Four years ago, Ang Lee fired Western imaginations but left Asian audiences cool with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a hauntingly poetic ode to martial-arts cinema that softened its Taoist trappings with gently romantic humanism and Western-influenced psychological drama.
Just how unique Lee’s achievement was can be judged by the fact that at the time the best response Miramax (and resident martial-arts film geek Quentin Tarantino) could come up with the following year was a comparative trifle, the semi-slapstick actioner Iron Monkey.
But that was before Zhang Yimou’s Hero, a 2002 release in Asia starring Hong Kong superstar Jet Li, which became a sensation in the East like that of Crouching Tiger in the West, but has been delayed for American audiences courtesy of Miramax blundering, which first persuaded Zhang to chop 20 minutes out of the film, then sat on it for the better part of two years. (A Chinese extended edition, available on the international DVD market, restores nearly ten minutes to the runtime, but is still short of the alleged 120-minute director’s cut that few if any have ever seen.)
Yet at any length Hero is an incandescent tour de force with a visual flair and richness like no film I’ve ever seen, and deserves to be seen on the big screen.
On one level, Hero represents a return to wuxia convention. For example, where Crouching Tiger satirized the kung-fu tradition of melodramatic names like "Iron Eagle" and "Flying Machete," the characters in Hero unself-consciously go by such monikers as Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Moon (Ziyi Zhang, Crouching Tiger), and Long Sky (Donnie Yen, Shanghai Knights, Iron Monkey). Characterization and plotting are similarly stylized, without the psychological depth and nuanced characterizations of Lee’s film.
Yet there’s nothing even marginally conventional about Hero’s overpowering visual splendor, its effulgent riot of color and texture, its overwhelming spectacle of scale. As in Crouching Tiger and countless other wuxia films, high-flying warriors leap and glide through the air across rooftops, through trees, and over the surfaces of lakes — yet here the space around and between the combatants is defined with gently plopping raindrops, barrages of wind-blown autumn leaves, hailstorms of innumerable falling arrows, or acres of rippling silk draperies.
Alongside its stunning use of color, Hero makes spare but striking use of black and white in a remarkable conceit depicting a fight sequence staged in the minds of the combatants, whom we understand have achieved such a pinnacle of mastery that actually playing out the moves is superfluous (in the typically appropriate metaphor of critic Lawrence Toppman, they’re "like chess masters looking 20 moves ahead"). In addition to the real and the imagined, Hero also plays in Rashomon fashion with truth and point of view, so that what is described or recounted is not necessarily what happened, and certain crucial moments are revisited more than once as the elliptical narrative unfolds.
The story is pure Hong Kong melodrama, set at the dawn of the Chinese Imperial Era in the third century BC. Hero is a fabulistic account of the conflict surrounding the Qin State’s efforts to subjugate its neighbors and impose unity. The King of Qin (Daoming Chen) has so many enemies that those seeking an audience are strip-searched and must maintain a 100-pace distance from the king, except by special dispensation.
Hero opens with the arrival a nameless warrior (Li) bringing the king welcome news that his three most feared enemies, the assassins Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Long Sky, are dead. The stories of their deaths are seen in flashback, then revisited again and again until motives and the meanings of actions are finally clear. Love, jealousy, revenge, honor, inner struggle, and inner peace are all woven into a mythic fabric of larger-than-life melodrama and heroic sacrifice.
Hero is both epic and intimate, with drama on both a national and a personal scale. In the end, these two levels of the national and the individual come together in a way that speaks volumes about the difference between the individualism of much Western thought and more characteristically Eastern collectivism.
It is here, perhaps, that the differences between Crouching Tiger and Hero are most apparent. Where Lee’s film offered an exploration and even a critique of certain traditional aspects of Chinese cultural heritage, Hero offers a ringing affirmation, an anthem in celebration of at times contradictory elements.
Hero extols the ideals of nonviolence and detachment advanced by some forms of martial-arts philosophy, yet it also offers a justification of force on a massive scale in the name of political unity — one that is unconvincing at best, in light of what we’ve already seen of such conflict.
If it were only a revisionist take on the founding of imperial China, that might not be an issue; but a few critical voices both in China and in the U.S. have objected that it can also be taken as an allegory defending Tianamen Square and a hard line on Taiwan.
In my view, the allegorical interpretation is certainly possible, but not necessary. As a cogent philosophical or moral statement, Hero is less than persuasive; as a kind of mythic ethnography, a storybook compendium of Chinese moral affections and sensibilities, it is masterful, even magisterial.
Artistically, Hero warrants comparison with another one of the year’s best foreign-language films, The Passion of the Christ. Both are stunning achievements of cinematography; both are stylized morality-play period pieces that involve suffering and sacrificial death; both retell the origins of an institution that has had an enduring impact on human history.
There may also be an element of providence, of a way things are meant to be, that in Hero has unfortunately been lost in retranslation. The original English subtitles in the Asian DVD version of the film I saw a couple of weeks ago render a key phrase as "All under heaven," but the new Miramax subtitles substitute the far more prosaic and earth-bound phrase "Our land."
Watching Hero, I’m acutely aware that this is neither my world or my worldview, and the film is not moving to me in the way that The Passion is. Crouching Tiger, too, was emotionally far more resonant than Hero. Yet my admiration for its cinematic achievement is as great, and I am profoundly grateful for this breathtakingly beautiful glimpse into another world.
In the end, though, it turns out that the House of Flying Daggers is something the film doesn’t actually care about that much. So much is this the case, in fact, that the last time we hear tell of them, the warriors called the Flying Daggers are about to get into this huge climactic battle with the enemy soldiers, whom we see advancing slowly into the bamboo forest where the Flying Daggers are hiding… at which point the story cuts to another plot thread, never to return.
The story is said to be set in 19th-century China, but its roots are older, reaching for a mythic age of larger-than-life heroes and superhuman derring-do. Heroes with paranormal abilities were also a theme of the recent Unbreakable; but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has what was lacking in Unbreakable: a sense of wonder, of exhilaration, of mystery and beauty and hope.
What is it about this film that’s pulling in ordinarily subtitle-phobic U.S. audiences and eliciting cheers and applause from jaded American critics and festival audiences, yet leaves the kung-fu fans of the East cold? Is this a good martial-arts movie, or not?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.