Hero (Ying ziong)
Director : Yimou Zhang
Screenplay : Feng Li, Bin Wang, Yimou Zhang
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Jet Li (Nameless), Tony Leung (Broken Sword), Maggie Cheung (Flying Snow), Ziyi Zhang (Moon), Daoming Chen (King of Qin), Donnie Yen (Sky)
Martial arts sensation Jet Li may be the star of the film, but Yimou Zhang's Hero is not your ordinary action extravaganza, although there is more than enough balletic, gravity-defying swordplay to keep action fans enraptured. Instead, it is an epic visual poem that attempts to intertwine passion with national destiny. Part of the film's grandeur is attributable to the reunion of several key players from 2000's gorgeously evocative In the Mood for Love, including stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Yet, despite the rapturous beauty of Hero and its cinematic pedigree, it never quite manages to hit the emotional high notes for which it so clearly striving.
The story takes place more than 2,000 years ago at the dawn of the Qin Dynasty when China was divided into six warring nations. The King of Qin (Daoming Chen) is attempting to defeat the other five nations in order to bring them under one rule, and for his efforts he has been the target of numerous assassinations, including attempts by three fabled assassins: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung).
However, one day a nameless stranger (Jet Li) arrives at the palace claiming to have killed all three of these assassins. The King allows Nameless into his chamber, but he must stay 100 feet away, as no one is allowed near the King (his physical isolation makes visual the sometimes contradictory nature of power, not to mention that necessary result of attempting to use violence to end violence). As Nameless tells the story of each of his conquests and provides each assassin's weapon as proof of his victory, he is allowed to move closer and closer to the King. But, not everything is as it seems, and Nameless's three stories are eventually retold, Rashomon-style, in different ways, which casts every major character in a different light-loyalty turns to treachery, defeat to victory, loss to sacrifice.
Minus the action sequences, the story itself is simple and restricted enough to be a theater-bound play, but director Yimou Zhang (Raise the Red Lantern) stages everything in the midst of vast expanses, whether it be an open plain, the King's cavernous chamber, or the enormous palace grounds that are filled with thousands of soldiers (not surprisingly, Hero is the most expensive film in Chinese history). Even the most intimate moments take place in grandiose locations, and Zhang gives the actions sequences an extra kick by paying as much attention the mise-en-scene surrounding them as he does to the action itself. Thus, we get a swordfight between two characters in a sea of fallen leaves that change from golden orange to blood red as the fight draws to its conclusion. Zhang is fascinated by surfaces, and the film is filled with textures, from the richness of billowing silk banners to the smooth sands used in practicing calligraphy. It gives the film a sensuousness in every frame that almost subverts the story entirely.
This does not mean, of course, that there isn't incessant attention paid to the details of the action itself, and Zhang relishes the ability to visualize the impossible, from warriors weightlessly skipping across the glassy surface of a lake, to the expansion of time that allows us to see a sword literally slicing through a drop of water. The wire-fu theatrics will be familiar to Western audiences who saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), but Zhang's virtuoso visuals never feel redundant or cribbed.
Jet Li stoically commands the screen whenever the camera turns his direction, but you can tell that Zhang is most interested in the characters of Broken Sword and Flying Snow, who are lovers in addition to being near-mythical assassins. Yet, their passion for each other is undermined by their passion for protecting their nation, as they eventually come to different conclusions about what assassinating the King will accomplish. There should be grand tragedy here to match the grandiosity of everything else in the film, but the heat never really amounts to more than a gentle boil.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Miramax Films