At the height of Warring State period of ancient China's history in 220 BC, after trying to unify the seven kingdoms, the ruthless King (Chen Daoming) of Qin is in fear of his life. He has avoided many attempts, but three master assassins who have been dispatched by the King's rivals, are the biggest threat yet: Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chui Wai), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen). To protect himself, the King hires a great warrior, an orphan known only as Nameless (Jet Li) to keep him safe. But as Nameless returns from his triumph to relate how he did it, including his use of jealousy as a weapon to defeat the lovers, Broken Sword and Flying Snow, the King turns the tables and tells another version, and explains his past ruthlessness in terms of his ambition to unify "Our Land."
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Some of the image making is breathtaking, as figures in a landscape strike locked positions to haunt our memories of this film. Hero is not short of images, many of which do count for a thousand words. And some whose words are a little confusing. But the massive armies, the imperial palaces, the swarming arrows flying overhead and the dancing martial encounters sweep us along on the wings of Dun Tan's visceral score.
Nothing less than the birth of a nation is the subject of Hero, a legend from 3rd century BC China, drawn from the depths of mythology and the fantasies of a nation forged by warriors. This is the driving force and underlying emotional power harnessed by Zhang Yimou to adapt this ancient story for the screen. It's spectacular cinema, often theatrical and made with a formality that replaces the shock of blood with the might of form, colour and mise en scene. But the structure of the film is problematic and a little confusing.
Given that it's a story told in different versions by different protagonists, Zhang Yimou fails to calibrate the film's multi-version tales sufficiently, so we are swept along by the sheer dynamics of the visuals and the enormity of what's at stake. An empire, yet.
Wonderfully designed and presented in every respect, Hero is a martial arts film first and foremost; but the comparisons to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon show up its weaknesses: a lack of emotional engagement, and a loss of involvement. Yet the film is truly powerful, a visual tour de force, using close ups and outstanding performances as the glue. The sensational landscapes and the striking colour palette - red, blue, green, white, each a code for the chapters - contribute to a canvas of great, bold image making and characterisation.
Yet without the clarity of story, we begin to lose connection with the martial action, and it starts to seem repetitive, even though the film could well be classified as an acrobatic ballet It is only at the film's conclusion that we also find the closure of the film's high flying moral values, when Nameless is executed as an assassin - and buried as a hero.
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CAST: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Daoming Chen, Donnie Yen, Liu Zhong Yuan, Zheng Tia Yong
PRODUCER: Yimou Zhang
DIRECTOR: Yimou Zhang
SCRIPT: Feng Li, Bin Wang, Yimou Zhang
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Christopher Doyle
EDITOR: Angie Lam, Ru Zhai
MUSIC: Dun Tan
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tingxiao Huo, Zhenzhou Yi
RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 4, 2004
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