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I am so conflicted about this movie. Yimou Zhang is one of my favorite directors with masterpieces such as Raise The Red Lantern and The Road Home which are easily within my top movies of all times. Hero is an amazing movie, but for many reasons, does not come close to reaching the same heights in my heart.
First of all, one cannot help but compare Hero with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (CTHD). I guess that Yimou Zhang was somewhat envious of the international success that Ang Lee enjoyed and wanted to make a massive gorgeous epic of that sort too. He succeeded in many respect, but for some reason, I did not get the same feelings of wonder. The characters are maybe not as endearing. The story, in spite of being quite incredible, ends up being reduced to a simple revenge/assassination plot. For those reasons, CTHD gets an edge over Hero, which is surprising given Yimou Zhang's skills in almost every other movie of his in creating real drama, and indelible characters. This is a trait of his that I found sadly missing in here.
But besides that, Hero has great merits all onto itself. It has superb cinematography and art direction. Every shot is like one of those majestic old Chinese paintings you might have seen. The use of colors is particularly incredible in my opinion. It's not just about the sets, but also the costumes, and during the various recountings of a moment in the story, you can notice how the characters, and the overall tone of the picture is quite different, to accentuate very different moods. And although it is uneven, the writing is also quite exceptional at times. There are definitely 3 scenes that I bet you will not be able to get out of your head once the movie is over. The fight between Maggie Cheung and Ziyi Zhang in the forest is breathtaking in not only the choreography, but also how it was filmed. Digital technology was liberally used here, but not as one might have expected. Yimou Zhang uses the technology to "repaint" the surroundings. And all during the fight, you are treated to whirlwinds of colorful leaves, and trees that change color. It's a visual feast. I have read that this forest in china is actually quite famous for its trees that all change color pretty much at the same time once a year. In another scene, you are treated to flights of arrows like you have never witnessed in your life. Imagine the sights of a small town being attacked by tens of thousands of archers firing their arrows all at the same time. Just the sound that was created for that scene alone is worth seeing the movie. As I said, you have never seen or heard something like that. In yet another scene, the king of Qin and an assassin (Tony Leung) have a memorable sword fight amidst floating drapes and beautiful colors.
The performances are all quite good overall. I was very pleased in particular to see Maggie Cheung again. She has been making fewer movies recently, so seeing her is always a pleasure. I recommend In the Mood For Love and Sausalito as 2 recent great movies with her. She is one of the best actresses around, in or outside of Hong Kong. Jet Li, never the best actor, still manages as always to create a great physical presence. Tony Leung gives a wonderful performance, as usual. I really enjoy him a lot too, and it's fun to see him on screen with Maggie Cheung again after In The Mood for Love, another great Hong Kong movie of recent memory. Ziyi Zhang, always a pleasure for the eye, is adequate here, but does not really have enough material to really show off what she is capable of. If you like her, I strongly recommend The Road Home where she simply shines. Finally, Donnie Yen, a Hong Kong martial arts veteran has a short but good appearance, and Daoming Chen (whom I had never seen before and who is apparently a famous theater actor in China), in the role of the King of Qin (pronounced 'chin'), the man who united China in the third century BC thus becoming the first Chinese Emperor, is quite convincing. He manages to convey power and wisdom very effectively and is a character that you end up having a lot of respect for in the end. This is somewhat revisionistic since the Emperor Qin is not remembered quite this way, but fine, this movie does not pretend ever to be an accurate historical account of Qin's would-be assassin. You can watch The Emperor And The Assassin, directed by Chen Kaige of Farewell, My Concubine fame, for a supposedly more accurate, but certainly less engaging in my opinion, recounting of this story.
Finally, the music is probably what bothered me the most in this movie. I could not help but hear the music from CTHD throughout. It became quite annoying. Everything, from the cello melody to the drums, was there. I am not sure why it was this way. Maybe these are ancient melodies that you just had to have in this movie, I am not sure. But it only accentuated in my head the parallels with that other movie, and as a result, was rather distracting.
Hero is a movie that will leave a mark on you. The visuals are simply too amazing to forget. You are treated to a few great fights, great cinematography, and some truly amazing moments such as the town's siege and the tree forest duel. But weak character development hinders what could have been such an exciting event. Finally, the parallels with CTHD are too many, especially the soundtrack. Although I believe CTHD is a better movie overall, there is not one scene in it that comes close to the 3 top scenes in Hero, which is somewhat paradoxical: CTHD is more than the sum of its parts whereas Hero is less than the sum of its parts. Finally, Hero is definitely too short. At about 90mn, you feel like a lot of development was cut out. I would love to see a Director's cut if there is one. This movie was nominated for best foreign film for 2003's Oscars but did not win for reasons beyond my comprehension. It will finally be released in the theaters (although in limited theater count) in the US in late August 2004, so you might want to catch it there, where it deserves to be seen. Otherwise, the DVD of the movie has been available in most DVD stores in any chinatown since late-2002 early-2003.
- Laurent Hasson