Set 2,000 years ago, "Hero" (IMDb listing) centers on a man aptly called "Nameless" (Jet Li), who has come to the Chinese kingdom of Qin to receive accolades from the King (Chen Daoming) for assassinating the King's enemies. Nameless' reward is to simply bask in the King's presence, which is limited to keeping 100 feet away from the ruler. Nameless recounts ("Rashomon" style) his adventures crossing China, systematically killing off other leaders of various kingdoms, and the King becomes increasingly interested in these wild tales of combat. The King begs Nameless to come closer to him, which soon sets off treason alarms in his head, and changes his feeling for Nameless from admiration to suspicion.
"Hero" is a gorgeous creation, in any language, country, or art form. An epic tale of history, tragedy, and adventure, the film represents a creative peak for director Zhang Yimou ("The Road Home, "Raise The Red Lantern"), as it is a picture that exhausts his imagination unlike anything that has ever come out of him before. However, for the Westerner, like myself, "Hero" doesn't translate the way many films of the same design do. Taking cues from Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin," along with the blitzkrieg wire-fu acts of Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero" will be a familiar picture for many, but a decidedly tough nut to crack for those who haven't laboriously studied Chinese history. Yimou's themes are clear, and the film is visually jaw-dropping, but the historical nuances of the piece are lost in the translation from East to West.
Of course, the "Crouching Tiger" comparisons are inevitable, but "Hero" is coming behind Lee's global smash success, and the similarities are uncomfortably apparent. Outside of the extraordinary wire-fu, the score provided by Tan Dun has the same soft Chinese traditionalism as the Lee film (to which he also contributed music), and the story has the same tinge of Chinese legend-spinning, but without "Crouching Tiger's" ultimate warmth and mystery. Where Yimou builds on "Crouching Tiger" is in the scope of the story presented, which manages to remain intimate and epic in a very easy way. He also indulges his visuals for "Hero" unlike any other director outside of Tim Burton. Working with an astounding production design, Yimou bathes the film in colors that suit whatever mood needs to be realized. As Nameless travels the land fighting his enemies, the color schemes change from rainy brown to blood red and forest green, each supporting the storybook nature of the film. Yimou's visuals help to fill "Hero" with the crushing emotionalism the story doesn't exactly beg. It's film poetry, and a rousing accomplishment by the production and Yimou.
Yimou's cast represents the top shelf of eastern talent, with Jet Li leading the group in his typically stoic demeanor. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung reteam after Wong Kar-Wai's tragedy "In The Mood For Love" to play a battling pair of lovers named Flying Snow and Broken Sword, and they own the film's greatest performances and the tale's biggest heartbreak. Donnie Yen shows up as Nameless' first opponent, Sky, and is offered a chance to show off his considerable martial art gifts opposite Li. In a smaller role, Zhang Ziyi (also in Yimou's "The Road Home") adds her typical spice to the proceedings. Alas, there is precious too little of her.
I look at a film like "Hero" and I am in complete respect and awe of it, but I could not say I was moved. The chilly storytelling keeps the audience at arm's length for the run of the show, and whatever visual achievements are made are softened by the film's less-than-engaging nature. Regardless of the limp translation, "Hero" is made for the big screen, and worth the attention it deserves.
Filmfodder Grade: B