Hero (China 2002)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 5/25/03
Director: Zhang Yimou
Music: Tan Dun
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Action Choreography: Ching Siu Tung, Tung Wei
Cast: Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung (Chiu Wai), Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Daoming Chen

A semi-historical account about the King of Qin (charismatic Daoming Chen) and his trouble with assassins. While attempting to unify China under his harsh and tyrannical rule, he has taken extraordinary measures to protect himself from three notorious assassins in particular: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Falling Snow (Maggie Cheung). When a wandering swordsman called Nameless (stone-faced Jet Li) comes to the king and claims to have killed all three, the king is naturally skeptical. Nameless recounts the tale of how he managed the deed, but the king offers him a different view on how events transpired. What are Nameless's intents? Is he just another assassin, or is he the hero of the film's title? Or both?

This film has generated a lot of noise in the Asian film community. While some claim that it's the next evolutionary leap in kung fu cinema and the true successor to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), others bash the film as a cheap rip-off of "Rashomon" and as historically inaccurate communist propaganda. The only thing people can agree on is that the cinematography is beautiful and stunning. However, being the cinematic babarian that I am, apart from the lush visuals all I can say is that I found the movie dull and tedious. Much like Wong Kar Wai's dreadful "Ashes Of Time" (1994), this is a kung fu movie for the art-house crowd, and it suffers the same pitfalls. Apart from the king, the characters are all lifeless and wooden, spending most of their screen time gazing wistfully into the distance and delivering flat and uninspired dialog. As such, the film fails to ever emotionally engage the viewer (except on a visual level) and the sparse music score doesn't provide any emotional cues either. The pacing naturally suffers as a result, and the film can be tiresome to watch. Even the showdown between Nameless and the king lacks any real tension or depth.

What strikes me as most interesting about the film is the treatment of the action scenes. Apart from a wonderful fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen (which happens in the first fifteen minutes) and some spirited exchanges with Zhang Ziyi, the kung fu boils down to mostly arm flapping and posturing with very little contact between players. It looks more like elaborate dancing, except that each player is dancing by himself, mirroring the emotional isolation of the film. Interestingly, one could argue that the film is in fact a parody of kung fu and swordplay films, with all of the standard hallmarks of the genre being overdone to the point of absurdity. And at the same time, the film is completely devoid of any bloodletting, which becomes increasingly laughable as the film wears on. Excessive artistic blood spurting would seem to be the perfect complement to the outlandish fight scenes, or at least evoke a visceral emotional response, but narry a drop is seen. The characters' clothes don't even get ripped as a result of being run through with a sword, which gives the film an unnatural "play acting" aspect. Even with veteran action experts Ching Siu Tung and Tung Wei involved, director Yimou seems way out of his element here. He either just doesn't get it or he's making fun of it, because it certainly doesn't feel like he's embracing or honoring the swordplay genre.

If you like artsy-fartsy films and appreciate lush cinematography, "Hero" is worth checking out. As always, try to see the original import cut if you can, before Miramax is finished cutting scenes, re-editing sequences, re-writing dialog, and adding an inappropriate hip-hop soundtrack in an attempt to attract mainstream audiences for an eventual American release.