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Hero (2004)

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 06/08/05 20:10:46

"Dramatically feeble, almost saved by the choreography and cinematography."
3 stars (Just Average)

For a hotly anticipated film, once hailed (or hyped) as the successor of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," at least here in the United States, Zhang Yimou's "Hero" fails to meet admittedly exaggerated expectations. Simply put, "Hero" fails to succeed on anything beyond an aesthetic level. "Hero" is, alas, mired in an incoherent, clichéd narrative (combined with an unpalatable political stance) that results in a hollow viewing experience.

Zhang Yimou, best known in North America for Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou and former cinematographer for Chen Kaige, director of Farewell, My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin, is a visual stylist without peer. His obsessive approach to visual composition and kinetic action is obvious in every frame. From mise-en-scene (the grouping or placement of objects within the frame), to color design (sequences are individually color coded red, blue, and white, with the emperor’s palace bathed in muted grays and blacks), to the elaborately choreographed fight scenes (on par with or occasionally surpassing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Here, Yimou is working with a first-class cinematographer, Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar Wai's frequent collaborator). One scene, featuring an archer attack on a small village (enhanced by CGI) is nothing short of breathtaking, even as it distances the audience from the effects of violence. In another choreographed scene, two women, allies turned enemies, dressed in flowing red robes and surrounded by trees shedding multi-colored leaves as fight to the death.

Let's discuss the narrative and dramatic structure. Apparently minimal time was spent developing the narrative, character relationships or backstories, often leaving. character action undermotivated. Structurally, the narrative works through a framing device, an extended audience between the central character, Nameless (Jet Li), a highly trained assassin, and the first emperor of China (Daoming Chen). The framing device helps to anchor the narrative as the protagonist and the emperor engage in storytelling via flashbacks. Yimou and his screenwriters attempt, but fail, to create a Rashomon-like effect (i.e., an exploration of the nature of "truth" and the epistemological problem inherent in unreliable narrators), with Nameless and the emperor recounting different, mutually exclusive, versions of the same story, a story centered on Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), sworn enemies of the emperor (and estranged lovers).

Unfortunately, dramatic tension is practically nonexistent for the first two acts (primarily due to the framing device and the flashback structure which tells us more than we'd like to know). The emperor, in turn, is presented as almost semi-divine in his ability to “read” the protagonist's hidden motivation and create a version of the story that mirrors reality. In earlier narration, Nameless describes events he obviously didn't witness firsthand. In addition, Nameless disappears from long sections of the film or simply witnesses unfolding events. He's either an absent protagonist or simply a passive one. In either case, audience identification will be at one step removed.

Worse still, after the emperor "corrects" Nameless, the protagonist recounts the same events a second time, apparently more "truthfully," but this new flashback contains an embedded flashback from another character's point-of-view. The embedded flashback is structural/dramatic impossibility, given the protagonist’s limited or nonexistent knowledge of (some of) the events narrated in the embedded flashback. For flashbacks to work on a narrative level, they're generally confined to what a character sees, hears, or otherwise experiences directly. Viewers are then likely to find themselves lost, rudderless, without direction or guidance in determining "ownership" of the embedded flashback. Instead of centering the narrative on the taciturn, thinly characterized Nameless, however, Yimou could have focused on the estranged lovers as primary characters.

Last, the final plot turn depends on a central character's undermotivated reversal. The explanation offered by Yimou and his screenwriters is woefully one-dimensional and unlikely to generate much (if any) sympathy from modern audiences, let alone a Western audience unaware of the complexities of Chinese history. In essence, the plot turns on a character recognizing the need for an autocratic, authoritarian, semi-mystical, semi-divine, paternalistic ruler to unite China, regardless of the cost in human suffering or lives (among other decrees, the first emperor ordered the forcible migration of his subjects to less hospitable areas, and dissension was brutally suppressed).

Centralized rule may have some benefits (the first Chinese emperor standardized weights, measures, and the Chinese language, and ordered the construction of the Great Wall), but the methods invoked, military force and conquest makes it impossible to identify with the emperor or the characters that sympathize with his goals. It should come as no surprise that Chinese Communist Party officials feted Yimou when Hero premiered in mainland China. Apparently, they saw themselves in Yimou's positive portrayal of China's first emperor. Audiences in North America aren’t likely to have a similar reaction (more likely, they'll just simply ignore Hero's political content).

After seeing "Hero," it's understandable why Miramax repeatedly postponed "Hero's" release in the United States. Overall, "Hero's" visual style and fight choreography almost, just almost, outweighs its dramatic shortcomings. "Hero" isn't a film I plan on revisiting anytime soon, except perhaps to study individual sequences for color, composition, or the elaborate fight scenes.

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