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Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)
Obviously this year’s Chinese mega-production of Zhang Yimou’s epic wu xia Hero arrives to a great deal of anticipation. Its $30 million production budget is one of the highest in that country’s history, its cast reads like a virtual who’s who of local talent (Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi, each playing an assassin, are in the four lead roles), and co-financier Miramax’s involvement ensures that it’s properly poised for another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style crossover in the US, if such a phenomenon is even repeatable. It’s fortunate, then, that the film finds Zhang stirring from the relative slumber of his last few features (Happy Times, The Road Home, Not One Less) and delivering what might well be the most crowd-pleasing spectacle of his career to date.
Set loosely in a historical context in pre-unified China, Hero takes a folkloric approach in telling its tale of political espionage and cultural homogenization. Opening titles alert us that the tale we’re about to see is just one of the many that chronicle the attempts to assassinate Emperor Ying Zheng (Chen Daoming), who would go on to become the first emperor of the unified nation. We’re immediately introduced to the Nameless (Jet Li), a master swordsman who arrives at the Emperor’s fortress after vanquishing three deadly assassins who had beleaguered him for years. In a conversation that will become the movie’s framing device, the Nameless explains to the Emperor how he has accomplished a task that armies numbering in the thousands could not.
Zhang almost explicitly acknowledges this framing device’s stodginess, opting to shoot all of the duo’s conversations in a decidedly non-flashy shot / counter-shot style. As the film proceeds non-chronologically, launching into flashback after flashback from this starting point, half-truths, rampant speculation, and outright lies are brought to light, and events begin to overwrite one another as the definitive truth is gradually revealed. Structurally, it’s almost as if the film is a morally simplified retelling of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, spruced up by martial arts sequences. Still, plotting, clever as it is here, seems one of Zhang’s minor concerns telling this story. Aesthetic thrills seem more significant than narrative ones in Hero, and there’s little denying that the picture, which is home to the finest production values ever seen in a Chinese-language movie, is a compositional masterpiece. Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Hou Yong are to be commended for outdoing even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (surely the bellwether of quality when judging these films) visually. Thanks to the fine cinematography, art direction, and costuming, Hero is the best-looking film from any country since Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love, which was incidentally shot by Doyle along with the phenomenal Mark Lee Ping-bin. The director seems thrilled here by the scale that he’s working with, and never misses an opportunity to flaunt scope or symmetry in his compositions (perhaps most impressively in a sequence in which an army totaling 3,000 fires arrows at a tiny keep simultaneously). Every shot is so achingly beautiful that it almost distracts from the relatively straightforward genre picture that’s playing out behind them.
It’s almost impossible not to notice that Hero’s plot has been cobbled together so that each of its four lead characters have an opportunity to square off against one another in one-on-one armed combat. Only one possible permutation of possible match-ups among the four principals goes unexploited as the film plays out, but for fans of Asian cinema, that’s far from a bad thing. The CGI-enhanced wire-fu athletics that dominate the match-ups even more brazenly defy physics than in CTHD (one scene features dueling swordsmen propelling themselves repeatedly above a placid lake by dipping merely the tips of their blades in), but it’s clear that the still-impressive choreography is after an even more stylized effect than Lee’s film was. If the artier fight scenes in Hero are sometimes briefly less than thrilling, they’re never for a moment less than visually ravishing. Every battle has a different, bold look to it, but the clear highlight among the fight sequences is a beautiful face-off set during an autumnal blanket of yellow leaves. With only the blue sky and the red outfits of the combatants occasionally peeking through the swirling foliage, the palette of the film is reduced to primary colors, to stunning effect. The main complaint when considering these sequences (which comprise the vast percentage of the film’s running time) has to be that Zhang occasionally overdoses on slow-motion effects. They’re so frequent at times that it seems as if the entire film was filmed at double speed and slowed down. Still, it seems almost ridiculous to complain that images as glorious as the ones in Hero linger as long as they do.
One could also gripe that the almost humorless Hero doesn’t quite take us along on the ride that Ang Lee’s film did in its fight scenes. Nothing here has quite the same kinetic propulsion that the rooftop dash did in CTHD, but few action scenes in all of filmdom have. The editing and camera setups seem more distanced from the action here, lending a more contemplative, painterly feel (only extended by the slow-motion) that extends to the dramatic scenes that frame the martial arts sequences. The overall presentation of Hero is so tastefully restrained that a tiny rivulet of blood is all that ever flows after a fighter is mortally wounded. Similarly, when a character breaks down to cry, a single tear is all that’s shed. Initially, such control seems excessive, but by the time the end of the film rolls along, and major characters have died time and again, it becomes apparent that Zhang’s restraint is precisely what keeps the film’s tone from veering into the melodramatic.
Certainly, the top-notch cast doesn’t hurt when keeping Hero’s emotions honest, though. An early scene, in which the four leads are thrown together for the first time, feels exhilarating because of the sheer amount of star power radiating from the screen. Each actor is given a glowing, graceful star treatment of a caliber that’s rarely been seen since Hollywood’s studio days, and each imbues their somewhat thinly written character with an intangible history thanks to their built up persona. All around, performances are solid, with top nods going to Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, who predictably bring a smoldering intensity to their roles as compatriots in love and war. The political concerns of the film seem almost simple-minded until it parallels them with the ebb and flow in this duo’s relationship. Because we feel they care about each other so intensely, when their politics threaten that relationship, they suddenly become immediate. If Hero can’t quite attain the emotional heft of CTHD or Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time, or allow for a monologue as remarkable as Maggie Cheung’s was in the latter film, it’s far from a shallow effort on dramatic grounds. When the floodgates open in the final moments of the film, and Zhang’s self-control gives way to a sobering admission of reality, Hero achieves an undeniably poignant wallop.
Like most mega-productions, Hero feels somewhat streamlined and to an American viewer, it doesn’t exactly seem to take mammoth creative risks (though a $30 million foreign film made with American audiences in mind seems to be one in itself). The gray morality of its action heroes might be a bit tougher for Chinese audiences to swallow, however, since the film never delivers anything so simple (or fun) as a bad guy. It’s almost impossible ascertain who the titular “hero” is meant to be, since no character’s stance comes without serious ethical compromises. The central political concern of the film (Will the progress prompting, war ending benefits of a sole Chinese Emperor outweigh the cultural homogenization that it will inevitably bring?) offers no easy answer, and the film is much richer as a result. Short-term peace would come at the cost of the future nation’s long-term progress, and vice versa. Instead of reinventing this genre though, Zhang opts to dazzle his audience with his assemblage of technical and aesthetic wonders, and the considerable sum of the efforts makes the film a top-notch entry in its field, even if it’s more often mind-blowingly lush than spine-tinglingly thrilling. For those who were unimpressed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it’s doubtful that Hero will be able to convert them into advocates of to this type of film. For those who were caught up in Lee’s level of artistry and sophistication, however, a similar achievement awaits in Zhang Yimou’s Hero.
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