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HERO (PG-13) (2004)


Official Site

Director: Zhang Yimou

Producers: Bill Kong, Zhang Yimou

Written by: Feng Li, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou

Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Daoming, Donnie Yen


Film buffs with an axe to grind against Miramax for its acquisition of numerous movies subsequently locked up and unreleased (the Thai western Tears Of The Black Tiger and Abbas Kiarostami’s Through The Olive Trees are just two of its confiscations) have been using Hero against the studio for the past two years—amazingly enough, the gap of time which passed between the film’s domestic release in China in 2002 and August 27, 2004, on which date the film will reluctantly straggle into theaters. Annoyed martial-arts freaks will doubtless already have seen the film on the numerous grey-market DVDs flooding right-thinking alternative video stores for the past year. It’s managed to enter the IMDB’s Top 250 without an official release, but, at the risk of rewarding the studio that has thoroughly mangled the film’s American promotion and distribution, Hero almost certainly plays better in a theater, where Christopher Doyle’s (jump to interview with Doyle) gorgeous widescreen compositions belong.

Promotional garbage aside, Hero is an unexpected departure for Zhang Yimou, once China’s most important director of the Fifth Generation, but increasingly given to treading water after 1999’s Not One Less, with sentimental, innocuous material like The Road Home—an inane, instantly forgettable Zhang Ziyi vehicle—and Happy Times. It began to appear that Zhang, whose films could once regularly count on being banned by the official Chinese government, had given up the struggle in favor of banal, Party-approved fare.

To disprove that, Hero is cerebrally vigorous, formally impeccable fare that, rather than toeing the line, openly endorses, in allegorical format, the totalitarian Chinese regime, a fact that has caused no small amount of discomfort to some politically sensitive viewers. (The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman has compared it to the Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl.) Its story—about an assassin (Jet Li) who must decide whether or not to kill the King of Qin (Chen) for personal revenge, or spare him to unite the country—makes a case for brutal authority in the name of the popular good. Fans of Zhang’s earlier, more subversive work should be suitably alarmed.

But Hero doesn’t particularly feel like Zhang’s work. It’s arguably equally the work of cinematographer Doyle, the frequent Wong Kar-Wai collaborator who brings his trademark blurred impressionism—all accidental moments of beauty and whatnot—to the party, and even gets to have Wong’s ensemble cast members Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung come along for the ride. Scenes are color-coded—red for falsehood, green for serenity, and so on—for structural effect, but also just for the pleasure of realizing, say, how many different shades of red can be used in one scene, and how good Maggie Cheung’s skin looks against all of them. Visually, the film is untouchable (aside from some of the computer F/X, which are very fake-looking and render some scenes cooler conceptually than in realization).

Structurally, it’s as twisty as Memento, constantly revising what’s come before through the eyes of different narrators. Even though there are only two, there are at least three versions of each sequence to be told, and sometimes more. (All of this takes place without the thespian help of Jet Li, as blank and humorless as ever.) All this, however, runs counter to the strains of, alternately, swooning romanticism and patriotism which overlap uneasily throughout the film. Even here, amazingly, Miramax has managed to mess up the subtitles—viewers should know that the phrase which becomes a virtual mantra for the last half hour, guiding everyone’s actions, is not “Our Land,” but “All Under Heaven.” It seems like there’s something missing in all the unhappy lovers’ alternate destinies; maybe it’s the impact that Miramax managed to cut out in the 11 minutes’ difference between the Chinese and American versions of the film, although the film seems too cerebral to sustain any romantic current either way.

Between its expert fight choreography and gorgeous visuals, Hero more than sustains interest. But though it’s heartening to see Zhang back in fighting form, it’s a little unnerving to contemplate his career’s future now that he’s apparently lost all interest in character studies and careful critiques of contemporary Chinese society in favor of visual kicks and formal games. Fortunately, there’s one beneficial side-effect from Miramax’s delay of the film’s release: In just a few months, viewers will get to see Zhang’s follow-up from this year, House Of Flying Daggers, promptly released by Sony Pictures Classics, and see for themselves where he’s going.

—Vadim Rizov

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

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