BY NEIL FAUERSO
Zhang Yimou’s Hero, with its gorgeous visuals, liberal use of slow-motion, melancholic strings by famous classical musicians, and constellation-sized ideals of love, friendship, and honor, inevitably and obviously draws strong comparisons to Ang Lee’s breakout smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But Yimou, despite the hyperbolic praise heaped on Lee, is a better filmmaker. More ecstatic, fluid, and crafty, Hero is more than an Eastern novelty wrapped up in delectable eye candy—it’s possibly the most passionate, canny kung-fu film ever. Anchored by Yimou’s kinetic, grand direction, extraordinary cinematography (I don’t thing there’s ever been a film that’s utilized the beauty of billowing silk more), and regal and weighty (if somewhat one-dimensional) performances by Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai—Hero is a rapturous, sexy film that is way more fun to watch than Crouching Tiger.
The film’s premise is so austere and stripped down that if it were made up of medieval Scandinavians it could easily be an early Bergman film. A silent, serious warrior (Jet Li) enters the palace of the King of Qin (the largest and most bellicose kingdom in ancient China). He has killed the three deadly assassins that have hunted the king for a decade. As each kill is verified the warrior is allowed to move closer to the king. As this ritual proceeds, the warrior tells the king (through flashbacks) how he defeated each of the assassins. But as the story goes on, new versions arise, until it becomes apparent that the warrior is not what he seems, and the King of Qin is more than just a megalomaniacal tyrant.
Though the plotline is scarcely richer than the lantern-paper-thin story of Crouching Tiger, it is far more rewarding. Each revision of the story has a different color scheme, each pulls out some new unbelievable visual scene (a flying fight on a fog-covered mountain lake and a forest of swirling, yellow leaves) and each gives the primary players more gravitas and stature. Li, whose American roles to date have involved him sparring with sub-level hip-hop stars in his faint and vaguely effete broken English, finally returns to the icy physical grandeur that made him a superstar in China. Leung, perhaps the most compelling, begins as brooding, emotional bad-boy and ends as a clear eyed and deeply noble (and romantic) paradigm of manly elegance. And Cheung, who like Naomi Watts possesses an old-world and nearly extinct lofty screen beauty, is totally magnetic. She and Leung, who are stormy lovers in the film, are a great couple, one that seems to grow in myth despite their minimal interactions.
It’s nice to see Yimou, director of such weighty classics as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, cut loose a little. Even with Hero’s heavy tone, you can tell Yimou is having fun as the film justifiably allows him to use all of his cinematic tricks. And tricks there are. I cannot stress enough how gorgeous Hero is, ranking alongside Juliet of the Spirits, Walkabout, Aguire: the Wrath of God, and Down By Law as one of the most visually striking films of all time. Special mention must be give to the excellent score and Itzhak Perlman’s beautiful, elegiac violin solos.
Ultimately, Hero is not a great film of significance like some of Yimou’s other films are. But it is a great piece of smart entertainment. Thrilling, beautiful, and visceral, Hero is the best mainstream film of the summer.