I hope the people who have been watching DVD or downloaded copies of Zhang Yimou’s martial arts film “Hero” will go see it on the big screen, too, once Miramax finally releases it in theaters. I sympathize with their impatience — Miramax has been sitting on it for two years for some reason, even though it’s been a huge hit overseas — but people who are already fans of “Hero” owe it to themselves to see it large and loud. So do people who have never heard of “Hero” but who love good film.
The film is a stunning achievement. Nearly every shot is beautiful, impossible, or both. I think of the scene in which two female warriors fight each other in the treetops, employing the same gravity-defying agility that made “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” so noteworthy. Not only is it spectacular to see them soar so gracefully, the special effects entirely seamless, but it’s awe-inspiring to behold the sheer beauty of the images: The women are dressed in gorgeous red, and the leaves that swirl and fall around them in improbable quantities are bright yellow. Projected on a screen 20 feet tall and 47 feet high, this is a breathtaking sight.
And that’s just one scene. Time and time again, Yimou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (much-acclaimed for his previous work on Chinese action films) compose masterful shots. I don’t like to use snotty film-critic terms like “mise en scene” (meaning the way people and things are arranged within the frame), but the mise en scene in this film kicks butt.
The story is of the King of Qin (Daoming Chen), one of the several Chinese states that warred amongst themselves centuries ago before eventually becoming unified. Qin, a frequent target of assassination attempts by hitmen from other provinces, is now able to sleep easy for the first time in years: China’s top three assassins have been felled by one man, an enigmatic warrior called Nameless (Jet Li). The king shows his gratitude as Nameless tells the story of how he conquered Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen); he has brought each of their swords to the king as proof.
Yet there are discrepancies in his report, which the king points out, leading to the conclusion that Nameless is an unreliable narrator, and that substantial details have been omitted. We see both versions of the events, his account and the king’s suppositions.
The first fight, between Nameless and Long Sky, sets the tone. It is fast, clever, thrilling to watch and astonishing to contemplate. How they got some of these shots to look so real and un-manipulated, I’ll never know.
Some of the film’s ideas and symbolism won’t resonate with Western viewers as much as they do with Oriental ones. There are Eastern philosophies at work, as well as a respect for China’s turbulent history, whose full import a non-Chinese audience can only guess at. But you could ignore the plot altogether and still enjoy the film on a visual level. That it tells a story of nobleness, heroism and patriotism is just icing on the cake.
Yimou’s previous films have generally been more introspective and more obviously uplifting. I direct you to “Not One Less” and “The Road Home” as two heartwarming examples. “Hero” is largely a genre film, but it’s a good one, and it has elements of his past endeavors sprinkled throughout it. His next film, which just premiered at Cannes, is another martial-arts flick — but it’s called “Lovers.” If Yimou is setting out to be a thinking man’s kung fu director, I say more power to him. With “Hero,” he’s off to a fantastic start.
A- (1 hr., 36 min.; Chinese with subtitles; )