2004 - NR - 96 Mins.
|Director: Zhang Yimou|
|Producer: Bill Kong|
|Written By: Zhang Yimou, Feng Li, Bin Wang|
|Starring: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang, Donnie Yen |
|Review by: Harrison Cheung
|Official Site: www.miramax.com/hero/index.html|
Floundering for a U.S. release date even after scoring a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination in 2003, 'Hero' (Ying Xiong) is finally hitting the big screen courtesy of Miramax with their favorite 'Presented by Quentin Tarantino' subtitle. Tarantino seems anxious to repay the main sources of his inspiration - Chinese and Hong Kong cinema - by promoting their films here in North America. And 'Hero' is probably the biggest film ever made - an ambitious epic from China’s best-known director, Zhang Yimou. Zhang is the talented director who introduced the world to actress, Gong Li, with a series of stunning films that were the toast of film festivals around the world. 'Raise the Red Lantern', 'Shanghai Triad', 'Red Sorghum', and 'Ju Dou'. Accenting each film’s intensely personal stories, Zhang is also known for his vivid use of color.
'Hero' is loosely based on ancient Chinese history. At the height of China's Warring States period two thousand years ago, the country was divided into seven kingdoms: Qin, Zhao, Han Wei, Yan, Chu and Qi. Three deadly assassins – Broken Arrow, Flying Snow, and Sky - from Zhao are intent on killing the King of Qin, so the King offers a reward for their deaths. When a strange, enigmatic sheriff named ‘Nameless’ from a tiny county presents proof of their deaths, the King is intrigued and invites Nameless to his palace to explain how he defeated the three greatest assassins of the time. Nameless tells his tale in a series of flashbacks.
In many ways, 'Hero' looks and feels like Zhang Yimou’s answer to Ang Lee’s 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'. That’s enhanced by the classical Chinese soundtrack by Dun Tan who did 'Crouching Tiger’s' soundtrack as well. The similarities were clearly intentional to hook a Western audience but the two films couldn’t be more different. While 'Crouching Tiger' was a love story, 'Hero' feels like a morality tale about nation-building, duty and honor. Some film festival audiences bluntly felt that the movie was a piece of propaganda about the importance of the greater good. Saying too much more would give away the ending of the movie, but in the current political climate where China is more than happy to use military force to reunify Taiwan, 'Hero' seems ready made to try to pull at heartstrings for people to back whatever cause or whatever tyrant for the greater good.
Jet Li stars as the Nameless one – his martial arts are on display in a number of beautifully choreographed battle scenes as the movie goes through repeated flashbacks, all done in gorgeously different color palettes reflecting different perspectives. The rest of the cast are superstars in China – Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love) is Broken Sword, Maggie Cheung is Flying Snow, and Ziyi Zhang, from 'Crouching Tiger' has a smaller supporting role as Moon, Broken Sword’s apprentice.
It’s nice to see Jet Li in a period Chinese movie because his recent forays into American action movies have been bizarre as he struggles with English and some cross-cultural faux pas – Van Damme, anyone? But in 'Hero', he plays Nameless with a glinty-eyed assurance, like a Chinese Clint Eastwood.
'Hero' unfortunately has many flaws. First of all, it feels as if the movie was written and produced by a committee trying to figure out what would be an international hit. Hmmmm, Westerners loved 'Crouching Tiger'? Let’s give them even more of that beautiful cinematography with flying martial arts and that mourning Dun Tan soundtrack. Westerners love Zhang Yimou’s use of color? Let’s flood each scene with rich uses of silk – we’re talking colorful opulence on the scale of a Peter Greenaway movie here! And there are so many scenes of beautiful people running down hallways with their billowing silk robes that I was reminded of Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 video for “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” That video was probably just 4 minutes long though. 'Hero' is 96 minutes long though it feels longer. Most damaging is the story and screenplay which has numerous, decidedly unsubtle messages about duty to the greater good. (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one!)
Okay, in my 80s flashback mode, I remember how bitter Simple Minds was over their hit song, “Don’t You Forget About Me” which was written by someone outside the band. Simple Minds’ leader, Jim Kerr said that the song felt as if someone had taken all the elements of past Simple Minds’ songs and poured them into a computer. The end result was the Simple Minds-sounding song with the bland non-essential lyrics.
'Hero' is very much in that mode – a processed hodgepodge with the look of Zhang Yimou, the soundtrack of 'Crouching Tiger', screenplay by the Chinese Government, and some heart-stopping battle scenes that echo of 'Gladiator'. Sometimes, the saturation of color reminded me of that dreadful Robin Williams movie, 'What Dreams May Come'. When the ancient Chinese army, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, decides to mount a coordinated archery attack… well, those scenes are stunning but also a little upsetting at the implications about military might. Adding to the propaganda feel of the movie are lines like, “If I see a red flag from Heaven, I’ll be overjoyed.” Allrighty then.
It’s a huge disappointment that Zhang Yimou’s highly anticipated 'Hero' has so many flaws. Government-sanctioned epic or personal response to some professional jealousy over the success of 'Crouching Tiger', 'Hero' is a misstep in a brilliant career of personal stories set in China’s troubled past. It's also quite interesting from a cultural point of view, that in the West, tyrants are brought down because of an inherent belief that tyranny is bad (Julius Caesar, anyone?) But 'Hero' runs contrary to Western belief - tyranny is good because centralization and unification is good.