Among the 2003 Academy Award finalists for Best Foreign Language Film, China's entry Ying Xiong (Hero) didn't widely screen theatrically in the U.S. for two years. Determined diligence can land early DVD copies, but this film needs a big screen to showcase its strengths--the most dazzling visual poetry since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, accompanied with similar pulsing drumbeats and poignant Itzhak Perlman violin solos. Obvious comparisons to Ang Lee's gem also spring to mind due to Hero's highly choreographed swordplay and gravity defying martial arts displays through trees and water, but this film deserves to stand on its own merits. Why Miramax (which owns the rights) hasn't chosen to distribute the film in the U.S. yet remains a complete mystery.
The ensemble cast itself should attract American audiences, as it's a veritable “who's who” of top Asian actors. Playing the lead character of the mystery swordsman that calls himself Nameless is Jet Li, well known to mainstream American audiences through vehicles like Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo Must Die. Li is supported by legendary Donnie Yen (Sky), In the Mood for Love's unrequited lovers Tony Leung (Broken Sword) and Maggie Cheung (Flying Snow), and Crouching Tiger's phenomenal Ziyi Zhang (Moon). Of course, the real stars here include cinematographer Christopher Doyle and the many creative digital artists and effects people that transform “ordinary” raindrops, yellow leaves, and shooting arrows into mesmerizing cinematic art.
Hero hangs its dynamic visual artistry on a compelling story. Set before the reign of the first emperor in ancient China, paranoid ruler of Qin, Chin Shi Huang Di (Daoming Chen), strives to ward off assassination attempts by isolating himself. No one is allowed within 100 paces without an automatic death sentence, and the king puts a contract out on his three most dangerous assassins: Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow. So when minor official Nameless claims to have achieved the impossible task of slaying all three, he receives a hero's welcome and gains an audience within ten paces of the king.
Highly intrigued, the king demands details that go beyond the visible weapon trophies provided. The idea that any unknown swordsman could succeed against the likes of the three skilled professionals boggles the mind, so the king imagines alternative versions that unfold Rashomon style, offering a more plausible explanation. This plot twist is hardly surprising, but figuring this out before the king suspects certainly doesn't take away from enjoying the film -— not when it contains provocative thematic content and has so much eye candy.
While some will think it overkill, the visual effects definitely stand out. The opening battle between Jet Li and Donnie Yen contains the standard aerial martial arts maneuvers, yet is greatly enhanced with slow motion photography and effects that capture the small moments--a footstep into a water puddle, Li emerging through layers of water, a sword gently parting a raindrop. Later, swirling yellow leaves surround combatants in the woodlands, which symbolically transform into reds. And then there's a large battle sequence that would have Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson salivating, as thousands of archers launch a deadly aerial attack that looks like a giant swarm of deadly locusts in the air that thoroughly shadow the ground (unless diverted by martial arts magicians).
But even before the visual effects artists take center stage, Doyle opens with virtuoso camera work that combines the scope and movement of Kurosawa with the wide angled creativity of the Coen brothers. The Kurosawa touch is clearly evident, yet Doyle creatively infuses the film's look and feel with fresh energy and with more intimacy than we usually see in Asian cinema. Thus, the film's quieter themes that center around the Zen of calligraphy don't get lost in a whirlwind of visual fireworks.
Credit the actors for maintaining the film's center as well. It would be easy to get wrapped up in the martial arts sequences, yet the main actors are all suitably restrained. Both Leung and Cheung have previously demonstrated self-control as unrequited lovers, and they call upon similar restraint once again for their vital roles. Likewise, Zhang demonstrates that her Crouching Tiger debut was no fluke. For her role as the zealously devoted servant to Leung's character, young Zhang successfully balances a more passionate display while remaining under control. Most surprising is Jet Li's extreme moments of Zen that clearly illustrate that he's not limited to action hero roles--whether during the incredible visualization of battle or during his long sequences waiting for the proper moment to make his move on the evil king.
With so many formula films on the market, Miramax continues to mystify for holding out on releasing Hero to American theaters. Certainly viewers will be struck with obvious parallels to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon while sophisticated aficionados will see similarities to many of Kurosawa's works from both a technical and thematic sense. Of course we've all seen philosophical martial arts films before, even some with high production value and visual beauty. When you get down to it, most films are highly derivative, and it's a bonus when we can witness just one unique nuance. Director Yimou Zhang goes well beyond that simple requirement, stretching the envelope for imagery we've never seen on the big screen before. For that reason alone, it's well worth seeking out for your DVD pleasure.