Ying Xiong : China (Chi/HK) 2002 : ZHANG Yimou : 93 mins (Chinese version runs 120 mins)

Though its makers probably won’t welcome the comparison, Hero is bound to be received around the world as ‘Crouching Tiger 2.’ There’s no direct plot connection, but as with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang’s Hero represents an unexpected detour into the martial-arts arena from an auteur better known for quieter, more domestic projects. And the films share one prominent talent behind the scenes – composer Tan Dun – and another in front of the camera: diminutive actress Zhang Ziyi, who plays a prominent and very physical supporting role in both movies.

But while Crouching Tiger famously failed to replicate its western successes with either audiences ‘back home’ or local critics (who mocked the stars’ obvious difficulties with Mandarin), Hero arrives with a reputation as the ‘real thing’ on the back of impressive box-office in China and nearby territories. This is undoubtedly due in part to the fact that while Crouching Tiger was largely a Taiwanese product, Hero is a big-budget affair which carries the Chinese government’s stamp of approval. The script – by Zhang, Li Feng and Wang Bin – can certainly be read as supporting the official ‘party line’ on domestic affairs although events takes place over 2,000 years ago during the reign of the territory’s first Emperor. The King of Qin (Chen Daoming) employed strongarm strategies to unify various feuding provinces into a single entity, much as the current Communist rulers have crushed dissent and mounted controversial operations to counteract breakaway areas such as Tibet.

In Hero, we see the paranoid Emperor secluded in his vast palace, ferociously guarded against his many would-be assassins – chiefly Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen). When news arrives that all three have been eliminated by a mysterious warrior, the Emperor grants an audience to his protector – a small-town sheriff known as Nameless (Jet Li). As Nameless recounts the stories of his various battles, the Emperor detects several flaws in the tale – and we then flash back to several very different permutations arising from the same narrative.

What starts off as a seemingly simple, straightforward plot rapidly snarls into dizzying convolutions. Luckily, every stage in Nameless’s storytelling is accompanied by startling visuals courtesy of legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who employs a bold colour-coded palette to differentiate between the various levels of ‘reality’. Ane he comes up with showstopping sequences to match anything seen in Crouching Tiger, starting with the first combat against Sky in which Nameless is briefly seen running through raindrops that break slowly on his face to indicate how he’s bending the rules of time, physics and gravity.

The real jaw-dropper comes soon after, when Nameless tracks down lovers Flying Snow and Broken Sword to a calligraphy school that then comes under siege from the enormous Qin army. In unison, the soldiers let fly what look like a million black arrows, soaring through their air like a vast cloud of black spores, before slamming through the school walls. Set-pieces like these – and there are many more in the film – ensure that Hero is never less than a thrillingly entertaining and magnetic spectacle. But as the narrative becomes ever more complex, there’s the nagging suspicion that there isn’t an enormous amount of real substance beneath the film’s magnetic surface, beyond what is really a very bald and didactic political message (encapsulated by the key, oft-repeated mantra ‘All under heaven.’)

The often-mundane dialogue doesn’t help, but perhaps the real problem is one of structure and length: Miramax’s “international” version of the film runs almost half an hour shorter than the “domestic” print. Chinese audiences would presumably see much more of Sky, who has conspicuously little to do in the ‘export’ edition, and also Zhang Ziyi as Moon – a little underused, though she does have an amusingly varied and protracted series of battles against the implacable Flying Snow (Cheung, typically superb in a role that’s arguably even more of a showcase than Irma Vep). As it is, 93 minutes simply feels nowhere near long enough for this kind of material, and though characters compliment Nameless with the line “How swift thy sword!”, he can’t compete with Hero‘s real flashing blades – the ones brandished off-camera in the Miramax editing suite.

7th March 2003
(seen 7th February, CinemaxX Berlin – Berlin Film Festival)

For all the review from the Berlin Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young