Well worth the wait, "Hero" finally plays in our land
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 08/31/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I feel like I have been waiting a long time to see this movie and that the trailer for "Hero" ("Ying xiong") has been teasing us for at least a year. I have to admit that I fully expected to see an epic full of battle scenes and massed armies of men. My mistake. This film from China is a pointed fable, distilled from legend that may well be myth, and with a point that may well be lost on Western audiences. This is clear from those viewers who are unwilling to accept the conventions of wire work in Chinese martial art pictures and whose standard of realism refuses to allow for the poetic ballet of combat.
The prologue makes it clear that this story takes place in China before it was China, when the land was made up of seven warring provinces and the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) dreamt of conquering the other six provinces and uniting the land. For years the king has been unable to have a peaceful night of sleep because there are three assassins who are out to kill him. Now comes a nameless warrior (Jet Li), who has come to the imperial court to be rewarded for killing the three unbeatable assassins. He is warned that he may not approach within 100 paces of the king or he will be killed. But because he has bested the assassin Sky (Donnie Yen) in combat, he is allowed with 20 paces to tell his story.
Most of the story of "Hero" is told in flashback as Nameless tells his stories and the king questions him. We also learn of the fates of Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), two assassins who were also a pair of lovers. But there is more than one truth and more than one tale to be told in this film. Director Zhang Yimou, improving on the artistry we first enjoyed in "Raise the Red Lantern," color codes the stories that we see. First the story is told in lush shades of red, then in cool blue, again in white, and finally in green. Drops of water and swirling yellow leaves all become parts of the dances of death during the fight sequences, captured by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. "Hero" is a gorgeous film that uses its saturated colors better than any film of recent memory. There is a code to the colors, but that is something you need to come to terms with on your own.
Another strength of this film is that the fighting (choreographed by Wei Tung) and special effects do not overwhelm the actors who are required to play what is on some level the same scene as slightly different characters. I know there are computer generated effects in this film, especially since there are more arrows shot in "Hero" than any film in history, but for once I did not get the feel that what I was seeing was not real. That is become this film keeps coming back to questions of aesthetics, from the breathtaking use of color to the eloquent idea that swordsmanship and calligraphy are intrinsically awaited.
Special mention has to be made of the music, composed by Dun Tan and featuring violin solos and fiddling by Itzhak Perlman along with drumming by the Japanese group Kodo. I have never really seen one of those Hong Kong kung fu movies where everyone screams while they fight and I might never get around to it given the silent eloquence of the fights in movies like "Hero" (not to mention "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), where the moments are underscored by the sound of clashing swords, pounding drums, and a violin. "Hero" is an art film, albeit one made on a larger and more colorful canvas.
"Hero" may be sold as being a big film but it is really about something relatively plain and simple. I disagree with the idea that either the style or substance of the film is beyond our Western sensibilities. Apparently the reason the film has the "Quentin Tarantino Presents" tag at the start was so that Miramax would not cut 20 minutes of the film out on the pretext that it too Asian/confusing for Western audiences. Indeed, I have seen some critics who professes to be confused about the complex plot and I can only wonder if they were equally confused by "Rashomon," an obvious reference point to this one (in many ways Yimou owes more to Akira Kurosawa's classic film than to Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). Certainly after a century of cinema we are capable to looking at the same thing from multiple perspectives and enjoying this gem of a film that has finally made its way to our shores.
A Visual Feast and a Cleverly Told Tale
Steve Koss | New York, NY United States | 11/22/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Much as Ang Lee demonstrated his directorial virtuosity in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, Zhang Yimou has applied his magnificent talents to the martial arts genre with HERO. This is movie not only worth seeing, but worth watching two or three times, or more. Each viewing unveils new appreciation for Zhang's artistic direction, Chris Doyle's cinematography, Tan Dun's musical score, and Itzhak Perlman's violin performance, not to mention fresh insights into the story line and character interrelationships.
The story line is simple enough on its surface, based loosely on Chinese historical fact. The king of the Qin state seeks to unify the Seven Kingdoms some 2,000 years ago, and three assassins from the defeated Zhao state wish to kill him. An unknown warrior named Nameless, from the Qin state, succeeds in killing the three assassins and returns to collect his reward in an audience with the King. As we view segments of Nameless's explanation of how he defeated three such fearsome opponents, a battle of wits ensues with the skeptical King until the truth emerges. Their verbal sparring beautifully parallels the feints, thrusts, and parries of the martial arts scenes.
Within this story line, we are treated to extraordinary, ballet-like martial arts contests between Nameless and the three assassins. Each scene is dominated by one primary color, from the opening desert white to the reds of the calligraphy school to the yellows of autumn leaves whose wind-swept swirls become weapons in themselves. A sword fight between Broken Sword and the King of Qin is cloaked in flowing green cloth, reminiscent of Zhang's use of colored cloth in JU DOU.
While HERO evokes memories of RASHOMON, this is not the same motif. The three "versions" of the assassins' reported deaths are rather more like the gradual unfolding of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. As the tale reveals itself, the relationship of the four assassins (including Nameless)moves from enemies to spurned lovers to companions working together and finally to a genuinely tragic (if seemingly platonic) love between two of them.
Several less recognized aspects of HERO are particularly worthy of note. First, anyone who saw Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE will find it remarkable that the same two actors could pull off the characters of Broken Sword and Flying Snow so successfully. Second, the game of Go played by the assassin Sky at the beginning of the movie magnificently foreshadows Nameless's successive movements in the King's presence from 100 to 20 to 10 paces. Third, the ballet movements in unison of the candle flames burning before the King are not only brilliant in conception, they mirror the closing scene's behavior of the King's faceless advisors calling for Nameless's execution. Finally, the juxtaposition of calligraphy brushes with swords and flying arrows is a dramatic visual rendition of the pen and sword adage.
A last comment. Criticism of HERO as Communist Party propaganda is laughably absurd and demonstrates a severe lack of understanding of Chinese history. Qin Shihuang was a product of his times, no more or less tyrannical than the Egyptian pharaohs, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror, Suleiman, or the American generals who "cleared" the Wild West of Indians. Regardless of his methods, Qin Shihuang accomplished a grand unification (All under heaven) that continues two millennia after his death. HERO evokes the founding of a nation and one unknown man's ultimate decision to sublimate his desire for revenge to the greater good of his country. That makes it no more propagandist than stories of Abraham Lincoln's struggle to re-unify the North and the South at the cost of countless thousands of lives, and far less pathetically propagandist than the recent "American hero" movies celebrating Jessica Lynch or Ronald Reagan. Americans need to take a long, hard look in the mirror more often before screaming propaganda about the cultural work of other countries.
HERO is not a perfect movie. The sword fight over the lake goes a bit over the top, the calligraphy/sword connection is overplayed, and Zhang Ziyi's character Moon too often feels extraneous. Nevertheless, HERO is a Must See for anyone who loves great story-telling and great movie-making.
North America got shafted!
Chris Deschenes | Vancouver, BC Canada | 12/07/2004
(1 out of 5 stars)
"The one star is not for the movie itself, which is one of the best movies I've ever seen. But argh! I've got the Japanese DVD from Elite Group and it is so far superior to the North American release in all aspects (image quality, subtitles, disc pressing quality, and even the box!) that this version makes me want to cry.
Also, I'm getting tired of defending this movie to people who've only gotten the North American version of the subtitles. It's like we're not even talking about the same movie anymore.
What a thing to do to such a beautiful piece of art. How do these people sleep at night?
Looking through the other comments below, I followed Raul Saavedra's advice and checked out the difference between the image quality in the special features, and the movie itself. He has a very astute point. The main movie image quality just ends up looking that much worse in comparison. Why do the scenes look so awesome in the special features sections? My theory is that they tried to cram too much onto one disc (the Japanese release is 2 DVDs), and had to compress the video even more than the overseas releases to make up for it, so the image quality of the movie itself suffered.
PS. Go here for a detailed comparison review of the different versions:
Vividly Poignant (4.5 Stars)
Andrew Jacob | Brooklyn, New York | 10/15/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"One can view Zhang Yimou's "Hero" in two perspectives:
One perspective is looking at this movie as if it were Chinese propaganda, since the movie tries to characterize the first King of China as a "misunderstood protagonist being perceived to be a tyrant". In reality, he was worse than Hitler, if not equal.
But most aren't that cynical; Most would view this movie as a clash of action and complexity.
The movie begins with "Nameless" (Jet Li) being escorted to "The King" (Chen Daoming), after claiming to have defeated the 3 most feared assassins: "Long Sky" (Donnie Yen), "Flying Snow" (Maggie Cheung), and "Broken Sword" (Tony Leung). When he arrives at the castle, he walks past thousands of soldiers and gets body searched for weapons. He is told to stay "100 paces from the king; one pace closer and he will be killed without question." To prove that he has defeated these assassins, he brings their weapons as evidence (Two swords, one spearhead). Relieved and intrigued, The King asks Nameless to tell him how he defeated each assassin (each is represented with a flashback).
Nameless explains that his skill as a swordsman was not enough to penetrate the superior skills of those being discussed. He had to use or know something else to get the upper hand. He explains that Broken Sword's calligraphy exposed his swordplay. And since Broken Sword and Flying Snow were lovers, jealously would be a natural tactic. Nameless also uses "honor" as a technique when fighting against "Long Sky". They share a mutual respect as fighters. Halfway into their fight, they stop to ask a blind harpist to continue playing his instrument. While playing, both fighters visualize the fight, rather than physical confrontation. But after a moment of visualizing, they go for the deathblow, sort of resembling an Old-Western Duel.
With each succeeding story, Nameless is rewarded with riches and is allowed to walk a few more paces towards the King of Qin. But also with each succeeding story, it becomes more and more apparent to The King that something doesn't seem right. After all three stories are told, Nameless and The King are only ten paces apart. Now is when The King realizes that the stories might be fabricated. He mentions that he has fought these assassins one on one, and the very idea that a psychological technique like "jealously" corrupting such exceptional warriors would be preposterous. This is the part of the movie where the "Rashomon"-effect goes into effect, where the actual story has more than one point of view. The King retells the story in what he believed has happened. A series of "underestimating each other" occurs, adding a perplexingly rich structure.
"Beautiful" would be an understatement, and would not even begin to describe the mind-blowing visuals of everything in the movie, ranging from scenery to color schemes. Consider the scene where the army of Qin unleashes a plethora of arrows that rain towards a crimson-shaded calligraphy school with sonic precision. Or the flashback fight scene between Broken Sword and The King, where the subtle-bright green color gives off a "dream-like" depiction. And perhaps visually, the best fight in the movie: the scene where Flying Snow fights Broken Sword's apprentice, Moon (Zhang Ziyi) in a forest. Raining from the trees is a profusion of bright golden-yellow leaves that turn into a blazing crimson-red after the fight is over. The overwhelming colors literally explode off the screen. The cinematography is exceptional as well, catching the fierce intensity of the clash of weapons between every warrior. The visuals alone are worth the ten dollars.
The story thinned-out is simplistic, but it is the presentation of the story that makes it intricate. Many would dismiss this complex structure to be "too confusing". But perhaps it is the complexity that makes it alluring. While most movies "spoon-feed" you the story, this one allows you to be drawn in. Nevertheless, "Hero" remains to be both intriguing and compelling."