By David Mumpower
May 20, 2003
Judging from the largely bare walls of my house, I would certainly not describe myself as an art lover. That's why I am so surprised to discover that I find the most impacting aspect of Hero to be its majestic artistry. The film is like an ever changing canvas decorated by the most luscious and exotic paints known to humankind. If a picture is say a thousand words, then what does a movie with thousands of stunning pictures in it say?
The answer is that it tells the story of a nameless warrior who due to his various acts of heroism has earned an audience with the King of Qin, the man who would be emperor. What follows is a series of vignettes which attempt to reconstruct the events leading up to their encounter. Each man offers insight into the various maneuevers which may or may not have led up to the moment of truth. Hero plays out as an exercise in the vein of Rashômon as the story begins to demonstrate that both duelists in this battle for Truth have an agenda along with severe misgivings about the other person.
I certainly don't want to ruin anything about this intricate plot, so I will be more superficial than usual in discussing the characters. If you want a more detailed description, our movie synopsis is your best bet.
The main players other than Jet Li's Nameless and Daoming Chen's Qin king are Broken Sword and Flying Snow as played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The two lovers have not been on speaking terms for an extended period, and their situation is further complicated by the presence of Zhang Ziyi's Moon, the servant who adores Broken Sword. Long have the two lovers plotted to slay the king but they are not the only ones gunning (swording?) for him. There is also Sky (the always wonderful Donnie Yen), a master warrior with a fetish for musical accompaniment when he engages the enemy.
In order for Nameless to gain entrance to the king's castle, he must subdue Sky. In order for him to get within ten feet of his highness, Nameless has to slay the lovers. Since he has accomplished both tasks at the start of the film, the encounter between him and Qin's King mainly involves a chess-like struggle to determine if civic duty was the driving force behind his actions. The king privately wonders if Nameless might have killed the other would-be assassins simply to extend his own mysterious agenda. The gamesmanship between the two is the driving force of the movie as the flashbacks reveal potential scenarios for the encounters between Nameless and the enemies of state. How a person receives and accepts the complexities of this storyline goes a long way in determining their enjoyment of the film. As for me, I loved it.
Hero succeeds in coalescing elements of costume design, scenery, and combat sequences into an artistic opera of elegant pulchritude. Truly, this is a moving picture where the viewer learns as much about the story from the color of a character's clothing or the leaves of a tree as from the look in the person's eyes. Dizzying camera sequences take provocative, almost ballet-ish kung fu assaults and turn them into existential studies of the players involved. Every angle of every shot is meant to further the narrative, and this point is driven home by the extended segments which occur wordlessly. Scenes become timeless exercises in showcasing the beauty of the world.
Comparisons will naturally be drawn to the most successful foreign language film of all-time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with particular attention paid to the fight scenes. I would imagine the body of the Hero reviews will spend ample time describing these extended combat interplays, but with Jet Li and Donnie Yen in the flick, you already know this aspect of Hero is above reproach. As a huge fan of both movies, I will simply state that I found the ones in Ang Lee's production to be much more intense while storied director Yimou Zhang's effort offers encounters best described as oddly serene. People in this film fight not because they are angry or violent but instead because they see as much elegance in the sword as in the paintbrush. In fact, Broken Sword teaches calligraphy as well as combat to his pupils for he sees a symbiotic relationship between the two talents.
While Hero will inevitably suffer when compared to its more storied counterpart, its greater success lies in the ability to mystify viewers with shot after shot of indescribable beauty while still maintaining a marvelously precise story which holds up even better on repeat viewings. Truly, Hero is a work of art that now belongs to the ages.
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