The average American moviegoer has probably seen a handful of foreign films. Thanks to stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, a good deal of these happen to be Asian. But despite Asian cinema’s recent movement away from classic violence, America has remained infatuated with cheesy kung fu fight scenes and over-the-top ninja stories.
A few years ago, the huge success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon changed the face of Asian film in America forever. Crouching Tiger is the best example of a new trend in Asian filmmaking, one that combines the fast-paced fight scenes of old with heartfelt depth and symbolism absent from the 70s martial arts craze.
Now, in the same year Kill Bill paid ultimate homage to the campy, blood-soaked Asian action films of old, America will finally see a brilliant, beautiful Chinese film called Hero. Although already a couple of years old, it contains imagery and filmmaking techniques never before seen in a film from any country.
It will certainly be compared to Crouching Tiger, especially with a pretty wide release planned. But despite some apparent similarities, Hero is as inventive and original as a film can be. Legendary director Yimou Zhang (Raise the Red Lantern) proves his visionary status with stunning visuals and a deep, complex plot.
The story follows a mysterious character known only as Nameless (Jet Li) as he approaches a king whose enemies he has supposedly defeated. Treated appreciatively at first by the reclusive king, Nameless tells the story of how he was able to defeat three of the greatest warriors ancient China had ever known. The king starts to doubt some of the stories and describes what he thinks happened, leading to a series of flashbacks that may or may not be true-a direct reference to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Rashomon that include some of the best high-flying wirework ever put on film.
But a director like Zhang isn’t satisfied with merely composing an excellent fight scene. He focuses as much on the setting as the action, which gives the film a complete feeling that many action movies lack. The best fight scene takes place in a forest full of bright yellow leaves, as the characters’ swift movements blow the leaves into mini tornados and swirling cylinders. Another takes place on top of a lake hidden between two mountains. The characters actually fight most of the scene while walking and jumping on the top of the water.
Miramax, owner of the American rights to Hero, is marketing it as a typical bloodfest, making sure everyone knows that it stars Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi (Rush Hour 2) and dropping violent cultural icon Quentin Tarantino’s name in the trailers for no legitimate reason (he had nothing to do with the film). But despite containing a good amount of fighting, Hero comes off as less violent than most filmgoers will probably expect. It’s almost as if it achieves peacefulness through the beauty of its fight scenes, which is good news for film lovers, but bad news for 70s kung fu fans and Miramax’s marketing department.
Shawn Wines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.