Directed by Zhang Yimou, starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi and Chen Dao Ming.
Following on the crossover success of Ang Lee's marital arts spectacular 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', this year sees the release of two similar films from Chinese director Zhang Yimou. His latest, 'House of Flying Daggers', comes out in December but before then, his 2002 film 'Hero' gets a release here. Presumably so that it makes the leap from the arthouse to the multiplex, 'Hero' is prefaced with a thumbs up from the indie king himself and the credits roll with a "Quentin Tarantino presents" before Yimou's own name. That minor annoyance aside, 'Hero' is a lavishly produced and brilliantly acted piece that will whet viewers' appetites for the forthcoming '...Flying Daggers'.
The film is set over 2,000 years ago, in the third century BC. The ruthless king of Qin (Ming) has plans to unite seven warring kingdoms of China under his rule - but he has many enemies. The title character, a man with no name (shades of Eastwood) who is referred to as Nameless (Li), is brought before the court to tell how he vanquished the king's three most deadly enemies - Sky (Yen), Snow (Cheung) and Broken Sword (Leung). And so the stage is set for a 'Rashomon'-type narrative.
As Nameless tells the story of his victories in flashback, he gives the king each of the defeated assassins' blades. But the king doesn't necessarily believe Nameless' version of events and so we are presented with several different - and strikingly colour-coded - variations on the same tale. Although there are complications involved within the flashbacks, the overall story remains the same: Nameless fights Sky, then journeys to a calligraphy school in the kingdom of Zhao where Snow and Broken Sword are holed up with servant girl Moon (Ziyi).
Like the relationships in 'Crouching Tiger...', it is the interplay between the passionate trio of Snow, Broken Sword and Moon that gives the film its heart and soul. But there's spectacle too, with the skills of Yimou, choreographer Siu-Tung Ching and cinematographer Christopher Doyle utilised to their fullest extent. There's a selection of outstanding set pieces, including the Matrix-like raindrops that fall during Nameless' fight against Sky; a duel between Snow and Moon amidst swirls of yellow leaves which fade to a startling red; a swordfight on water, complete with shots from underwater as the opponents skip across a lake; and the arrival of the Qin army in Zhao.
Although the pacing leaves something to be desired - its elegiac, episodic and high-minded nature can become wearying - there's plenty for the viewer to feast his or her eyes on throughout, not least the athleticism, grace and skill of Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi. Accomplished performances and moments of almost unearthly beauty conspire to make this film more portentous than pretentious and it's a safe bet that anyone who was impressed with 'Crouching Tiger...' won't be disappointed by 'Hero'.