Joined: 01 June 2004
By LIAM LACEY
From Friday's Globe and Mail
Two years in the making and, with a budget of $30-million (U.S.), the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, Zhang Yimou's Hero fills the screen with colour and design. But in the end, the spectacular martial-arts epic seems to signify nothing much more than its own beauty, as brilliant and ephemeral as a fireworks display.
Shot in a series of acrobatic sword battles across lakes, deserts and courtyards, it's a martial-arts ballet featuring the melancholic music of Tan Dun (with Itzhak Perlman violin solos) and the luscious cinematography of Wong Kar-wai's favourite director of photography, Christopher Doyle.
Zhang ( Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, Shanghai Triad) conceived of the film long before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made Chinese martial-arts epics mainstream. After the success of Crouching Tiger, Miramax approached Zhang with a reported budget of $30-million to $35-million to make the film. With its all-star lineup, cast of thousands and sumptuous set-piece battles, the movie was a record-breaking blockbuster in China.
Then Miramax sat on the North American release for two years, threatening to release a shorter version. Quentin Tarantino convinced them to keep it at full length, and eventually Disney, anxious to keep on good terms with Chinese officials (a new Chinese Disney theme park is in the works), paid for Hero's release in its original form. Enough time has passed that Zhang has already completed his next movie in the genre, House of Flying Daggers, which is to be shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The story of the king, and an attempt to assassinate him, has been told before, most notably in Chen Kaige's opulent 1999 historical drama, The Emperor and the Assassin. Zhang's interest is less in the detail of history than the abstraction of legend, and his spare sets seem more like Middle-Earth than ancient China.
The story is told largely in flashback by a nameless small-town official (Jet Li, who has great martial-arts skills and minimal acting range). He has been brought to the court by the third-century-BC king of Qin, who went on to become unified China's first emperor. After 10 years, we learn, no one has been able to find three legendary assassins — Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Arrow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and a woman, Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) — who want to kill the king (Chen Daoming).
Then the nameless storyteller announces that he has killed all three.
While the king sits on his throne behind a bank of guttering candles, the visitor stands at a distance and tells his story in flashbacks. The first battle takes place in the courtyard of a teahouse, in which the chess-playing assassin demolishes a series of attackers in various geometric formations in the rain, before Nameless brings him down.
This is merely the prelude to the second round, when the screen fills with colour. This time the opponents are Broken Arrow and Flying Snow, lovers who are secreted in a rural school, where they have developed a precise martial-arts style based on calligraphy. Nameless arrives at a moment of crisis, when a massive, colour co-ordinated Qin army is ready to destroy the village.
The sky turns black with the Qin army's arrows while the students inside remain seated, working away at their characters while bodies drop around them. Finally, the two assassins, Broken Arrow, using his sword, and Flying Snow, using the folds of her robe, leap out in front of the school and repel the arrows. At night, Nameless manages to plant a seed of jealousy between the two lovers and a young servant girl, Moon (Zhang Ziyi), who loves Broken Sword. The two women have a showdown in a forest, where swirls of flying autumn leaves become integral to the action, and the entire screen is tinged in red.
Back we go to the palace, where the wily king expresses some doubts about the story, and so it is told again. In all, the tale of Nameless and the three assassins gets told four times, each time with variations, adding new elements and interpretations. The structure becomes the one sluggish element in this high-flying movie.
At least there are visual rewards: With each Rashomon variation, the colours alter, moving from black to red to blue, to green and white. The sword fights are less about expressions of character than in conventional martial-arts movies. Here they are designed for their dynamic beauty: The characters skip across a shimmering blue lake; they hang upside down in mid-battle; they fall in a bone-white desert; a single drop of water flies through the air and hangs on a dead woman's face. At times, the effect is absurdly giddy: Two assassins, dressed in mint-green robes, skip through a river of grey soldiers at the palace gates and, once inside, discover that the drapes exactly match their robes.
Though the film's grand martial displays have drawn comparisons to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the comparisons don't entirely hold up: Too much of Hero depends on firefly delicacy, and the core story is really a chamber opera for six characters: three assassins, a maid, Nameless and the king.
The movie's weakness is its gorgeous two-dimensionality. The characters' secret motives, noble sacrifices and heartbreaks are less interesting than their skin tone and posture. You can think of the title Hero as a handy place-filler: Amazing Landscape, Costumes and Stunt Work just wouldn't have fit on the marquee.
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