With the shadow of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon influencing many Eastern movie releases in the West, it was with some trepidation that I went to see Hero in the local cinema. Having been released two years previously in its homeland as Ying xiong, Zhang Yimou's debut Wushu picture met with huge acclaim, leading Quentin Tarantino to add his name to the production in an attempt to gain release in the West. This release came late last year and more than lived up to the hype. I revisited this film on its recent DVD release.
The key thread of Hero is something that much of Hollywood's big blockbusters ignore, storyline. Beginning with the appearance of Jet Li's character 'Nameless' the film displays the stunning backdrops and cinematography that will be the canvas on which the story is told. Or should that be stories.
The film begins with Nameless, a minor official, showing up at the court of the King of Qin, one of six kingdoms that made up ancient China, claiming to have defeated and killed three of the deadliest assassins in all of the six kingdoms, Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky. These fights are shown in a series of flashbacks and narrated by Jet Li's 'Nameless'. To prove his case Nameless displays each of the three assassins, of whom the King is highly fearful to the point of not allowing anyone within 100 paces of him, weapons. However the tale is not all that it seems.
Hero sets out a compelling story, throwing together many of the great actors and actresses of modern Asian cinema. From the familiar face of Zhang Ziyi as Moon to the timeless beauty of Maggie Yeung as Flying Snow and the charismatic Tony Leung as Broken Sword. What this powerful ensemble cast guarantees is quality. The actors constantly adapt to the script as it tells the story first one way and then another. Jet Li is his usual tough, invincible self, fitting the persona of 'Nameless' to a tee without ever setting the screen alight outside of a few spectacular fights, the martial arts highlight of which is his duel with Donnie Yen's Sky.
Instead it is left to the pairing of Tony Leung and Maggie Yeung as on/off lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow to immerse the viewer in a moving narrative that your never quite sure what to believe. Leung and Yeung feature in some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, where Yimou's direction consistently sees the actors drenched in environments of assorted colours that are stunningly striking to the eye. This is Hero's most involving feature and the main reason why people will flock to buy the movie.
The backdrops and camera work are stunning, so much so that I would venture to say this film has no equal in the history of movies. Twisting through a caleidoscope of colours the film looks breathtaking, from the autumnal oranges, reds and yellows of Flying Snow's fight with Moon, to the reserved blues and greens of Broken Sword's duel with Nameless, the vividness and differentiation in palette as it changes for each segment of the story is a wonder to behold.
For anyone even slightly interested in the DVD version I would say go out and get it, there is something in the movie for everyone. Just make sure you have the subtitles on - one thing that hasn't improved in recent times is the dubbing. As good as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? Better in my opinion. Now the shadow belongs to Hero.
Reviewed by Owen Jones © 2005