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Long-delayed 'Hero' well worth the wait (mostly)

September 2, 2004
By Franklin Harris

Like most of the Asian martial-arts films acquired by Miramax Films, "Hero" endured a stay in purgatory, languishing nearly two years in the studio's vault until, in this case, Quentin Tarantino practically begged studio head Harvey Weinstein to release it. So, is "Hero" worth the wait? In most respects, the answer is an enthusiastic "yes."

Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi in ''Hero.''
Copyright © Miramax
Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi in ''Hero.''
Set during a period when China was still divided into warring kingdoms, "Hero" is a beautifully shot and poetically choreographed film, deserving to be ranked with, if just a little bit below, such films as Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Ronny Yu's "The Bride with White Hair."

The story unfolds almost entirely in flashbacks. Jet Li plays a nameless warrior (appropriately called Nameless) who gains an audience with the king of the Qin empire (Chen Daoming) by killing three assassins who have threatened the king for several years. Understandably, the king is curious as to how Nameless, who is a lowly local official, so easily killed three of the most able fighters in China. So, Nameless tells the tale of his encounters with the three assassins and how he set them against one another.

Among most American moviegoers, only Li's name is familiar. But the actors who portray the three assassins each have distinguished careers in Hong Kong cinema. Nameless first faces off against Long Sky, played by Donnie Yen, the star of "Iron Monkey" and "Iron Monkey 2," who also had a small role as a vampire martial artist in "Blade 2." Next, Nameless tracks down Broken Sword, played by Tony Leung ("Hard Boiled," "Chungking Express") and Flying Snow, played by Maggie Cheung ("Heroic Trio"). Sword and Snow are former lovers who have not spoken to each other for years, although they teach at the same school, which is devoted to calligraphy.

Under the pretense of seeking a special work of calligraphy from Broken Sword, Nameless enters the school and sows further discord between Sword and Snow. He also hopes that seeing Sword's calligraphy will give him insight into Sword's fighting technique, because Sword believes that calligraphy and swordplay proceed from the same principles.

The king, however, doesn't believe Nameless' story. He thinks Nameless is also an assassin and that he killed the others in order to gain entry to the royal palace. The king then tells his own version of Nameless' story, and we see events unfold from a different perspective.

But is either version the truth? To tell more would be to give too much away.

While Li's stoic character links the various tales to one another, it is Broken Sword and Falling Snow who most demand our attention. Leung's and Cheung's emotional performances are among the best you will find in any martial-arts film, and they are among the best I have seen in any film this year.

Zhang Ziyi ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") acquits herself well in the supporting role of Broken Sword's assistant, Moon.

Still, you don't go to a martial-arts film primarily to see virtuoso acting. You go for the fights, and here "Hero" also excels. Director Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern" and the forthcoming "House of Flying Daggers") stages his fights as whirlwind ballets, exemplified by a battle between Flying Snow and Moon, which takes place in a forest carpeted with autumn leaves, which change color from gold to red as the fight reaches its tragic climax.

But there is one respect in which "Hero" is not worth the wait. It is a beautiful and emotionally powerful film, true, but it ends by apologizing for the king's bloody campaign of conquest, rationalizing that once it is complete, China will at last be unified and at peace. I suspect there are people in Tibet and Taiwan who might disagree.

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