animefringe july 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Hero: The Next Crouching Tiger?

The latest film from Yimou Zhang, Ying xiong (or Hero) is a mixed bag, which will invariably be compared to two other great Eastern films: Kurosawa's Rashomon and the more recent film, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Unfortunately, despite an epic scope, Hero falls short of both films.

Hero's narrative structure is very similar to Rashomon's. In both films, the bulk of the film's plot is revealed in a series of dialogues. For Hero this involves Jet Li, a nameless warrior, trading stories with the king of Qin province (Daoming Chen). However, Kurosawa's 1950 film was much more daring at the time of its release. While Hero's flashback storytelling does surprise the viewer a few times, it weighs the plot down heavily (in an already deliberately paced film). Also like Rashomon, Hero has a tendency, in light of new facts, to revisit similar scenes throughout the film - where this was daring and tightly done in Rashomon, Hero tends to replay vivid fight scenes, diluting their impact.

As mentioned above, Nameless (as he is referred to throughout the film) presents himself to the King of Qin province. The king is busy attempting to conquer the other six kingdoms that will eventually become the nation of China. His warring has earned him many enemies and Nameless proudly explains to the king that he has defeated the three deadliest assassins sent after the king: Broken Sword (Tony Wai), Flying Snow (Maggie Chueung), and Sky (Donnie Yen). However, as the movie progresses, it is revealed that there is more to Nameless's story than he lets on.

The action and imagery of Hero is very reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Many of the fight scenes directly recall scenes in Lee's film. However, where Crouching Tiger concentrated on its main characters, Hero feels much more epic. In several scenes, Qin province's enormous army seem more like an Eastern Gladiator than Crouching Tiger (indeed, one of the film's major themes seems to be Chinese nationalism). However, only in a couple of short instances does this horde see any action at all. For the most part, the battles in Hero are one on one.

And what of the battles (for many, the film's major draw)? Zhang's film features some incredible special effects. In what seems to be a nod to The Matrix, a couple of fights feature "bullet time" sequences with drops of water, making for spectacular scenes. However, the battles in Hero fall in between the realism of a Kurosawa film (even ones considered rather unrealistic, like Yojimbo) and the highflying gymnastics of Crouching Tiger. While Hero certainly has the flying acrobatics that made Crouching Tiger famous (one scene with Moon and Flying Snow directly mimes Crouching Tiger's jumping from tree to tree), it is used less than in Lee's film. This puts Hero in the uncomfortable position of being too fanciful to those who like realistic battle, but too down-to-earth for those wowed by Crouching Tiger.

Finally, the sheer number of "incredible" fight scenes dilute the entire film's package; in the traditional Hong Kong kung fu flick, the hero works his way up from dozens of flunkies, to bigger, badder, more impressive enemies; this helps to build anticipation. There is no sense of this in Hero; everyone is a master warrior (only late in the film is there even mention of how one warrior compares to another), so there is very little overall excitement. Perhaps this is to solidify the film's major theme of renouncing violence for peace, but in a film that is mostly fight scenes it is, at best, a mixed message. Additionally, when Hero replays moments in battle scenes to incorporate a new plot surprise, it further dilutes the excitement. Outside of the fight scenes, the movie's pacing is much like that of Crouching Tiger; slow, or more accurately, deliberate.

On a technical level, the film is stunning. The visuals are truly breathtaking - the cinematography and scenery throughout the film is amazing. However, Zhang's use of color is bizarre. Most of the film is done in a "cool" scheme of mostly blues and grays. In the opening fight scene, when Nameless fights Sky, Nameless is clad in black, Sky in bright orange/yellow, and everyone else in dark blues and grays. A few key emotional scenes are done in similar reds, yellows, and oranges (most notably a fight between Flying Snow and Moon). But Zhang's use of color in this fashion is overwhelming and somewhat simplistic.

The acting in Hero is a mixed bag. Li's Nameless comes off as stiff, but it is appropriate to the role of an assassin with something to hide. However, in roles requiring great emotional range, Tony Wai and Maggie Chueung were also stiff, with forced emotion. Donnie Yen barely made a dent in the film as Sky, while Crouching Tiger's Ziyi Zhang, here playing Moon, has an incredibly small role, considering her work with Lee. Other than perhaps Li, the film's best performance comes from the misunderstood King of Qin, Daoming Chen.

Hero was supposed to be the follow-up to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in the sense of being the next huge film in a wave of Chinese cinema that made it over to the West. However, the problems plaguing the film will keep it from being the smash hit that Ang Lee's blockbuster was. Hero is not a terrible film -- in fact, I found it fun to watch. However, Zhang's film is not poised to make the incredible splash that Lee's film did in the 90s.