Thursday, September 23, 2004

Review: "Hero" (2002)

You notice that year up there in the title? That does indeed say 2002, yet this film just opened here in the States in late August. Miramax purchased the film for American distribution two years ago (no doubt to capitalize on the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), but sat on it instead of putting it in theaters right away. Critics, who have almost unanimously praised the film, have been asking why it was delayed. After seeing it in the theater last month for myself, I think I may know why.

"Hero" takes place in China back when it was still divided into many different countries. A powerful King (Daoming Chen) takes the initiative to unify the separate countries into one by brute force. This has made him many enemies, and he is pleased to hear that a man known only as Nameless (Jet Li) has claimed to have killed three of the most powerful assassins that oppose the King. For this feat, the King grants Nameless an audience in order that he may be rewarded and tell his story. The story that is told is eventually followed by two other versions, and these slowly reveal what actually happened to the three assassins and who Nameless really is.

After viewing the magnificence of the Forbidden City in the opening segment, we are mindful that we are watching a very well done artifice. The massing of soldiers along pathways and rushing around in unison puts one in mind of "The Last Emperor". After being introduced to the King, Nameless begins his tale by describing his fight with the assassin Sky (Donnie Yen). This battle, which is fought in a rain-soaked courtyard, is for my money is the best fight sequence in the film. It also makes the special effect of slow motion raindrops more thrilling than a similar attempt in "Matrix Revolutions".

Nameless then tells of his infiltration of the calligraphy school where the assassins Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung) were staying. It is here where the multiple stories take place and we are presented with different color schemes in order to differentiate them. This use of color reminded me again of "The Last Emperor" where colors were used to great symbolic effect, albeit to symbolize different things. It is also here, with the assault on the school by literally thousands of arrows, that those of us who read reviews invoking "Crouching Tiger" realize that we're not in Kansas anymore.

"Crouching Tiger" existed in a world where everything appeared normal, but was inhabited by a handful of warriors that could do extraordinary things. "Hero", liberated from reality by it's monochromatic color schemes, surpasses reality with even more extreme gravity-defying feats. The treetop battle in "Crouching Tiger" is topped here with a battle on the surface of a placid lake. The combatants jump up and down on the surface, using their swords like oars to push themselves upwards into thin air. To be sure, "Hero" gives you things that most moviegoers have never seen before.

"Crouching Tiger", for all its wire work, functioned as a conventional film that was equal parts action and drama. "Hero", on the other hand, is less concerned with narrative and more with presenting a work of art. Action scenes, aside from the first one I mentioned, are not as exciting due to the pacing of the individual scenes and the film overall. I'm not saying they are boring, but rather that the filmmakers are more interested in painting beautiful pictures than speeding the audience's pulse. In the end, "Crouching Tiger" appeals to a wider audience than "Hero" does, and I'm guessing Miramax realized this.

This is not a criticism of the film, but rather a caveat. Film fans like myself tend to go weak at the knees at such films and never consider the general audience. I've heard similar things about "Lost in Translation" last year, a film equally praised by critics that left some audience members scratching their head wondering what the big damn deal was. Fortunately for these films, they have the virtue of something familiar for the audience to hold onto (Bill Murray's antics for "Lost" and Jet Li's fighting for "Hero"). It is possible for general audiences to enjoy "Hero", but they should know exactly the kind of film their going into.

The ending was a bit surprising to me. Self sacrifice is a theme that comes up so many times in Chinese and Japanese film that you'd think I would see it coming by now. The ending also had the virtue of imbuing additional meaning to the actions and characters we have just spent two hours with and brings the film to a more satisfying conclusion. It's a film that I, or anyone who gets a chance to see it, will never forget.

Eight out of Ten

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