Posted: Monday, August 30, 2004

Dealing with Hollywood week in and week out can be a little depressing. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I mean, who gets to do what I do? Not many people, I'll tell you that. However, it gets a little disheartening when you begin to realize just how predictable the whole business is. I Robot will, of course, be lambasted by the critics while making a mint at the box office. Alien vs. Predator will, of course, be rated PG-13 no matter the content because the great god of Marketing must be satisfied. Very rarely anymore does something truly unexpected turn up. That's what makes this week's number one movie such a treat.

Hero, a Chinese import from 2002, was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in that year's ceremonies, and it's no wonder. It is a film of incredible imagery, both computer generated and traditional, as well as having a fully engaging plot, the likes of which is rarely scene at the theater any more. In fact, the big surprise is that it even came to the Peninsula. Jet Li plays a mysterious warrior known as Nameless, whose meeting with a seemingly tyrannical king takes place over 2,000 years ago in a fractured early China. Nameless, it seems, has dispatched three deadly assassins, each sworn to kill the King of Qin, a man bent on conquering the other five kingdoms and creating a unified country. Nameless, by virtue of his deeds, is allowed to come within ten paces of the king, a feat unmatched by anyone in years. The two engage in the timeless art of...conversation, and this is the heart of the film, a technique that places it far beyond the typical realm of martial arts flicks. As Nameless relates his exploits with the three assassins, Sky, Snow, and Broken Sword, a deeper tapestry of meaning is slowly revealed. As the king relates his version of the events, the king's true intentions are revealed. The beautifully choreographed battles, the intricate discussions, and the intense use of color all give the viewer a great deal to contemplate.

I was a little surprised to see that this movie starred Jet Li, a martial artist best known in our country for throw-away action trash like The One and Cradle 2 the Grave. I suppose I shouldn't have been, though. The man is a huge star in his native land, and is a superior martial artist to boot. His stern, driven character in this film is reminiscent of a zen-Eastwood, a man who gives nothing away, and takes nothing as well. The real star of this film is, however, the art direction. Battles take place on still mountain lakes, in autumnal leaf-covered forests, in scroll-laden libraries, and, most memorably, in a gossamer-green draped great hall. Hero makes a showpiece of flowing fabrics, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the grand contest between the king and Broken Sword in the king's own palace hall. So much of martial art and swordplay are intertwined with elements of dance, and movies like this take full advantage of such. The characters move with grace through a landscape of rippling colors, sun-scorched deserts, and rain-soaked cobblestones, all the while leaping on air, essentially flying, too skilled in their art to allow simple physics to slow them down.

Martial arts movies are always risk takers, but the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a few years back has spurred a fresh interest, making profits much more likely. Hero is a well-made film. However, even the producers had no idea that it's popularity in America would be what it was. It was the top film at the box office this weekend, quite a feat when you consider that it's a foreign film, one that requires, (arrgh!) subtitles! I must say I was proud of my fellow movie goers. I know I can be smug, but my first thought as the movie began was to decide which of my fellow patrons would bail first. However, to their credit, the subtitles didn't scare 'em off. I think everyone stayed all the way 'till the end.

Whether the characters be archtypes or not, and whether you consider the art design to be representative of something more or simply pretty colors, there is no denying that you'll find this movie intriguing. Granted, it loses something in the translation, a necessary evil, but with spare dialogue as it is, Hero transcends the dialogue difficulty felt so keenly by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hero is truly an incredible achievement, combining all the elements of dilaogue, production design, and art design. Surprise, surprise, surprise. Grade: A

Hero is rated PG-13 for violence

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