Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen
Written by: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 99
Date: 08/27/2004
IMDB

Hero (2002)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hail the Conquering 'Hero'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The most expensive and highest grossing film in Chinese history, Zhang Yimou's Hero went on to snag one of 2002's Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film. Unfortunately, the notorious Miramax snapped it up and then promptly sat on it for two years, as if somehow ashamed of their newest acquisition. Indeed, naysayers quickly dismissed the film as a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knockoff.

Earlier this year, Miramax very cautiously allowed Hero to open the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and now they've suspiciously dumped it at the end of August, where unwanted films usually go to die.

Despite all this, when Hero finally exploded on the big screen for me, it quickly and effortlessly established itself as one of the two or three most exceptional, spectacular and beautiful martial arts movies ever made.

It makes Crouching Tiger look slow, stuffy and arrogant.

Jet Li stars as a nameless assassin (referred to as "Nameless") whose goal is to kill the Napoleon-like warlord, the King of Qin (Chen Daoming). First, he must defeat three dangerous killers, Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), all of whom are the king's enemies.

When successful, the king invites him to sit in his presence, where Nameless' heroism allows him to move closer than the regulated 100 yards.

But the king quickly deduces that Nameless' story stinks and tries to figure out what really happened. What follows is a Rashomon-like narrative, relying on the distorting nature of storytelling, to catch the king further and further off-guard.

Director Zhang Yimou presents the various tales each drenched in its own bold color: red, blue, green and gold. But unlike Rashomon, the true story does ultimately come out -- only to lead to a much tougher decision on which the very future of China hinges.

The film's real selling point is what happens within these extraordinary swatches of color. These action scenes seriously threaten to rip the screen apart. In one, Nameless and Flying Snow ward off a veritable hailstorm of arrows while balletic Broken Sword feverishly paints a calligraphy scroll.

Other scenes feature Broken Sword's jealous apprentice (Zhang Ziyi) attacking Flying Snow in a forest full of swirling dead leaves, and a fight that takes place while the players sprint and dance on the surface tension of a serenely beautiful lake.

Zhang Yimou is not a kung-fu director by nature, but he knows beauty and tragedy when he sees them. Hero ignores his recent, neo-realist work (Happy Times) and harkens back to his earlier works like Ju Dou (with its brightly colored cloth hanging in the breeze).

He was also smart enough to hire Christopher Doyle, the celebrated Australian-born cinematographer who has worked almost exclusively in Hong Kong, lensing such classics as Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time. Doyle understands not only the concept of making fight scenes clear, but also how to move his camera with the action, heightening it rather than obscuring it as most American filmmakers do.

The film's cast comes from the uppermost echelon of Hong Kong elite. But unlike Crouching Tiger's Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li is an accomplished martial artist who can actually perform the stunts required for this film. Hero fits him perfectly, calling upon his stock-in-trade steely-eyed stoicism. When the king hurls a sword directly at his face, the actor does not flinch a millimeter as the weapon sticks in the table directly in front of him. This is truly a warrior worth watching, and it's easily his finest role since 1992's Swordsman II.

Zhang takes his great cast and crew and celebrates with them. Rather than a pretentious attempt at turning kung-fu into high art, Hero is a film of movement and color and poetry, an all-time cinema classic that deserves our unrestrained applause, with or without Miramax's help.

DVD Details: Miramax has released a 2009 "Special Edition" DVD, mainly as an excuse to promote the Blu-Ray release. It includes one 9-minute new featurette, "Close-up of a Fight Scene." There's also a conversation between Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li, "Hero Defined," storyboards, an ad for the soundtrack and other promos. Audio is available in Chinese, English, French or Spanish.

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