They make a lot of great stuff in China, and after watching Zhang Yimou's Hero you can add movies to the list. Released in China in 2002, the film was released in the United States just last year, with some assistance, apparently, from Quentin Tarantino, since the film is "presented by" him.
Tarantino is known for his taste in great movies, and he's right on with this one. (He gushes geekily about it in one of the DVD's special features.) It's really an all-star project from the world of Chinese cinema. Director Zhang Yimou is one of the world's greatest filmmakers, known for such understated masterpieces as Raise the Red Lantern. Surprisingly enough, this is his first action film. While it took director Ang Lee to prove that martial arts films don't have to be lowbrow with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yimou has expanded on that premise. Yes, this is a martial arts movie, but it's also an epic of romance and history. Joining Yimou behind the camera is Academy Award-winning composer Dun Tan and Aussie cinematographer Christopher Doyle (The Quiet American).
The cast is also spectacular, led by Jet Li (as Nameless), China's biggest star and a former martial arts champion. Donnie Yen, another legend in the martial arts genre, plays Sky, one of Nameless's enemies.
The original story has strong nationalistic overtones, as it documents China's era of warring states from 2,000 years ago. The emperor of Qin is waging a bloody campaign to unite the seven tribes, and three deadly assassins had been plotting to end his terrible reign. Jet Li's Nameless man is welcomed to the emperor's throne for killing all three. As the two men talk, history is revealed and nothing is as it appears.
These flashback scenes are unforgettable. There's a siege by a Qin army, in which you fly along with hundreds of thousands of arrows. Then there's a balletic fight on a pristine lake; another, in a forest of golden leaves. Yimou's use of color is bold, and his visual flourishes add a dimension to this film you won't find in your everyday martial arts flick.
It looks like Yimou likes mixing Chinese history with martial arts, because his next film -- House of Flying Daggers, which should open in Spokane sometime soon -- also features both. It was a hit at Cannes, and some critics are saying it's better than Hero. Wow.