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Jet Li as Nameless
Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Broken Sword
Maggie Cheung as Flying Snow
Ziyi Zhang as Moon
Daoming Chen as King of Qin
Donnie Yen as Long Sky
2000 years ago, China was separated into seven warring kingdoms, and the king of Qin used his undefeatable army to take over neighboring lands in his quest to become China's first emperor. Three deadly assassins have sworn to kill to kill the king, but a Qin warrior known as Nameless (Jet Li) stops them. As the king's protector is rewarded for his efforts, he tells the king how he defeated them, but there's more to his story than he is telling.
Director Zhang Yimou has made dozens of movies with some of China's biggest stars without delving into the horror or martial arts genres that are so popular here. His films have been nominated for numerous Oscars, but if he were only able to have half the commercial success in the States as his peers, he may be deemed China's greatest director. After making dramatic films with an Asian flavor for many years, Hero is Yimou's first attempt at a martial arts film, while also returning him to China's distant past. Like Shanghai Triad, his attempt at a Godfather gangster film, he uses his distinctive vision to create something truly unique.
Of course, it's easy to compare his latest effort to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the most profitable Chinese language film to date. After all, they both feature mythical figures in magical high-flying battles, but Hero is far more complex with a lot more dialogue and exposition than most Asian martial art films. A better comparison may be Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, because it creates a multi-layered story featuring flashbacks to different versions of Nameless' story on how he defeated the assassins Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow. The original version of his story has him using their emotions and love for each other to defeat them, but the king isn't buying it, and over the course of their conversation, we learn two other possible scenarios of how things may have gone down. The stories serve a purpose and they lead to a climactic conclusion.
Yimou's films have always showcased some of China's finest actors, but he has struck gold with this cast. Jet Li is the best known because of his popular Hong Kong action films as well as a handful of American movies. His role in Hero shows off another side of the actor, allowing him more room to show off his dramatic chops. Needless to say, he is much more believable when working with a script in his native tongue.
Another familiar face is Zhang Ziyi, the young actress from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who plays a smaller role as Broken Sword's dedicated student Moon. The standout performances come from Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, who are quickly becoming China's Tracy and Hepburn, and they retain their chemistry from Wong Kar-Wai's 2001 romance In the Mood for Love. Their relationship in Hero is no less intense, thanks to a three-way love triangle between their characters and Moon, a relationship which creates a number of situations and a resolution that will bring a tear to most eyes. The dramatic scenes between these four spectacular actors are on a par with anything done in Hollywood the last few years.
And then there's the martial arts. The dialogue and drama tends to slow things down, but Hero stil has plenty of action with a number of battles that feature different styles of combat. The first battle between Jet Li and Donnie Yen sets the stage for the rest of the movie, a rematch of sorts to their fight in Once Upon a Time in China, but Yen's part is minimal otherwise. The action is on a par with other martial arts films, but taking a more traditional Asian approach than "Crouching Tiger," with some of the battles taking place in the hearts and minds of the combatants.
This allows for similar gravity-defying moments, but Yimou doesn't settle for the simple wire-fu of his peers, using the setting and elements to enhance every fight. Swirling orange leaves surround the forest "cat fight" between Cheung and Zhiyi, while a fight on a lake between Li and Leung is taken to new heights of cinematic beauty thanks to the use of colors, which almost become another character in their use to differentiate between the different flashbacks. But the spectacular visuals aren't only used for the martial arts, as one stunning scene involves a battery of thousands of arrows sailing through the air with the camera seemingly following each one individually. It's a scene as impressive as anything in "The Lord of the Rings". Much of Hero's breathtaking beauty can be attributed to the camerawork of Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Tan Dun's lovely Asian soundtrack, which brings power and beauty to every scene.
Despite the beautiful visuals and Yimou's attention to detail, Hero never loses sight of the storytelling or the characters. This is part of why it works on so many different levels, to the point where you can ask five different people what the movie is about and get five different answers. Everyone should be able to take something different from watching Hero.
The Bottom Line:
Equal parts action, romance and classic Asian storytelling, Hero is more than a martial arts film or a historical epic; it is a stunning cinematic experience. The word "masterpiece" is often used in conjunction with Zhang Yimou's work, but with Hero, he has transcended the word to enter a realm of filmmaking to create a new language that goes far beyond anything that has come before. Hero is the definition of beauty and perfection.
Hero opens everywhere (Hallelujah!) on Friday.