Power struggles are said to have been widespread in the China of 2,000 years ago - in fact, that era came to be known as the "Warring States Period." Who was fighting whom took a lot of history to untangle, so it's not surprising that confusion is rampant in Hero, a recounting of ancient China.
Finally getting its U.S. release two years after breaking box office records in China, the film first presents some history about the seven kingdoms that once made up China, suggesting that the king of Qin was determined to unite the country and become its first emperor. But, we're told, this was also a time of equally determined assassins, many of whom were out to get the king of Qin before he could achieve the power he sought. Depending on which student of Asian history you ask, this backbone of the film is either somewhat accurate or a bunch of hooey.
As action films go, however, it doesn't matter, because when the fictional story of a nameless protagonist enters the fray, all that business about history is quickly forgotten. Which is just as well: There's soon so much going on in Hero that it's well-nigh impossible to keep track of who's who, never mind what was when.
By the time the mysterious man without a name (Jet Li) enters the palace at Qin to tell the nervous king (Daoming Chen) that he has gotten rid of three would-be assassins and then presents the king with their swords as proof, director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) has made it clear that this is going to be an action epic: Li has already made his entrance across vast desert landscapes with a flourish of grand cinematography and period music.
The ensuing tale might have been presented simply: A stranger comes to town, tells the leader that he's vanquished his enemies, and then receives his reward. As it is, his stories are presented onscreen, coming back to the man and the king every once in a while for some reaction shots. And in fact, in line with the currently popular genre of wuxia, a sort of Chinese swords and sorcery, the effects, choreography and fights are all state-of-the-art material. The film is amazing to watch.
The problems lie in how the story is presented. As soon as Li is seated in the palace, the film gets twisted in its convoluted script. For dramatic impact, or perhaps for what someone mistakenly took to be originality, it's told in the style of Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon, in which the same story is described from multiple viewpoints, suggesting that no one sees one story the same way. In Hero, the stories of the dispatching of the king's enemies are also told from different viewpoints. In one version, everyone is dressed in red; in another, blue; in yet another, white. This kind of color-coding actually might have helped keep things in some semblance of order, but there are also less-than-subtle changes in the production design of each scene, which makes the colors less helpful as identifying devices.
If only keeping track of things and trying to figure out what is real and what is a lie wasn't so important to the story, maybe it would be easier to enjoy. Come to think of it, why not? Those of you who like spectacles of cinematography, along with action scenes that can't be beat -- and even a little bit of romance -- might want to approach this film without the hindrance of thinking about it too much.
You'll be treated to a film that has physical shadings of the epic work of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, as well as the lyrical beauty of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the martial arts action that star Jet Li and co-star Donnie Yen have become known for.
Among the many stunning visual sequences are two flowing, graceful sword fights, one of them taking place both in the treetops and amid swirling yellow leaves on the ground. Another has two fighters literally skipping across a mirror-smooth lake. A brilliant set piece involves a huge army on a battlefield, their bows drawn, finally getting the signal to fire -- when suddenly the cameras pan to follow the flight of the arrows. And a brief sequence of the man with no name fighting off seemingly hundreds of arrows with his sword is a stunning addition to the many great cinematic moments.
Despite a confusing structure and, alas, an unclear ending, Hero has enough going for it to make it worth seeing on the big screen rather than at home. And it's only Zhang's first action film. His next, House of Flying Daggers, should be a big improvement.