Like Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou has turned to the kung fu action epic genre to expand his horizons and maybe his audience. Of course, the director of such dramas as The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live, Not One Less and Shanghai Triad is not going to make just any Kung fu action epic. He’s going to imbue it with emotional depth, cultural significance, and the kind of veiled social comentary that only an artist operating in a highly censored atmosphere can really master.

Unlike Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this is not in any way a western movie. It has a Chinese theme, a Chinese pace, and a Chinese preoccupation with art, especially calligraphy and martial arts.

Ancient China is divided into seven warring kingdoms. The western kindom, Qin is ruled by a ruthless emperor. He has many enemies. There are three assassins in particular that he’s concerned about, Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow.

One nameless warrior, a prefect from a boondock province, played by Jet Li defeats all three and reports to the emperor. The tale is told through flashbacks and goes through many increasingly revealing twists before it ends.

This is a stunningly visual film. From the dusty desert vistas to the grain in the emperor’s hardwood floors, the detail in the sets and the photography are perfect. Each flashback is filmed with a predominant color, which is particularly stunning when they take place in the same locations. Even the sparing use of blood is aesthetic.

The fighting is up to standard, faster than Crouching Tiger but not as three dimensional, although there is some wire work. Siu-Tung Ching is listed as the choreographer. His fights are not as imaginative as Yuen Wo Ping’s, who did The Matrix and Crouching Tiger. I also think that Jet Li’s fighting style is more realistic than any of the current generation of martial arts stars.

Tony Leung Chiu Wai cuts a romantic figure as Broken Sword, a reluctant assassin. He’s very compelling. Maggie Chueng is also very good as Flying Snow, a more willing assassin and Broken Sword’s lover. Jet Li’s character doesn’t allow him much room to emote.

You’ll enjoy Hero, although I think Crouching Tiger is better, but that may be because it’s more western. There were so many images and themes going on here that I’m sure I didn’t understand all of it.


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September 2004
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