While consistently watchable, Yimou’s movie is infused with a dirge-like tone all through its 95 minutes, making it a somewhat wearisome and sluggish experience. Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography and Zhang’s wondrous action scenes–the sequence in which Jet Li’s nameless assassin-hero and Flying Snow (played by the peerlessly beautiful Maggie Cheung) must deflect a hailstorm of arrow with martial dexterity showcases the best Hero has to offer.
The film has the strong odor of a nationalist epic and it therefore eschews any intimacy in its drama. It feels vaguely character-driven but its characters are more archetypes than flesh-and-blood embodiments. The plot revolves around whether an assassin will spare the life of a brutal emperor who also happens to be the only hope for China’s reunification. Zhang also uses a Rashomon-like refraction of events in which both the assassin and the emperor give their separate takes on how the former defied deadly obstacles to get his audience with the emperor. Good, not great filmmaking and nowhere as stirring or sweeping as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I acknowledge that the latter is a Hollywood-ized treatment of a martial arts epic and this one feels more authentic in structure, dramaturgy and tone. Yet I felt Zhang’s movie was artful, interesting…but ultimately tedious. Still, it’s worth a look for its effects, gorgeous heroines and vistas and for its cinematic poetry. Proponents of the modern martial arts should be warned, though, that a little wire-aided aeriel gliding and skittering goes a long way. This technique has gotten too obvious of late, and it wasn’t nearly as effective here as in Ang Lee’s more graceful and modest effort.
Directed by: Zhang Ximou
Screenplay by: Feng Li, Bin Wang, Zhang Yimou
Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Daoming Chen