“Hero,” the highest-grossing film in the history of
Chinese cinema now making its much-anticipated release in the
United States, is a simple story of love, vengeance and country.
The film expends little effort creating an elaborate narrative or
complex scenery, relying instead on a timeless fable and natural
settings to awe its audience.

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The kingdoms of ancient China are at war and Nameless (Jet Li,
“Romeo Must Die”) is brought before the king of Qin to
be rewarded handsomely for defeating three fearsome assassins. The
protagonist, a humble prefect, relates the unlikely tales of how he
vanquished these formidable enemies. The film proceeds through a
series of tellings and retellings while remaining firmly rooted in
the cavernous hall where Nameless supplicates himself before the
king.

While takes on the martial arts like “The Matrix”
and “Kill Bill” franchises attempt to overpower the
audience with frenetic beats and explosive special effects,
“Hero” is an exercise in restraint. Director Zhang
Yimou lets simple but stunning images stand in for bombast: a
girl’s tear, the discipline of a squadron of soldiers or a
sword falling into the dust.

The cast gives dignified performances that breathe life into the
script and the entrancing score of Tan Dun and the plaintive violin
of Itzhak Perlman are a fitting complement to the sober images that
fill the screen. Zhang has a penchant for monochromatic scenes and
they create a totemic backdrop to the swordplay and romance at the
film’s core. The most impressive sequences of
“Hero” are the battle scenes where the army of Qin
shows its martial prowess to great effect. They are shot in a
desolate lunar landscape that showcases the gravity of the
soldiers’ task and the solemnity with which they approach it.
There are plenty of traditional martial arts tete a tetes that are
impressive in their own right, but they cannot match the sight of
the Qin army in its imperial splendor.

Toward the beginning of “Hero,” the king of Qin
tells Nameless “I have since had this great hall emptied so
there is nowhere to hide.” This is a fitting tribute to a
film that is at its best when it sheds the trappings of resplendent
ceremony and embraces austerity.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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