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Friday, August 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
China's spectacular "Hero" finally makes it to America

By John Hartl
Special to The Seattle Times

Jet Li stars in Zhang Yimou's "Hero."
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It's been more than two years since Zhang Yimou's "Hero" was completed, and a year and a half since it was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film (it lost to Germany's "Nowhere in Africa"). Yet only now is the movie, which is one of the most spectacular epics of modern times (it is China's most expensive film to date), getting an American release.

This says more about the erratic and irrational nature of American film distribution than it does about the quality of the movie, which has quite a bit in common with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," one of the most popular foreign-language films ever shown in the United States. Among the key elements in both movies: gravity-defying martial-arts battles, the luminous presence of Zhang Ziyi and the cool melodies of composer Tan Dun.

The story takes place more than 2,000 years ago, before the First Emperor built the Great Wall and transformed seven countries into one China. Portrayed here as strong but extremely vulnerable, subject to many attempts on his life, the king finds himself entertaining a warrior called Nameless (Jet Li) who claims to have defeated his enemies. As Nameless tells about his battles with Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Sky (Donnie Yen), the truth of his stories is questioned.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Hero," with Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Directed by Zhang Yimou, from a script by Li Feng, Zhang Yimou and Wang Bin. 109 minutes. Rated PG-13 for stylized martial-arts violence and a scene of sensuality. In Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles. Several theaters.
control room
The veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle ("The Quiet American," "In the Mood for Love") is in some ways the picture's true star. The intensely visual script emphasizes a connection between calligraphy and the similarly intuitive art of swordplay, and so does Doyle.

Doyle and his director create one dazzling widescreen image after another: hundreds of locustlike arrows rise to the sky; droplets of water are singled out with immaculate precision; a tiny bowl of water suddenly comes to rest on the edge of a sword; a billowing red dress stands out from a forest of yellow trees that turn orange and then red.

Zhang Ziyi is Moon in Zhang Yimou's "Hero," which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film in 2003. The actress also appeared in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

This kind of headlong infatuation with saturated color hasn't really been seen since Zhang Yimou's gorgeous breakthrough movie "Raise the Red Lantern," and it keeps you watching even when the characters are less than engaging. The writers seem more interested in their "Rashomon"-style tale than they are in the people telling it. Still, eye candy this ravishing shouldn't be sniffed at.

John Hartl:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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