Our story, a mixture of history and folktale, unfurls about two millennia ago, back when some carpenter from Jerusalem was also having a rough go of things. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the planet, a messiah of sorts has emerged in the form of orphaned, wandering Nameless, whose awesome strength and ultimate humility are bound to transform his land and all its people. A good thing, too, because the extremely loud, power-mad King of Qin (Chen Daoming) plans to overtake all seven kingdoms of what will become China, using force to unite the disparate lands and cultures. In the opening text, we glean a sentiment that rings eerily familiar: "It was an idea soaked in the blood of his enemies."
Obviously, this sort of policy will render a leader unpopular among some, and thus emerge three assassins, the macho Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, In the Mood for Love), the female but equally macho Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, ditto) and the male, almost-as-macho Sky (Donnie Yen, Iron Monkey). They want their lands preserved and the King dead, but this will prove quite a trick, since the King abides in a massive palace with enormous locked gates, surrounded by incalculable sorties of warriors armed to the teeth with endless stacks of pointy things.
The tale is told largely in flashback, as Nameless, who has conquered the three assassins, is granted an audience with the King. Presenting the killers' weapons to prove his mission accomplished, Nameless is duly given recompense for his efforts, in the form of raised status and measures of gold. He sits before the King to tell his story and is allowed to advance several paces with the revelation of each victory. And he, too, has an agenda.
Director Zhang Yimou (The Road Home) embarks upon his own quest here, which is to dazzle our eyes while delivering a deceptively simple morality play. No chop-socky movie this, the choreography and wire work of the duels and stunts amount to sheer visual poetry, which will astound most viewers and perhaps also bore a few. Pardon my clumsy Western sensibilities hanging out, but after the umpteenth standoff between people in flapping robes with drawn swords, whisked along improbably but quite joylessly by invisible cranes, I was really beginning to miss the less epic but much more intimate story surrounding that magical sword called Green Destiny.
Yes, comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are inevitable (and it begs comparison to The Bride With White Hair), but you may as well liken Home Fries to Goodburger. Despite these mythic movies' similar trappings (the gobsmacking stunts, the muted sexual tension, the archaic settings, even the adorable shared star Zhang Ziyi as Broken Sword's feisty assistant), Hero keeps its characters stiffly archetypal, like chess pieces sent whizzing through outrageous maneuvers. Unfortunately, this apparent choice of spectacle over intimacy put me at a slight remove. Itzhak Perlman's ceaseless plaintive fiddling over Tan Dun's score didn't help either; virtuoso or otherwise, Perlman's repetitive work here isn't a patch on Yo-Yo Ma's singing strings from Crouching Tiger, or the timeless brilliance of the East-West sonic collaboration in The Last Emperor.
Taking it as a given, though, that the creators sought to evoke our collective sense of humanity via gorgeous if somewhat cold (and weirdly bloodless) confrontations, they indeed score. Stunning feats of dexterity within lavishly appointed sets are juxtaposed with glorious outdoor tableaux -- a female standoff amid rushing, roaring yellow leaves is particularly beautiful, and strange. The tactile and spiritual parallels between the disciplines of calligraphy and swordplay are vividly illustrated, as deafening storms of invaders' huge black arrows explode into a humble schoolhouse, and the students keep on writing in the face of mortal peril. Yimou also really likes water imagery, staging a fight in the drizzling rain or some sparring atop the surface of a beautiful lake. Rife with time-altering effects, fluttering banners, lovely costumes from Emi Wada (Ran) and even Li's once somewhat sheepish but here quite iconic visage, the film's lavish delivery nearly overtakes its central theme.
But not quite. Just when the pageantry is peaking, when one more clever slash would be one too many, Hero crescendos with moving, almost shocking closure for our principal players, particularly Nameless. He earns the film's title, but first he delivers a very resonant line indeed: "The quarrel between our kingdoms is as nothing, when compared to peace for all." Gotta like that.