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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Hero

Starring: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Director: Yimou Zhang
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 96 Minutes
Release Date: August 2004
Genres: Action, Martial-Arts, Foreign

*Also starring: Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Dao Ming

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Your history teachers may have given you the same message that they imparted to me in high school. History is interesting not only for itself, i.e. allowing for exciting reading and intense moviegoing, but also because the subject transcends itself as a message for the present, since no matter how the customs and technology change, events from even prehistoric times repeat themselves century after century. Watching Zhang Yimou's "Hero," you might think of how events in America, particularly since 9/11, are a mirror of the happenings of far-away China during the Third Century B.C. How so? Consider that the Bush administration in the U.S., given the chance, would probably like to unite the "freedom-challenged" countries not as annexations to America but as representatives of American values. Iraq, then, is hardly likely to become the 51st state (or the 52nd after Afghanistan) but our president would like to "unify" that Middle Eastern country with American values.

OK, this is farfetched, but look at what the king of Qin (Chen Daoming) would like to do. Qin, which is now part of China thanks in no small part to that regal presence, was a separate nation over 2,000 years ago. A half dozen or so other kingdoms existed in what is now China, speaking some nineteen different dialects of what is now Chinese. The king's ambition was to unify the entire land mass under his rule, just as Bush would like to unite Iraq and Afghanistan under an umbrella of American values. The king of Qin, like the president of the U.S., must be careful to avoid assassination. While our chief executive surrounds himself with secret service personnel, the king of Qin is guarded over by a thousand troops. Moreover, no one given a hearing by this king is allowed to come closer than 100 paces from the king on fear of death–all to avoid the possibility of regicide. Yet, lo, a simple sheriff without even a name of his own, a man called Nameless (Jet Li) was invited to come ever so much closer until he was within ten paces of the royal throne, an easy distance to commit murder. Why did the king allow this man to do this? Nameless claims to have killed three sword masters who are enemies of the would-be emperor, top fighters whose dispatch would make the king's task quite a bit easier. "Hero" emerges as a Rashomon style of story wherein the king, not quite willing to trust Nameless's story of unqualified bravery, suggests something else: that Nameless is lying in order to be allowed to get closer to the throne and that, therefore, Nameless is an enemy of Qin. When it is revealed that Nameless is from the nation of Zhou, at war with Qin, Nameless's story is revealed to be full of holes.

Lantern") takes us to a dazzling, remote Chinese region full of color, pomp, and the kind of swordplay that was introduced to moviegoers with Ang Lee's masterful "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In fact, as good as the story is, allowing the audience to guess which of the Rashomon-style versions is true, "Hero" exists primarily as a cinematographer's dream, an ideal candidate for an Oscar for that very category. Battles take place not between armies, but between Nameless and particular swordmen sworn to kill him. (Think of Uma Thurman's situation in "Kill Bill.") The chief rivals are Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen), all three of whom were allegedly defeated and killed by Nameless, who explains just how he was able to use psychology to eradicate them. In one situation, a swordsman's calligraphy betrays him. In another case, since Broken Sword and Flying Snow were a number together, Nameless is able to arouse their jealousy.

The visuals are even more dazzling that what we got from the "Lord or the Rings" trilogy, coming not simply from the martial arts demonstrations which have the participants literally flying across stretches of land, walking on water and turning huge somersaults but, even more impressive, with the sights and sounds of thousands of arrows all directed toward a single building. In the movie's most colorful scene, the leaves, already a natural shade of red, become drenched in a pool of the deepest russet color you could imagine, dwarfing even some of the visuals of Vincent Ward's "What Dreams May Come." Neither Anglophilic period pieces like "Vanity Fair" and "Persuasion" nor past Zhang Yimou's delightful films such as "Raise the Red Lantern" can hold a candle to this most expensive Chinese movie in history.

While one might have questioned the popularity of a pic with subtitles, particularly one with little obvious resonance with the present mores and folkways of people, "Hero" did top the box office list on its opening weekend, number one and deservedly so.

Copyright © 2004 Harvey Karten

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