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Monday, February 18

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Hero
5 of 5 stars
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Starring Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, Zhang Ziyi and Chen Daoming.

Originally released overseas in 2001, Miramax repeatedly delayed the American release of Hero for reasons that escape me and nearly everyone else who has already seen this film on the import DVDs that have been available in the States for the past two years. In a recent interview with Coming Soon!, Jet Li states that Hero's Hong Kong production company "calculated that they lost 20 million dollars of box office (from the import DVDs)."

While undoubtedly some revenue has been lost, I think he (and the production company) are underestimating both the quality of the film and the fanaticism of movie lovers nationwide. The Star Wars films' rerelease in 1997 demonstrated that people who have seen a film on the small screen untold numbers of times will gladly plunk down another $8 to see a great movie on the big screen (to the tune of $138 million for the first film alone).

I first saw Hero over a year ago, and despite recently having watched the film a second time for this review, I have every intention of seeing it again this weekend. In fact, every person I've talked with who has seen the film plans to do so. But for those unfamiliar with the movie, the best introduction to the story is the introduction from the film itself:

Two thousand years ago, during the Warring States period, China was divided into seven Kingdoms. For years they battled for supremacy while the people suffered.

The King of Qin was the most ruthless in his effort to conquer the land and unify all under heaven. He was regarded as a common threat by the other six Kingdoms. The annals of Chinese history are abound with tales of the assassins sent to kill the great King.

Jet Li plays a nameless assassin who has defeated China's three most dangerous assassins: Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Granted an audience with the King of Qin (Chen Daoming), he recounts how he defeated each assassin. The story of Flying Snow and Broken Sword is told three times in three different, color-coded flashbacks.

A visual masterpiece by Hong Kong director Zhang Yimou and Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle (Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love), Hero also marks something of a departure for the director, whose previous work consists of dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home. On the heels of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon transformation, Zhang Yimou has also chosen to reinvent himself as a sort-of action director. (We can only hope Yimou doesn't go on to helm any crap super-hero movies anytime soon.)

But Hero is much less of a kung fu film than the American trailers would have you expect. If you go into Hero expecting non-stop action sequences like in Iron Monkey or Fist of Legend, you'll be somewhat disappointed, for Hero is much more along the lines of Crouching Tiger in its tone, but with even more of an emphasis on the story than on fighting. Hero's beautifully choreographed fights are terrific, to be sure, although the first — featuring a spear-wielding Donnie Yen — is also the most exciting, but they are not the point of the movie by any means.

I usually avoid giving away too much of the plot in my reviews unless the movie is terrible, but unfortunately, in order to fully review Hero I do need to discuss the ending. So to quote America's biggest film reviewer with the smallest grasp of English language: "Spoiler warning!!!"

The highly overrated Gladiator notwithstanding, fictional characters are not often allowed to kill historical figures. So, as you may have guessed, after Jet Li's nameless assassin has been granted permission to sit within 10 paces of the King, he opts not to assassinate him, because he has decided that, perhaps, ending the Warring Period and unifying China under one Emperor is for the best in the long run. This at first struck me as similar to condoning Hitler's goal to unite Europe, but later it occurred to me that a more appropriate comparison would be to Abraham Lincoln uniting the North and South through bloodshed after the South had seceded from the Union, despite that China was never a single nation or people prior to the Warring States period. If you get past all the "freeing the slaves" mythology about the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln did what he felt was best for the American people, or at least the North. The fact that Lincoln did so in spite of the South having every right to secede from a government that they felt did not serve their interests is not altogether beside the point.

The ethical quandary at the heart of my sole reservation about the film is whether or not the King of Qin's ends justify the means. Hero certainly doesn't portray the King of Qin as a saint, which would make this question irrelevant; Zhang Yimou simply chooses to answer it with a "yes" — for the titular Hero is the King of Qin, not Jet Li's nameless assassin, despite all of the marketing collateral emblazoned with Jet Li's face. As an entertainment, Hero is a stunning, flawlessly-executed work of art. But how successful Hero is as a dramatic story rests largely upon each viewer's own answer to that question, or — as in my own case — their willingness to choose not to answer it.

Hero opens today at the Davis, I.C.E. Lawndale Cinemas, Loews Lincoln Village 1–6, Village Burnham Plaza, Village North, Loews Webster Place 11, and the Evanston Century 12/CinéArts 6. Odd Obssession has the DVD for rent, but unless you're a cheap bastard or you've got the biggest TV ever, you really should see this on the big screen. Zhang Yimou's next film, House of Flying Daggers, which continues Zhang Yimou's kung fu career make-over, will be released by Sony Pictures Classics this December.

Also recommended, though not as compelling as Hero (and certainly not in any sense an action movie), is Chen Kaige's epic The Emperor and the Assassin, which provides some additional historical context, despite also being fictionalized. Kaige's interpretation of the King of Qin is decidedly less forgiving than Yimou's, though, providing something of a counterpoint to Hero.

Wonderful Days DVD
3 of 5 stars
Directed by Moon-Saeng Kim.

The 2003 Korean animated feature, Wonderful Days, blends traditionally animated characters, computer generated vehicles, models, and even a little bit of live-action footage to create one of the most visually unique films ever to grace the screen. As usual, the attempt to meld hand-drawn animation with computer generated imagery isn't entirely successful, largely because the CGI tends to look a bit too crisp and plastic; it's closer to Babylon 5 than Attack of the Clones. But the brilliant use of models for many of the backgrounds helps to set the film in a remarkably tangible world unlike any other.

It is a shame, then, that the story does not live up to the pretty pictures, as well as some hauntingly gorgeous music. While not nearly as painful to watch as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, an exquisitely beautiful film burdened by a mind-numbingly awful script, it's disappointing to watch Wonderful Days lump together a half-assed love triangle; tired movie-bad-guy clichés; and a totally ludicrous environmental parable into an 87-minute demo reel for Tin House, which certainly has the potential to be a hugely influential animation studio — provided it hires some stronger writers. But there are numerous beautiful moments in the film that are still stuck in my head several days after watching the film, so for that reason alone I would suggest that animations fans check it out.

Wonderful Days is newly available for purchase from Chicago Comics, but if saving a buck or two is more important to you than instant gratification and supporting local businesses, the same edition is also available from DiscountAnimeDVD.com. You can watch the French trailer online here (click on Bande Annonce).

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Comments

Johnny / September 1, 2004 4:55 PM

Gordon - You suck but your column is alright

Naz / September 1, 2004 5:45 PM

Yeah! Gordon got a comment!

You are rejoicing right Gordon, admittedly, you did ask for it.

On an on-topic note, I enjoyed Hero, but my companions not so much. I think they wanted more action. Asian cinema I find is not so much for the American palette at times.

Though it makes me want to go and watch Once Upon a Time in China, I-III and then The Bride with White Hair, some Brigette Lin would be good.

Gordon / September 2, 2004 8:49 AM

Hey, thanks for the kind words about my column, Johnny!

(I do suck; no argument there.)

 

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