Monday, August 30, 2004
Upon its release two years ago, Hero became a Chinese pop culture phenomenon. With a budget of $30 million, it was the most expensive movie ever made in that county, and it became China’s biggest domestic hit to date. Impressed by all the hype and certain he’d nabbed the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein paid a monumental $20 million for US and other distribution rights. Yet this movie almost didn’t make it into American theaters.
Weinstein kept stalling Hero’s release, apparently fearful that it wouldn’t appeal to American audiences after all. Meanwhile, he chopped about 20 minutes from a version that got a limited European run. But he finally released the US version, uncut, after Quentin Tarantino urged him to – and agreed to let Weinstein advertise it as a Tarantino “presentation.”
That explains why Tarantino’s name appears at the beginning of the credits, but chances are you’d be thinking about him even if it didn’t. Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill two-parter, Hero is an art house version of a “grind house” martial arts movie.
Director Zhang Yimou started as a still photographer, and it shows. Like Zhang’s first feature, Red Sorghum (1987) – and like the first part of Tarantino’s double feature, which loaded most of its character development into Volume 2 – Hero is light on plot, heavy on atmosphere, and a Chinese wedding feast for the eyes.
The movie, set over 2,000 years ago, begins as a sword fighter so anonymous his name is Nameless (nicely underplayed by martial arts superstar Jet Li) is ushered in to see the king of Qin, one of seven warring provinces that made up what is now China. It seems that Nameless has killed the three assassins who were trying to kill the king, and now he’s claiming his reward. We see the story play out as Nameless tells the tale of how he killed the killers, Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) – and then, challenged by the king, retells it. In the process, we see the fairy-tale romance between the sad-eyed Broken Sword and the defiant Flying Snow come to not one but three tragic ends. We also get an earnest message about giving peace a chance.
Hero has been compared to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, since it uses that movie’s copiously copied device of telling different versions of the same story. But what’s more impressive is the way its meticulous compositions and painterly use of color echo the Japanese master’s visuals.
Hero borrows one of Kurosawa’s favorite set-ups, shooting long shots with long lenses against spectacular backgrounds to capture the pageantry and power of a platoon of cavalrymen on the gallop or an army of foot soldiers massing at a gate. Those majestic landscapes and expertly choreographed crowd scenes give his sparingly used close-ups that much more impact, as our eyes, coaxed wide open by the sumptuous visuals, search the actors’ faces for signs of the emotions their characters are often trying to hide. His use of color also wakes up the senses as each of the three versions of the story plays out in a different hue.
The fight scenes are magnificent, starting with the contrast between the actors’ lethal-looking moves and the serenity of their flowing hair and clothes. That contrast is magnified by camera tricks like the mix of stop-motion and slow-motion photography moves that were pioneered in Hong Kong martial arts movies and popularized in this country in The Matrix (think water droplets suspended in mid-descent until they’re dispelled by the slow-motion thrust of a sword), and by gravity-defying wire fighting that lets combatants run through the air or literally walk on water. Zhang and director of photography Christopher Doyle film it all against stunning backdrops, orchestrating gorgeous gusts of falling yellow leaves in one scene and sending Nameless and Broken Sword back and forth above the placid surface of a mountain-fringed lake in another.
Japanese kodo drummers and haunting, steel-guitar-like ancient lute give a timeless feel to a soundtrack that features violin music by Itzhak Perlman and a score by Tan Dun, who composed the music for Crouching Tiger.
Zhang, one of the best-known of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers (so called because they were in the fifth graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy), is also one of the most versatile, constantly trying new genres and visual styles. His first few films, which included Judou and Raise the Red Lantern, were historical dramas. His next three were about life in contemporary China. As he told Asia Connections shortly after completing that series: “they all come with different styles. Not One Less is like a documentary. The Road Home is like a poetic essay, while Happy Times is a comedy. So for me, I'm satisfied with this trilogy, but it's time for me to move on. That's why I'm starting to make martial arts films.”
Zhang hit the ground running with his first martial arts movie, creating a story as evanescent but lovely to watch as Nameless and Broken Sword’s duel on the lake.
Written for TimeOff