and Broken Sword against each other because of their feeling for each other.

The king isn’t convinced, accuses Nameless of being the fourth as-yet unidentified killer, and we see the truth unfold through further flashbacks that involve all the players, their relationships and their fates.

Watching the film in its native tongue gives it an incalculable boost — just as Crouching Tiger or Passion of the Christ benefited from taking the same tack instead of joining less credible movies where the heroes and villains run around Sherwood Forest, ancient Greece, Roman, pre-Anglo Saxon England or a Russian submarine with American accents.

And just as The Terminator was perfect for Arnold Schwarzenegger because it called on his to act like a robot, so Jet Li’s extremely limited range of expression and emotion suits the calm and calculating Nameless down to the ground.

An auspicious arrival onto the world stage for big budget Chinese cinema, it just needed something more.


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