reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, September 27, 2004


Through the end of the summer blockbuster season, only one film all year had possessed the artistic heft to stand out from the lackluster pack. Leaving aside all the baggage that everyone brought to it, and evaluating it just as a work of filmmaking, by far the outstanding achievement of the first seven months of 2004 was "The Passion of the Christ." As Quentin Tarantino told the LA Weekly: "I think ["The Passion"] actually is one of the most brilliant visual storytelling movies I've seen since the talkies."

Yet, now, at the stub-end of the summer when studios normally shoot their wounded, comes a film that can stand aesthetically alongside "The Passion:" the Chinese epic "Hero."

When Taiwanese prestige drama director Ang Lee hit the box office jackpot with his classy kung-fu flick "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," it opened the door for mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou, maker of the 1991 cinephile favorite "Raise the Red Lantern," to finance a jaw-dropping chop-socky / art film / pro-Communist Party epic featuring some of the most extraordinary art direction in the history of movies.

Stanley Kubrick used to lament that he couldn't afford to spend as much per minute turbocharging the visual impact of his films as TV commercial directors do, but every single shot in "Hero" looks like the most expensive tableau in a Christmas-season perfume ad. "Hero" combines the overpowering colors of Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" with the eye for exquisite detail of Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion" into a stately yet delirious surfeit of beauty. If "Hero" only cost the claimed $31 million to make, the Chinese Yuan definitely is undervalued.

Zhang, whose earlier movies were often censored, now has the full support of the Party, as his scenario shows.

"Hero" is vaguely based on a celebrated assassination attempt on the ruthless King of Qin. He ruled the most aggressive of the seven Warring States in the Third Century B.C. Subsequent Imperial historians have tended to demonize this pre-unification era as anarchic, thus justifying the Emperor's monopoly on power. In truth, competition between the Warring States made this the most innovative era in Chinese history, just as European culture flourished during the centuries of state competition following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, while it now is losing momentum under the orderly but uninspiring European Union. How many years has it been, for instance, since a European movie could compare to "Hero" in artistic ambition?

In "Hero," the normally wary King of Qin suffers an unknown swordsman (played by martial arts whiz Jet Li) to approach within an unheard of ten paces of his throne to tell of how he killed the three famous assassins sent by the enemy state of Zhao. The visitor explains in a red-saturated flashback that he exploited the assassins' moral flaws, but the king is suddenly dubious, saying his enemies were warriors of the highest character. More untrustworthy Rashomon-style color-coded flashbacks follow until we learn that the guest is a fourth assassin. Will the hitman get his revenge on the aggressor, or will he sheath his sword to spare the life of the only man brutal enough to unify "Our Land" (or as, other translations more ominously put it, "All Under Heaven")?

The suspense might be tauter if you don't already know that the King of Qin survived to become one of the most important figures in world history. In 221 B.C., he completed his conquest of the other Warring States and declared himself Qin Shi Huangdi, the "First Emperor of China." Somewhere between Napoleon and Stalin on the Evil Tyrant-Meter, he imposed the relatively efficient but ultimately stultifying template of centralism that has held China back ever since.

Fortunately, the disunity of the Chinese during the 1970s allowed Deng glimpses from Mao's mainland of madness of what Chinese people were accomplishing in Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong under sane government.

"Hero's" Chinese-unity-uber-alles philosophy should seem ominous to the Taiwanese. Still, there's little question that Zhang, the one time bad boy, has tapped into an authentic current of mounting Chinese national pride that has re-energized his art. In his drive to reimagine the founding myth of this emerging industrial and potential military superpower, Zhang's movie might even bear comparison to the great nationalist operas of the 19th Century: "Hero" as visual Wagner.

Rated PG-13 (stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality).


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