Hero: slashing with spirit

Hero is better than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That one sentence sums up the film pretty well, actually; If you liked Crouching Tiger you?ll love Hero.

Hero, directed by Yimou Zhang, was originally released in China in 2002. The film, which follows the story of a nameless assassin (martial arts legend Jet Li) on his trek to dethrone ancient China?s king of Qin (Daoming Chen), spent two years in production limbo while Miramax Entertainment fought to gain the rights to distribute it in North America. Finally, famed producer/director Quentin Tarantino put up money to get the film distributed.

The struggle to release the movie was only a shadow of the epic scope of the film itself. Hero is shot with an extraordinary attention to a sort of bleak detail that really sets the film visually apart from almost every other movie out there. The film is divided into four segments, each denoted by an overarching color theme (there is a red portion, a blue portion, a white portion, and a green portion), and each segment tells a different part of the story.

The movie opens with Nameless (Li) approaching the king?s chamber, with the news that he has defeated the three most powerful assassins in the kingdom. The movie tells his story to the audience as Nameless recounts his trials to the king through the use of flashback sequences ? the entire movie is told in this manner, with short interludes of Nameless speaking to the King.

One quirk of this film is that parts of the story are retold several times by Nameless and the King, so some scenes happen several times with subtle (and not so subtle) differences in each telling. Luckily each version of the story is told in a different color palette, as mentioned earlier, so as long as the audience pays attention it?s not too difficult to keep up to speed.

Visually, the film is absolutely stunning. The fight scenes are more fluid and fast-paced than those found in Crouching Tiger, and the environments are very rich ? ancient libraries, schools of calligraphy, desert plateaus, dense forests, and palatial foyers all share screen time as backdrops for the story. Color, of course, plays a huge role in the film, and the director?s use of consistently strong light lets that color shine through. There are no dark, murky scenes in Hero ? everything is brightly lit and vibrant, like a real folklore-style story should be.

The acting and dialogue, of course, take second chair to the setting and visual content of the film. That?s not to say, however, that there is anything wrong with the acting. Appropriately enough, the four assassins are all very subdued characters, while the king is grandiose and confident every time he speaks. The backgrounds of friendship, romance and betrayal between the three assassins (Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow) feel absolutely convincing. The dialogue is sparse: Hardly a useless word is uttered. Each line from every character has a clear purpose and direction, creating a very dignified atmosphere for the film.

Hero is an action movie above all, with some of the best-choreographed fight scenes ever put on screen. Each battle has an almost ethereal quality, with the combatants moving with the impossible grace common in films like this. Hero could be considered a quintessential genre film, overcoming its predecessors with an epic sense of scale and stellar production values ? and it would deserve the distinction. The movie will be a treat for anyone who enjoys martial-arts films or period pieces, and American audiences should feel lucky they are getting the opportunity to see it in its full glory.