Gone With the Wind is the greatest movie ever made, according to quite a few Americans. But we lovers of the art of cinema sometimes look for something more subtle, humble, and deep. Many of us love GWTW, but we often have to fight the tide of popular appeal to keep the hyperbole in check.
Another such movie has inspired the same reaction. As of early June 2004, Hero is number 160 on the IMDB’s all-time highest-rated movies (GWTW is number 140). Like GWTW, Hero is a historical epic of love and war with spectacular color. Somehow, the movie exudes self-confidence, as though it were a foregone conclusion that Hero would be a great film.
But like GWTW, it’s that sense of self-importance, and the popular stampede to hail it as one of the greats, that sets the skeptical nerves twitching.
What Time Is It?
PG-13 for Violence, scene of sensuality
The King of Qin (Daoming Chen) wants to unite the seven nations into one empire, but those from the other six do not want unity imposed on them. Assassins lurk, so the king has become careful about whom he lets near him. He invites a constable (Jet Li), who has killed three notorious assassins, to approach within 100 paces, and later 10 paces, to tell his tale.
The movie spends equal time in about six different timelines. The present, with the king and the constable, flashes back to fights between the constable and the assassins. There are also versions of the constable’s tales, introducing a Rashomon-like sense of uncertainty, if only for part of the movie. There are even mindscreen sequences and flashbacks within flashbacks.
There is no confusion about which timeline is on-screen, because each gets its own color scheme. Director Zhang Yimou embraces color like no other director; he made a splash in 1990 with Ju Dou, which was filmed in Technicolor and was set in a dye factory. In Hero he uses color and texture to delineate time and point of view.
In the constable’s fight with Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), autumn leaves are blown into vortexes that fill the screen with orange. When Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) storms the palace, green, three-story silk draperies provide cover. And when the silk falls, it ripples to the ground so beautifully that editors Angie Lam and Ru Zhai show it to us from five different angles. In two different attacks, clouds of black arrows fill the sky like a plague of locusts.
The flashbacks broaden the scope of the movie and, combined with the historical setting (Li’s character is a folk hero who did help unite the nations into a single “Our Land”), make it epic. But Hero has one other angle: a love story. Broken Sword and Flying Snow grow into three dimensions as the movie spends more and more time uncovering their back story. Their love for each other is based largely on their mutual love for their nation. Their story is a Shakespearean tragedy handled beautifully by Yimou.
So Hero is epic, but the problem is that it’s too aware of its grand ambitions. It’s self-important and authoritative. Instead of being scholarly and disinterested, it panders to popular culture with wire-fu martial arts and exotic visuals. Lawrence of Arabia is a great epic with romanticized heroes, exciting action sequences, and great cinematography, but it never feels like it’s pandering, which is where both GWTW and Hero seem to stumble.
I still strongly recommend Hero, especially if you can see it on a big screen in a real movie theater. It’s gorgeous and stirring and entertaining. And for a lot of people, there’s nothing better.