The Grand Canyon. The Northern Lights. Van Gogh's sunflowers. We've all been stricken speechless by vivid displays of color. For me, there's the Georgia O'Keefe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the shimmering metallic blue of Pacific Ocean waves at twilight; the day I discovered first-hand that ladybugs sometimes hibernate on mountaintops, clustered together in masses, blood red against white snow (hard to believe, but true).
To that list of awe-inspiring and vividly colorful experiences, I'd have to add the first time I saw Zhang Yimou's Hero on the big screen.
It's strange to consult a thesaurus for words that mean "beautiful" while I'm writing a review of a martial arts epic. But that's what Hero does to its audience. The gravity-defying duels between swordsmen are some of the most spectacular you'll ever see. An all-star team of China's most talented screen actors delivers performances of astounding physical skill and delicate emotion. Adventures, debates, epic battles, and revenge quests weave together into a complex tapestry. And the soundtrack by Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is lush and stirring. But those colors …
Sometimes, we miss out on the best films merely because they're "foreign." Hero sat neglected on the shelf at Miramax for two years while gaining popularity in China and with fans of Hong Kong cinema who got hold of import DVDs. Those responsible for stalling it should be rounded up and fired. It won an Oscar nomination in 2003 while still unreleased in the States, but the Academy voters who didn't give it a fair shake should be ashamed of themselves. If you miss seeing Hero on the big screen, you have missed one of the peaks of cinematic spectacle-on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Perhaps political bias stifled the film's exhibition. Hero is one of those rare works of art that serves both as an intimate character drama and as a national myth. While Zhang Yimou was not commissioned to make Hero by the Chinese government, the movie would have made such an investment worth every penny. It is surpassingly excellent in every technical category. But there have been murmurs of discontent in China over whether or not the director is paying homage to Chinese Imperialism. And indeed he does portray a tyrannical king as wise and conscientious. But he also offers devastating displays of destruction unleashed by that same conqueror. The conflicts occur between the "warring states" of China, circa 220 B.C. Aiming to become emperor, the King of the country of Qin, Chin Shi Huang Di (played with authority by Chen Dao Ming), crushes the cultures of six opposing regions to gain supremacy.
This portrayal of violence and brutality runs counter to a wholesale endorsement of imperialism. Hero is about the way that the spread of an empire can all too easily devalue and destroy the valuable distinctions defined by the language, personality, and artistry of differing cultures. In direct contrast to the film's colorful characters, the King's armies drain color from the screen. They're like minions of Tolkien's orcs—dark and cold—and the King oversees this like a contemplative spider at the center of a web, where he too is haunted by the cost of his campaign.
As the film opens, the king honors a warrior called Nameless, who has slain three famous assassins that threatened the throne during the conquest. The reward: a private meeting with the king. This hero, played perfectly by international martial arts legend Jet Li, grants the king's wish; he relates the stories of how he outwitted these legendary killers—Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Sky (Donnie Yen).
In the style of Rashomon, Nameless's stories are offered to us in multiple, contradictory flashbacks. Each story he relates raises the king's suspicion and requires a revision. Thus, Nameless and his targets are portrayed in a variety of relationships, sometimes meeting different fates. Each enthralling flashback is portrayed in a distinct array of colors.
In one, Nameless and Sky meet in a spectacular duel that's as much a match between their minds as it is between their blades. In another, Nameless helps Broken Sword and Flying Snow defend a calligraphy school from the oncoming forces of the king's warriors. This involves deflecting relentless torrents of arrows that are launched in a siege that resembles the ferocity of The Two Towers' Battle of Helm's Deep. Nameless opposes this siege in order to gain the killers' trust, to learn their weakness, and to defeat them using their own passions for one another. Zhang Ziyi, sporting the same youthful ego and impertinence that she portrayed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, plays a key role here as Broken Sword's servant, Moon. Two more astonishing clashes—one a breathtaking ballet in a storm of falling yellow leaves, the other a battle on the surface of a magnificent lake—are each worth the price of admission; it's unlikely you'll see anything so memorable all year.
But the most important clash is the one between the hero's narratives and the king's questioning. Nameless is clearly superior to those whose weapons he has claimed and set down before the king. But what has made him such an unparalleled warrior? And what will he ask of the king now that he has performed this feat as a volunteer?
To say more about the plot would be to spoil the story's most interesting twist. And besides, there is much to say in honor of the cast and crew.
Nameless is a perfect role for Jet Li. The part asks little of his acting talents (fortunately) and much from his athletic abilities. Similarly, Donnie Yen (Blade II, Shanghai Knights) turns Sky into a man who gets right down to business, letting his sword do the talking.
The juiciest roles go to Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, who earned acclaim for playing as the leads of Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. Here, they embody one of the most tempestuous romances in the annals of film. United with a passion for excellence both in art and in combat, but divided by political ambitions, Broken Sword and Flying Snow swoon, argue, duel, dance, and smash each others' hearts to pieces. Their director intensifies their emotions with colorful backdrops—blood reds, emerald greens, the white of sun-bleached sands. Are there any American actors who are as multi-talented as Leung, Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi, able to move our hearts, tantalize our minds, and then kick our butts with acrobatic fight scenes? They don't just deserve Oscars—give them Olympic medals!
But the true masters of the show are Zhang Yimou and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle (The Quiet American, In the Mood for Love). They find rarely seen backdrops in China that rival the New Zealand landscapes of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films.
Zhang gets a lot of support from Oscar-winner Emi Wada's extraordinary costume design. Production designer Tingxiao Huo brings this ancient world to life, so that the armies riding through the gates of the cities seem to be charging right out of the history books. Itzhak Perlman's soulful violin stands out against the stormy backdrop of the Kodo Drummers's drums in Tan Dun's soundtrack. (The themes are too similar to his work for Crouching Tiger, but then again, they're perfectly suited to the material.)
Zhang has a long list of marvelous films, including Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, both of which earned him Oscar nominations, and the recent, romantic short story The Road Home. He calls To Live (1994) his most important movie, and it's true—that epic about family and hardship in Chinese history is his most accomplished work of storytelling. But Hero is his masterpiece of visual imagination.
While it is almost impossible to discuss Hero without comparing it to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that's only because American viewers are unfamiliar with a genre called wuxia—a decades-old tradition of Chinese martial arts films. If they must be compared, yes, both feature warriors with the supernatural abilities to run up walls and bound through the treetops; but Crouching Tiger is more melancholy and romantic, whereas the action and spectacle in Hero make Ang Lee's film look like a high school play.
Hero also burns with immediacy and relevance. As China struggles with the division between Beijing and Taiwan, Zhang Yimou poses a heartfelt challenge. He acknowledges the value of unification and peace. He knows that militant resistance of the empire's progress can lead only to more violence and loss. But he reminds the viewer that the peculiarity of unique, diverse cultures produces valuable, irreplaceable rewards … and people. It is as if the storyteller cannot find a satisfactory conclusion to his own epic.
Thus, American viewers may be unsettled by the conclusion, as there seems to be no room for democracy in Hero's paradigm. In a worldview that reveres the will of a conqueror over the will of a benevolent God, "peace" comes at a cost that will give no one true peace. That is why, in the end, Hero remains a conflicted, colorfully turbulent film. By the time the climactic challenge occurs, few will find themselves unmoved by the king's good intentions; but after his bloody campaigns, he is not the man who earns the title "hero."
Seen in this light, Hero's distinct, aerobatic duels come to represent the power of art to communicate ideas across borders and languages, from common people to kings, emperors, and presidents. The story's emphasis on the art of calligraphy is connected to its exhibitions of swordsmanship—in developing an artful style of writing, Broken Sword and Flying Snow prove that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword. This metaphor, along with the film's explorations of conscience, fidelity, trust, and responsibility, make Hero ultimately an insightful and rewarding achievement.
2004 doesn't have a new Lord of the Rings film to fill the screen with bedazzlement and wonder. But it does have Hero. Do yourself the favor of catching it on the big screen. And leave yourself plenty of time to discuss it with your friends afterward. It may be two years old, but it's still the richest cinematic feast on American movie screens so far this year.
Note: Near the end of the film, a character delivers an important message in two words—"Our land." In the Chinese version, there are actually three words—"All under heaven." Zhang Yimou changed it out of concern that it would not translate properly. Frankly, I prefer "All under heaven."
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- In the end, which character do you sympathize with the most? Do you find yourself in support of those who resist the conqueror, or those who support the concept of "empire"? Do you think the filmmaker is honoring the idea of an empire, or criticizing it?
- Compare these warriors' duels with those of warriors in many American films. What's the difference?
- What do you think the film's emphasis on natural beauty says about the storyteller's values?
- Do you think the film glorifies violence? Or do you think the violence represents something more than just swordfighting?
- What do you think of the relationship between Flying Snow and Broken Sword? Do you find anything honorable about their decisions?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Hero is too intense for children and young teenagers. The film has no nudity, but there is a modestly portrayed sex scene. There are many martial arts duels, but they are a mix of spectacular stunt work, martial arts, and ballet, and the camera avoids blood and gore.
Photos © Copyright Miramax
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/26/04
Zhang Yimou's Hero is more than two years old and has become one of the most celebrated films to come out of China. It was nominated for an Oscar last year for Best Foreign Film (Germany's Nowhere in Africa won).
So, why haven't we seen it on American big screens until now? Ask Miramax, which shelved the film for a couple of years and argued with the director about a final cut.
But now that it's here (opening in more cities this Friday), American film critics are raving about it. It's strange to consult a thesaurus for words that mean "beautiful" while I'm writing a review of a martial arts epic. But that's Hero's impact on its audience. It's a dazzling, romantic, exhilarating spectacle, and a story that resonates with political significance and spiritual turmoil. Sometimes we miss out on the best films merely because they're "foreign." But if you miss seeing Hero on the big screen, you're missing one of the peaks of cinematic spectacle—on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
My full review is at Christianity Today Movies—I'm giving it four stars. It's my favorite film of the year so far. (Parents, note: The film is inappropriate for younger viewers, due to martial arts violence and a scene of strong sexuality, but the film is remarkably restrained in its avoidance of blood, gore, and nudity.)
"It was worth the wait," raves Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), who also gives the film four stars. "Though the story is an intriguing take on a fascinating period in Chinese history, the artistry of the film is what takes center stage. Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero's martial arts sequences are magnificently choreographed and filled with grace and beauty. Using history as his template, Zhang has crafted a martial arts tale where all the martial artists are driven by noble and selfless desires. While there may be some flaws in the ultimate logic used by these characters, we can reach a level of respect for everyone in the film because their intentions and motivations are honorable."
More religious press reviews will be included in next week's Film Forum. Meanwhile, mainstream critics are making it one of the highest rated films of 2004 so far.from Film Forum, 09/02/04
Many martial arts fans have seen Zhang Yimou's masterful epic Hero on import DVDs over the past two years. But that didn't stop moviegoers from giving the film an enthusiastic reception this week as it opened on big screens in America at last. Miramax put the film in more than 2000 theaters and inherited the box office crown, earning more than $18 million for their gamble, almost twice what experts had predicted. That's an incredible feat for a subtitled film.
But Hero's most remarkable achievement may be the way it is scoring with both audiences and with critics, including those from the religious press. Last week, Film Forum featured two reviews, both giving the film top marks. This week, the raves continue.
Carole McDonnell (The Film Forum) raves, "Hero is a martial arts film for those who hate martial arts films. It's a pretty art film for those who hate pretty art films. And if you have not seen it, please see it now." She adds, "In Hero, we have the uniting of a kingdom through love and self-sacrifice. Destiny, devotion, agony, and fellowship are all beautifully depicted. And shouldn't an audience be treated to the beautiful … especially when the true ugly horrors of war are depicted so realistic every day in the media?"
J. Alan Speer (The Phantom Tollbooth) raves, "Hero's ocular delights cannot be overstated. Every page of my notes is littered with 'wow' from top to bottom."
Speer also provides an in-depth look at the genre, and then examines Hero's place it. "It is an unrivaled spectacle that effectively spoils us for anything future iterations the genre may offer," he says. "Hero stands at the apex of the art, as every individual shot could probably be framed and mounted. We've finally got a Kung Fu film that transcends its own genre to become the best of all possible worlds. If there is a more enthralling motion picture to come out in this or most any year, this writer hasn't seen it."
Tom Neven and Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) combine their efforts for this review: "This is a stunningly beautiful movie with jaw-dropping photography and dazzling martial arts choreography. It has the complexity of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and the spectacular cinematography of his Ran. Perhaps director Zhang Yimou is taking up the mantle left by the Japanese master when he died in 1998. Zhang has a wonderful eye for color and symbolism. [The film] introduces mature, morally complex themes Western audiences aren't often challenged to consider. We're left to ponder whether the end justifies the means in some cases. It is a complex story where mixed motives run headlong into notions of honor and vengeance."
Josh Hurst (Reveal) gives it an "A": "Underneath the swagger and the thrilling fight scenes, there lies a rich and rewarding exploration of moral and philosophical issues. Simply put, Hero is one of the most delightfully and joyfully stylish films ever made. Hero's bold, bright colors are its masterstroke … the movie's brilliant hues make it mesmerizing and entirely unforgettable."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) gives it an A-minus: "Watching Hero, I'm acutely aware that this is neither my world or my worldview, and the film is not moving to me in the way that The Passion is. Crouching Tiger, too, was emotionally far more resonant than Hero. Yet my admiration for its cinematic achievement is as great, and I am profoundly grateful for this breathtakingly beautiful glimpse into another world."
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) voices some misgivings. "Maybe my expectations were too high—the film has been the subject of feverish Internet speculation for months—but Hero doesn't quite deliver on its potential." But he also joins the others in praising Zhang's visual spectacle: "Working with Chris Doyle, one of the finest cinematographers in the world, Zhang achieves a purity of color rarely seen in movies. Doyle also has a way with widescreen compositions that brings out the majesty of space."
The raves of mainstream critics are piling up here.from Film Forum, 09/09/04
Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The martial arts scenes … are awe-inspiring. Hero is one of those near perfect blends of visual and story that film makes possible." He adds, "In spite of the nature of martial arts, violence is not glorified in this film. The fight scenes are made into something beautiful, but they are beautiful in part because there is so little blood shed. When blood is seen, it actually serves to remind us just how precious blood is." He concludes that the film's message is "to show us that violence is not the answer."
Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) rave, "The visual mythology … transcends the language barriers. We experience [Zhang Yimou's] tale with our entire souls and not just our eyes and ears.The visual arts and musical scores make each moment a feast that we don't want to end as they support the fluid movement of the dancing fighters." They add that the film's importance lies in how it helps us understand the Chinese. "If this tale is representative of the cultural beliefs of the people, then it reveals that they see peace as possible only through brutal subjugation."
Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "It is highly entertaining and rich in beauty and meaning. There is too much good in it for a production like this to be ignored."
"Until the end, when some profound meditations on sacrifice and common good come to the forefront, Hero begins to seem like just a lot of beautifully staged martial-arts exhibitions," writes Andrew Coffin (World). But he also is enthralled by those exhibitions. "In many ways, Hero is a stunning achievement. Hero is about as impressive a film to look at as anything ever put on the screen. Any single frame, taken on its own, presents a perfectly composed, visual feast."
Not everyone was so pleased. Check out this response by Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses): "Undeniably lush and beautiful … Hero is also the most stylish piece of insidious propaganda since Triumph of the Will. Like, Leni Riefenstahl's masterpiece, which was intended primarily to whip up the German people, I think Hero is much more aimed at propagandizing Chinese people than us Westerners. Chilling, that. I have been amazed to see the positive treatment that the film is getting from some prominent Christian reviewers. My guess is, they are being so distracted by the lush visuals in this piece, that they 'cannot see past the yellow/red forest for the themes.' But people need to look again. The message here is profoundly anti-Christian."
Nicolosi makes a good point. The film does end up viewing the unification of China as a good thing, trying to justify, to some extent, the cruel conquest of the king. But, as I wrote in my review at Christianity Today Movies, I don't think the film is just a simple, straightforward endorsement of the king's right to slaughter those who oppose him. In fact, the film subtly subverts that very theme by focusing on the way that those who resist are able to overcome the enemy forces more powerfully through art than through violence. Further, it makes those who stand against the king the most colorful, inspiring, and memorable characters. And finally, the king is reminded that the true "hero" is he who does not use a sword at all, but uses ideas instead. The film is called Hero, not Heroes, and it is clear that the film's most revered character is not the king, but the one who makes an impassioned appeal for the end of violence.
The film may indeed be a celebration of China—that is no surprise, considering the origins of the story. What I find great about the film (aside from the extraordinary visuals) is that, in spite of the film's China-centric perspective, the film glimmers with honorable truths that are worth acknowledging and discussing. The story gives us examples of what Christ described as the greatest love—laying down one's life for one's friends. It affirms the importance of excellence in art, and the timeless power art can achieve. It draws our attention to the importance of individual voices as opposed to a vast and impersonal force. And it demonstrates the righteousness of putting down the sword, something that the king will not do, even at the end when he has seen an example of a greater man who could. Thus, Hero remains a conflicted masterpiece. Even if Zhang Yimou did set out to make a film to please the government, his finished work raises too many questions to be written off as mere propaganda. Moviegoers would do well to examine the film closely and discuss it rather than ignore it.
By the way, the film took first place in the box office race for the second week in a row.
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