Hero pulled off a convincing first place finish at the box office in its first weekend of release, perhaps as a sign that post-Passion Americans are ready to do more reading at the movies. Or maybe we just like little Asian guys doing high kicks. Either way, Tarantino’s battle to bring the acclaimed Chinese film stateside has already paid off, even if Hero doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
Set thousands of years ago in ancient China, the Yimou Zhang directed film is more about visual spectacle than gritty realism or relatable drama. Its characters exist in an idealized dream world where ancient Chinese warriors suck down massive amounts of helium before they fight and then do silly over-romanticized things like battle in their hearts. Hero presents the sort of world that in America we’d normally only see in the cheesiest of Romance novels, if only Fabio could manage to work in political subtext and knew how to fight. It’s outlandish mythology, on par with Zeus and his cadre of Olympus gods, only in this case presented as if throwing lightning bolts at peasants was historically relevant.
The plot structure itself is simple enough. Jet Li stars as a nameless swordsman who goes before a king (Daoming Chen) to collect his reward for dispatching three dangerous, wanted assassins. He tells the King his story, giving the details of how he accomplished this incredible feat despite being himself only a minor official from a small province. His story plays out in front of us and we watch him construct a plot to defeat the three masterful outlaws. But then this straightforward story is turned on its head as the King questions the truth of Li’s story, presenting his own version of the facts. Soon we’re seeing several different version of the same event, each in a different and distinct color scheme and each casting a different view on not only who the hero is, but what it is that makes a hero to begin with. By the end, Jet Li is faced with a choice. In making his choice he must define for himself what a hero really is and in doing so choose the future course of an entire civilization.
It’s a mythological birth of a nation tale, a patriotic bit of flag waving for fans of the Chinese Empire that plays both as tragic and thought provoking. Whether or not it’s actually an extended advertisement for the virtues of communism is open to interpretation, but you have to at least question the motives of a film that extols the sacrificing independence and free expression to an all powerful central government for the good of the whole. But that’s where Hero is going, whatever subplots of romance and martial arts posturing it mixes in around that.
Whatever the film’s real political aims; its story is a compelling one. In fact it’s so compelling you won’t even mind the fact that the movie replays it in slightly different formats at least three times. What sells it is the beautiful and distinct cinematography used to convey it. In some ways Hero has more in common with a great painting than an actual movie. Mixed in with all the great Crayola color work are a lot of martial arts which are really meant more to help tell the film’s emotional story than as kung fu entertainment. Many of these are well done and beautiful; some are over the top and involve a lot of ridiculous floating. Even the ridiculous are at least pretty, though it would have been nice if Zhang could find a way to make them visually stunning, meaningful, and at the same time believable. Some of the moves he has his actors pulling are just flat out bad choices, the sorts of effects floppery we’d all be screaming bloody murder about if it showed up in a George Lucas movie, intentional or not. It doesn’t help the grueling emotional poignancy you’re going for when the audience is laughing at two warriors flinging drops of water at one another while floating like Mylar balloons over matte painted water. Thankfully that’s the exception in this movie rather than the rule and most of the martial arts are fast and flat out cool especially combined with Zhang’s amazing use of bright, striking colors.
Still, those instances of overdone floating and extremely goofy symbolic sword slashing highlight my real problem with Hero. A lot of it is just over-wrought. The film has already been compared to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by just about everyone and while that’s probably a fair comparison, Hero is trying for something a little deeper that in some ways just never connects. It’s so desperate to imbue every fight scene with incredible subsurface depth that sometimes the emotional resonance it could have had is a miss. What it needs is a stronger dose of reality in amongst all the dream world fantasy to help us see where Zhang’s coming from. That’s a shame because Jet Li really gives a fantastic if somewhat stoic performance as our nameless warrior. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are great as the star-crossed assassin couple and it’s interesting to see how they keep the essence of their characters so present despite so many different iterations.
Still, I prefer this to Crouching Tiger because it does a better job of staying focused. It doesn’t get lost in twenty minute flashbacks, and the fights while often a bit silly with all the hot-air ballooning involved, tend to feel a bit more grounded than CTHD’s. Zhang hasn’t totally lost his mind to bobbing about in the stratosphere and thus Hero is a little more palatable than Ang Lee’s ridiculous, hook a wire to the seat of your pants opus.
I’m still not sold on the whole obsession that “real” film fanatics are almost required to have with this type of Asian cinema. It has more in common with ballet than actual movie making, and I’d wager that not many Tarantino fans are rushing out to rent Baryshnikov videos. I’m also not sure I’m all that comfortable with the final message of the picture, though the basic themes it touches on to get there are beautiful and thought provoking. But Hero is a solid and artistic piece of film that certainly deserves its wide release and a shot at being seen by domestic audiences who wisely aren’t obsessed with hunting down obscure Chinese cinema in dingy stores selling niche DVDs.