Sunday, August 29, 2004

Hero Directed by Zhang Yimou

The story of Zhang Yimou's 2002 film, Hero, reads like an overwrought Hollywood production or Danielle Steele pulp novel - minus the dime-store sex scenes found in both. It goes like this: Yimou makes Hero, Miramax has the U.S. rights but decides not to release it, Tarantino sees it, loves it, and promptly uses his ever-increasing weight (literally and figuratively, folks) to get it released pronto in the good ol' US of A. Ok, my version isn't so good, but you get the picture. The surprising part is that Hero was produced by Bill Kong of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, and that flick didn't do to bad at all. Makes it boggling that Miramax didn't absolutely eat up the idea. What's even more surprising is that after Hero's lineage, back-story, and involved major figures are factored in; it is only a mediocre film.

The cinematographer on the job was Christopher Doyle, whom you might remember from Wong Kar-Wai's 2001 film In the Mood for Love. Doyle's work on that picture was top-notch - absolutely stunning. And the man does not falter with Hero. This is one of those films where you could close your eyes and hit pause at any point in time and feel comfortable in hanging the resulting still on your living room wall. Landscapes, close-ups, medium two shots - Doyle does it all, and with panache to boot.

Equally impressive are Jet Li and coterie. I take that back - the supporting cast is beyond being Jet Li's coterie - they nearly steal the whole show. Maggie Cheung is wonderful, Zhang Ziyi (also of Crouching Tiger fame) is more than adequate, and Tony Leung - as amazingly straight as I am - is so good that it became awfully difficult for this reviewer to keep his eyes off of him. And the choreography that these players engage in manages to be fresh and interesting, even amongst the glut of ubiquitous Wo Ping school films that emigrated constantly into the U.S. since the year 2K.

And now: The Culprit.

Pauline Kael wrote these wise words in the introduction to her 1977 anthology, Reeling:

When a movie has startled people, [...] or enlisted their sympathies and made them weep, [...] or made them feel vindictive and sadistic, [...] the hardest thing for a critic to do is to convince them that it isn't necessarily a great picture. It's almost impossible to persuade people that a shallow, primitive work can give them a terrific kick.

A terrifically opportune bit of writing, I'd like to think that it applies with equal aplomb to the situation at hand. It is easy to stare at Hero and remain entertained. The fight scenes are enthralling, the cinematography is beautiful, and the actors are very good. But does this add up to a good film? No, it does not. Lacking in Hero is a purpose. Here in the West we call it plot (come to think of it, I believe that's what they call it in the East as well.) Rather, there is a plot, but it feels like butter spread over too much toast.

A nameless hero is brought before his king following said hero's feat of destroying the king's worst enemies: three assassins beyond compare. The audience is lead through the semantics of the assassins' demise via a flashback told by the Nameless hero. Then, after Nameless finishes up, the tale folds back on itself twice-over, Rashomon style. To reveal much more would constitute a breach in our contract: "I, ________, responsible critic and cinemaphile, shall not divulge any more information regarding the film at hand than is necessary for the readers to gather about themselves, like a square dance petticoat, an opinion as to whether (or not) they will see said film." Yeah, something like that. What I can say is that Hero hints at ideas of patriotism, socialism, and loyalty. But that is all it does. I am not asking the film to bludgeon me with these themes, but a firm establishment would be nice. The way they are used in Hero, these themes feel more like the town of Calistoga, CA - blink and you'll miss 'em. At the end of Hero I was left with the realization that I had just seen a stunningly beautiful film with a paltry foundation. Sadly, Hero turns out to be just what was promised in its distribution tale - an overwrought production (minus the sex scenes.)