DIRECTED BY Zhang Yimou
STARRING Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung Opens September 24, Cert 12A, 99 mins
Hero is dazzling, a great leap forward in movie-making: state-of-the-art CGI and editing techniques used not as a dumb fireworks display but as a starting-point for a visually sublime, thematically simple and universally appealing work of art. The most expensive movie ever made in China (rumoured to be over $30m), it raises the bar clean out of sight.
It's a graceful meditation on honour, heroism and love set in ancient China, with the country divided into seven warring kingdoms. The movie opens in a rain-lashed, slate-grey courtyard where county sheriff Nameless (Jet Li) and Sky (Donnie Yen) are kicking seven shades out of one another in Wire-Fu slo-mo. Finally, Yen goes down. Turns out Yen was the Quin kingdom's Most Wanted, and Li travels to the Quin King's palace to announce that Sky and two other equally notorious assassins, Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), are now dead. Li's story unfolds in flashback—how he infiltrated the assassins and set them against one another. But is Li really who he seems? In flashback after flashback, the same story is told, Rashômon-like, from a number of perspectives until the true version of events finally emerges.
The inevitable comparison is with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—the films share a producer, set designer, composer and two cast members—but in terms of cinematography it's leagues ahead, thanks to the incomparable eye of Christopher Doyle. Where Ang Lee set the action in classical Chinese landscapes, Raise The Red Lantern director Zhang Yimou (making his first foray into the genre) marshals not just the sets but everything— costume, landscape, lighting, choreography, architecture, massed armies, blood, sand, water, wind, rain, close-ups, slow-motion, perspective, music —into incredible, hallucinatory set-pieces. A fight in a grove in autumn, with swirling yellow leaves turning blood-red...a calligraphy school pierced by a million arrows...Nameless and Broken Sword sparring on the surface of a lake...
Of the cast, Li is slightly disappointing—determined, certainly, but lacking the necessary charisma. Leung and Cheung—Chinese cinema's biggest stars, and here reunited for the first time since Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love—are just magnetic, with Cheung incredibly striking in full-on Lady Macbeth mode.
A landmark piece of cinema.
Rating: 5 / 10