> Volume 6 > Number 23


Zhang Yimou

Jet Li
Tony Leung
Maggie Cheung
Zhang Ziyi
Chen Daoming

Release: N/A



Having turned a once auspicious career of films with Gong Li into a series of recent Chinese melodramas only ascendant in their increasing tepidness, Zhang Yimou seemed destined for a disappointing career. His oeuvre ceased to be about the intricacies of the human soul (as found in Shanghai Triad and Farewell My Concubine) and instead became intent on cute kids and artful codgers (exemplified in Not One Less, The Road Home, and Happy Times). The once magnanimous Zhang had become ignominious.

That was before he saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and was inspired to respond. Hero, his rejoinder, might not be the mystical masterpiece of Ang Lee’s 2000 crossover hit, but it captures a far more interesting story, and Zhang surprisingly knows how to milk the narrative elements into a poignant allegory for our own visions of heroism. I’m not certain that it is a better film than Crouching Tiger, but I can say that I haven’t been this excited by an action film since.

Told in Rashomon segments, mostly flashbacks imagined by Emperor Ying Zheng (Chen) as he’s told a story by Nameless (Li), the film has the flow of a mystery novel. But there are elements that have an exquisite touch, both adventurous and romantic. The stories that are told -- tales of assassins killed by Nameless before they could endanger the emperor -- each have a consistency that is easy to accept. Lushly photographed by Christopher Doyle, they feel dreamlike, their emotional touch engrained into the audience before any sentimentality sets in. These are more complexly woven stories than most kung fu action films can contain, and the film’s amazingly short length packs an overpowering punch in just 90 minutes.

Part of the success comes with the pedigree Zhang has assembled, many coming off of their best work. Although Zhang Ziyi has been wasted in the years since playing Jen in Crouching Tiger, her youthful exuberance coupled with an awe for the martial artists she works under is properly portrayed. When she tries to fight Nameless in vengeance for the death of her master, her humbleness is clearly overshadowed by her devotion. Moreover, the love affair between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung is almost as palpable here (though much more fulfilled) as it was in Wong Kar-Wai’s intoxicating In the Mood for Love (also photographed by Doyle). Even Li, who is usually so stiff in his American works, has an allure to his Zen-like killer. The sumptuous images conjured by the emperor are fully realized by the way Nameless describes them.

Best of all -- and this is a common theme among films that excite me the most -- here’s a film that says volumes about storytelling without being ostentatious. The final discovery for the audience impacts the core virtues of what it means to be a storyteller, and Zhang has done an amazing job telling the story here. In a marketplace now emblemized by Uma Thurman sporting a Japanese sword, Hero comes to remind audiences of the Chinese masters who provoked Tarantino into his beatified Asian hybrid cinema. He’s a master storyteller, often testing the audience’s abilities to work on many different planes simultaneously. Zhang has, perhaps, one-upped him by simplifying one plane until the very deceptive nature of it is clearly understood. Hero is a deeper, more emotionally-grounded work than the majority of today's films, and the fact that it succeeds in ways most could never imagine (including a finicky American populace more likely to accept the next Michael Bay film than another atmospheric Chinese action piece) may be the clearest explanation why Miramax was so afraid to get it in the marketplace before they’d finished rolling out Kill Bill

©2004, David Perry,, 4 June 2004