Chinese, 2002

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Starring: Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Zhang Ziyi†

99 minutes†

Reviewed by Teri Tom

Rating (a 1 Ė 6 scale): 6

When I review a film, there are certain laws of nature you can count on. If itís got wirework, I wonít like it. If itís very plotty Ė and Heroís got multiple plot lines Ė I wonít like it. If itís got Jet Li, I wonít like it. If itís completely devoid of humor, I ainít gonna like it. Well.†Hero†has all of these things, and itís easily the best martial arts film Iíve seen all year. I hate to recite plots, so once again, from the DVD case:†

"At the end of Chinaís Warring States, the Kingdom of Qin is the most ruthless and ambitious of the seven states. Its King is the target of assassins from all over China. Of all the would-be assassins, Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky are the most dangerous. When Nameless kills all three, he is offered a chance to meet the King. Nameless explains to the King how he used their personal relationships to expose and attack their weaknesses, but the King tells a different version of the same story.Ē†

The plot summary alone kept me from popping this disc into the player for weeks. As I said, Iím not a plotty person. Donít let it scare you, and thatís all Iíll say before I give something away.†

Visually, Hero really is like nothing Iíve ever seen before. There are color schemes for each major chapter in the story. The extras on Disc Two of this set describe them as red for "passion,Ē blue for "romance,Ē and white for "truth.Ē The costumes, landscapes, and elaborate sets all change with the story. This excruciating attention to detail allows the viewer to fully enter the fantasy Ė and enables curmudgeons like me to accept the wirework.†

Yes, letís talk about those fight scenes. I complain quite frequently and loudly about wirework, CGI, and fast editing. In general, I like to see real people moving the way real people can Ė on the ground! Needless to say, I wasnít a huge fan of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But where that filmís fight scenes differ from Heroís is in the tempo. Crouching Tiger is like speed metal, and maybe Iím just getting too old for speed metal. Hero goes the other way. Everything is in slow motion. And itís beautiful. Some of you may ask, "What about the forest scene in Crouching Tiger? Thatís in slo-mo.Ē And I donít have a clear explanation. Again, maybe itís the attention to detail. Or perhaps we get to see Jet Li and Donnie Yen in slo-mo Ė two guys who move a wee bit better than Chow Yun Fat.

Presenting everything in slo-mo means that everything flows. And I mean everything. Robes, hair, sand, drapes, leaves. The sets have a life of their own, and the overall effect is so convincing, that even I had to forgive, and actually enjoy, the wirework. Kudos to cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Fucking brilliant.

Of course, all of this art direction and fight choreography means nothing if the actors arenít up to snuff. Well, the acting is top notch all around. Why is it that when a bunch of marquee names in Hollywood star in the same film, it sucks? Yet here we have some of the biggest names in Chinese film, and the result really is epic Ė one of the most overused words in film reviews Ė but in this case, it does fit the bill. Chen Daoming is exactly how I would imagine an emperor. Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, Zhang Ziyi, and my fave, Tony Leung Chiu Wai Ė all subtly brilliant and proving that less really is more. And, yes, I even liked Jet Li this time around.

Earlier I mentioned the lack of humor. Itís torturous to watch a film that takes itself too seriously or is painfully self-important. Hero is so good, though, it pulls off this sweeping story, raising questions about politics, martyrdom, and, of course, love. At a time when cynicism and irony are revered, Hero, without a shred of humor, is a welcome change. As Morrissey once wailed, "Itís so easy to laugh. Itís so easy to hate. It takes guts to be gentle and kind.Ē Heroís got guts.