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Hero (Mark's Take)

02/11/2004. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy Hero in the USA - or Buy Hero in the UK

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China tries to make its own Crouching Tiger with a story of an enigmatic stranger who has killed a triad of assassins for the benefit of China's first Emperor. The stranger tells the emperor multiple versions of how he killed the emperor's enemies. Visually Hero is stunning. The telling is operatic in style but becomes muddled.

HERO (a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: China tries to make its own CROUCHING TIGER with a story of an enigmatic stranger who has killed a triad of assassins for the benefit of China's first Emperor. The stranger tells the emperor multiple versions of how he killed the emperor's enemies. Visually HERO is stunning. The telling is operatic in style but becomes muddled. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

In the last half of the 20th century China saw Japan study American culture and then move in to compete with us in technical, economic, and artistic fields. China has made tremendous strides in many of the same directions.

Much more than in the past they are now vying for the international cinema market, not just with artistic films, but with entertainment films also. I expect that in the near future we will see more Chinese films intended not to show us something edifying, like Chinese village life, but more to entertain and even impress. HERO is one such film.

HERO is the most expensive film ever made in mainland China. It is historical spectacle, but in the mold of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. It has jaw-dropping art direction and martial arts that still astound, even making allowances for the obvious assistance of wires.

In the Third Century B.C. what we now call China was a patchwork of kingdoms. Qin Shih Huang-ti, the ruthless king of the Qin fought to conquer all the other kings and to make himself the first Emperor of all China. That much is history. In this tale his greatest danger lay came from a team of three superb assassins who had sworn to kill him. Then suddenly they were gone, killed by a lowly prefect from one of the king's provinces.

This man (Jet Li) is of such low origins he does not even have a real name and is called Nameless. Nameless is taken in pageantry to have an audience with the future Emperor and to tell him how he accomplished the deed. But the king recognizes that he is being lied to so Nameless gives several very different accounts. Is Nameless merely working on a different plot to kill the king?

HERO combines the fantasized martial arts of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON with some of the same history from the under-rated THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN. It has neither the rousing adventure of CROUCHING TIGER nor the historical epic sweep of THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN.

But the visual style of production designers Huo Ting Xiao and Yi Zhen Zhou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes this one of the most beautiful films that has been seen on American screens in quite a while. Director Zhang Yimou has been more known for beautiful and contemplative films such as RAISE THE RED LANTERN.

He has shown, among other things, that he likes playing with color. In this film that taste turns into full-blown passion. Some scenes will have so much of one color that they almost look like tinted monochrome. In others he will have the entire scene in one tone and the two main characters in another color so they stand out. The colors are specifically chosen each to represent a given mood. As Nameless tells his tales he keeps returning to a mystical connection between beautiful calligraphy and swordplay.

HERO will break the rules of physics but never the rules of the Chinese cinema. With its strong and heavily stylized action scenes, this film is like KILL BILL in overdrive. Zhang Yimou avoids showing us any human stained with blood in keeping with the Chinese sensibility. Though the plot involves sex there is just one quick flash of partial nudity. Like CROUCHING TIGER there is plenty of violence but it is choreographed more like high-speed ballet.

It is easy to see how this became the most expensive film in Chinese history. Zhang Yimou may use CGI to show a storm of arrows or vortexes of golden leaves, but unlike Peter Jackson he never seems to use a computer image of a human in lieu of a real human. When he shows us a huge army of soldiers it looks like it is played by a huge army of people. It might be politically incorrect to use a computer image rather than employing an actor.

That said the producers were not afraid to borrow talent from other lands. Tan Dun provided the musical score as he had with CROUCHING TIGER. It is a little strange to see a credit for violin and fiddle solos performed by Itzhak Perlman. A few western names do show up in the credits.

Some of the story may seem obscure to American audiences, but in this film the visual style is much more important than the actual plot. This is a case where it might have been better to dub carefully than to subtitle.

I had to let several subtitles go unread to appreciate the images above them on the screen. This film is not the entertainment that THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN was, but it certainly is a film that can be appreciated by wide audiences. I give HERO a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2004 Mark R. Leeper

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