Hero (3/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

This movie is simply a pompous excuse for special effects and cinematography, a disappointing plunge into fantasy instead of an accurate telling of a vital part of Chinese history.

It purports to be a story about the beginning of China as a nation more than 2,000 years ago. What it really is is a confusing mish-mash of flashbacks and ludicrous combat situations. Borrowing from Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950), we get the same story, first from Nameless (Jet Li, this flashback is shown in a red motif), telling it to King (Chen Dao Ming), then as King figured it might have happened (shown in a blue motif), then, I guess, as it really happened (shown in white).

King must be modeled on Shi huangdi, the leader of The Qin who conquered all the Warring States around 221 B.C., thereby unifying China. In fact, the Qin were sometimes called Ch’in, from which the name China probably devolved. The Qin were responsible for many achievements, like standardizing the language, and standardizing measurements and axel lengths, which was necessary because if the axel lengths were not uniform, the ruts in the roads would make most vehicles unusable, among many other improvements. But Shi huangdi was not a popular leader and alienated the nobility, displacing some and executing others. Hero is apparently based on that hatred and speculates that there were attempts on Shi huangdi’s life during his period of conquest.

In addition to allowing people to fly and hover, this film is another where people can survive attacks that simply defy credibility, and where one person can take on an army and emerge unscathed. As an example, the army of the King attacks an outpost of cartographers (don’t ask). They shoot hundreds of thousands of arrows at the outpost. The arrows penetrate the roof with ease, but after penetrating the roof, they stick in the desks or walls or floors of whatever they encounter. The question burning in the mind of anyone with half a brain is, how could the arrows penetrate the roof, but stick in the next thing they hit?

Ah, forget it. If you want logic or reason, this one is not for you.

Another irritating part of this film is how everyone is so damnably polite to each other just before they kill them. People face death with no fear. People kill people they love. People are killed when they are gallant. This film produces death with no trepidation.

The cinematography (Christopher Doyle) and color are exceptionally beautiful; indeed, they are the only reason to see this grandiose film. There’s one segment of one of the ludicrous fights that’s covered with beautiful flying yellow leaves. I don’t want to downplay the artistic excellence of what Doyle has presented, because his work alone could easily satisfy many moviegoers.

But, make no mistake about it, despite the reviews of the elite critics who loved this thing, people all around me were snickering. I didn’t see it at a media screening. I saw it in a theater with ordinary folk. But the word of mouth from the critics had spread because there was a line when I exited the theater and I asked people what they were standing in line for. “Hero,” they replied. “Good luck,” I said.

The story is told in a manner that might cause one to assume everything is allegorical. Even so, the story is absurd. I was squirming with more than an hour left. This is apparently the logical successor to Director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Lion (2000), which lionized Hong Kong martial arts with people flying all over the place. But even if people didn’t fly, Hero, directed (and co-written) by Zhang Yimou, just doesn’t have enough to justify a feature length film. The story is that there’s an alleged plot to assassinate the King. Nameless presents himself to King as someone who has vanquished three assassins, so he’s allowed to approach to within ten feet of King. Since that’s not enough to take up an hour and a half, Yimou filled up about half of the time with his stylistic martial arts fights where people swing swords at each other while flying through the air like Superman and hovering like helicopters. Compounding the deficiencies of the story are the subtitles that flash on and off the screen so fast sometimes they’re almost subliminal.

Even worse than the lack of a compelling storyline and the abundance of stylistic special effects, there is not one character you care a fig about. Even though two of the assassins, Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man Yuk), are apparently supposed to be in love with each other, there is zero emotional involvement with any of the characters.

I would estimate that at least 45 minutes of the film’s 96 minute running time is consumed by fighting and battle scenes, none of which have any relation to reality. Of the remaining time, head and shoulder shots of people thinking consume a substantial amount. How artistic! How boring!

The story of the Qin and their king, Shi huangdi, is fascinating and could have been the basis for a spellbinding tale. It’s sad that Hero is so highly fictional and incredible, because it would have been a wonderful opportunity to educate people about China’s history as well as entertain. As far as I’m concerned this film is a monumental waste of time, unless you just want to sit back and watch the color, cinematography, and flying people (and there’s nothing wrong with that). In Chinese with subtitles.

By way of postscript, The Qin ruled for little more than one generation. After Shi huangdi's death, they were overthrown and replaced by the Han Dynasty in 206 B.C. The Han Dynasty lasted for 400 years in two separate iterations.

August 27, 2004

The End