Director: Zhang Yimou (2002)
Ostracizing what is being touted as the biggest Chinese movie of all time for being exceedingly derivative of Ang Lee's marvelous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wouldn't be a fair starting point. Classics are made to be built and improved upon, making an elegant touch of mimicry not only inevitable, but even constructive. However, since Zhang Yimou's hyped production Hero doesn't improve on Crouching Tiger's mastery, we're sadly left with the imitation part. You'll realize this once Tan Dun's copy of his own Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger soundtrack starts playing to ridiculous results.
Hero does provide brief respite from a market yearning for more martial arts epics. Indeed, its well-choreographed fight scenes (overseen by Tung Wei) display quite the vivid imagination, probably more suitable to local tastes than Lee's much-accosted fantasy wuxia icon, often accused of being watered-down.
While strangely blood-free, Hero's martial arts contingent features hard hitting input not only from real life experts Jet Li and Donnie Yen, but also a vastly improved Zhang Ziyi, now pulling off moves and stunts with increased range, hardly requiring stunt doubles any longer.
Unfortunately, most of the crew's imaginative juices went towards designing said action bits, all but forgetting to install a compelling story.
Considering its grand historical scope, director Zhang should have concentrated more on telling of this climactic period in world affairs, a time when Qin Shihuang set out to unite all of China's various states under one rule. Despite a US$30 million budget, Hero pales embarrassingly when put beside Chen Kaige's texture-laden era piece The Emperor and the Assassin (1999). Further evidence of misspent energy can be found in ludicrously over the top, redundant scenes and effects. To wit, the infamous "million arrow" bombardment of Zhao's capital by Qin troops was grossly overdone, as was the too-leafy encounter between Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Cheung (playing Ru Yue and Fei Xue respectively).
On the upside, Jet Li's return to making Mandarin films has him shining through as Wu Ming (No Name), a professional assassin aimed at taking out the aggressive conquering emperor. In an alternate version of this established plot, Wu Ming enters Qin's inner sanctum and befriends the mighty warlord (played by Chen Daoming) through recounting a fascinating tale of love, betrayal and desire. This is Hero's bulk, as we see the two exchanging witticisms while the short story is replayed four times (each symbolized by a specific color), only to arrive at a quite predictable outcome.
Disappointingly, Zhang Yimou's promising selection of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung didn't bear fruit. Both are rather lukewarm for this outing, leaving it up to Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi to save the day, which they do with flying colors.
Looking like one of those Sony TV demos you see at the electronics store, Hero doesn't bode well for Zhang Yimou as a first wuxia endeavor. It is possible that appreciation may set in after multiple viewings - and thus the reported extended DVD version due for release on February 9th is eagerly awaited.
As a homage to greatness, Hero's well worth the exorbitant ticket price (average ticket prices in Beijing were reported at around Y65); as the quantum leap we were promised it's a sore letdown.
(cityweekend.com.cn Febuary 12, 2004)