Movie review by Greg Carlson

A stunning visual feast boasting strong performances from its attractive quartet of leading actors, “Hero” finally makes its American debut this week as a theatrically released feature. Fans of wuxia have been trading imported and bootleg DVD copies of the movie for many months, often speaking with reverent awe about the storytelling skills of Zhang Yimou, the film’s Chinese director. Zhang, previously known in America almost exclusively to arthouse fans as the director of several incomparable collaborations with onetime girlfriend Gong Li (including “Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” and “To Live”), tackles the project with the same commitment he previously brought to his politically edgier films. The result is a sumptuous fairy tale recounting the original third century B.C. unification of China.

Martial arts superstar Jet Li plays Nameless, a cunning strategist and flawless swordsman who enters the royal palace grounds in the kingdom of Qin, reporting that he has vanquished three ruthless assassins previously charged with attempted murder against the king. Bearing physical evidence of his exploits, Nameless is allowed an audience with Qin’s monarch (Chen Dao Ming), where he recounts in detail the circumstances of his victories. Surprisingly, the king refuses to accept Nameless’ initial tale, and the stories of his exploits are then retold, ala “Rashomon.”

Zhang makes the most of this simple flashback structure, staging breathtaking set-pieces with veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle (longtime Wong Kar-Wai D.P.) that vividly shift the color palette according to the thematic and emotional underpinnings of the storyline. Following a mind-boggling courtyard fight between Nameless and Long Sky (Donnie Yen), the film settles on an interesting love triangle involving deadly lovers Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Broken Sword’s gorgeous apprentice Moon (Zhang Ziyi). Each time Nameless’ story is questioned, a new version explodes before the eyes of the audience.

“Hero” bursts with unforgettable images. In one duel, Moon and Flying Snow face each other in a blizzard of dazzlingly yellow autumn leaves; when a fatal blow is delivered, the yellow changes to a burning crimson. Another battle, which equals the grace of Ang Lee’s treetop confrontation in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” pits Broken Sword against Nameless in the middle of a mountain lake. The two warriors fly over the placid surface, skittering and skipping on the water so lightly, they scarcely make a ripple. Another heart-stopping shot, designed in a gauzy blue, allows Nameless to demonstrate his peerless skill with a blade as he catches a delicate bowl on the edge of his sword. A climactic showdown is staged among cascading sheets of lush, alluring green silk that recall the rapturous fabrics of Zhang’s “Ju Dou.”

Several critics have taken Zhang to task for abandoning his earlier humanist treatises in favor of government-mandated nationalism. Certainly, the director is at his best when allowed to display his keen eye for stories that explore the psychological shadings of power struggles great and small. Many fans are holding out for the director’s upcoming “House of Flying Daggers,” which will mark another team-up with Zhang Ziyi (in addition to “Hero” the young actress has also appeared in Zhang’s “The Road Home”). Early reports suggest that the new film is as resplendent as “Hero.”

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/30/04.

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