"Hero": A Procession of Wonders
In "Down and Dirty Pictures," his fascinating book about the rise of American independent movies, author Peter Biskind recounts how Miramax Films laid out more than $20 million in 2002 to acquire the rights to Chinese director Zhang Yimou's martial-arts epic, "Ying Xiong," or "Hero." Miramax, Biskind says, hoped that "Hero" might become the next "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." It didn't, though. The company bungled the picture's release, reportedly demanding that Zhang make substantial cuts and then letting it languish on a shelf. The original movie was nominated for a 2002 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; but unless you're an Asian-film buff with access to the Hong Kong double-DVD version that came out last year, you most likely haven't seen it.
Now, thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the man who turned Miramax into a major indie force with "Pulp Fiction" (and thus a man with much clout at the company), you can. Tarantino, a well-known Asian-film fanboy himself, told Fangoria magazine earlier this year that he thought "Hero" was "an absolute masterpiece," and that he battled with Miramax to release the movie. ("I think they lost faith in it," he said.) Miramax finally agreed — but only if Tarantino would allow them to hype the film as being "presented by" Quentin Tarantino. He was fine with that, and so we all should be: "Hero" is a spectacular film by any international standard.
The story is set in the third century B.C. It is a time, we're told, when China consisted of seven kingdoms, all of them constantly at war with one another. The King of Qin, the most ruthless of the feudal rulers, is determined to conquer all and become emperor. But he lives in constant fear of assassins, especially the three deadliest in the land, Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man Yuk) and Sky (Donnie Yen). The king (Chen Daoming) has offered extravagant rewards to anyone who can eliminate this lethal trio, but for 10 years — during which he has been too fearful even to remove his armor — no one has succeeded.
Then one day a provincial sheriff (Jet Li) arrives at the king's fortress, claiming to have killed the three assassins. He presents the famous weapons he pried from their cold, stiff fingers as proof. The king asks him to tell how he accomplished this. The sheriff settles down 10 paces away from the king (a key point we'll probe no further here) and tells his tale. When he's finished, the king announces, surprisingly, that he has heard another version of the story. Following that, yet another is told. Only one version is true. And, as it turns out, there's only one conclusion.
The movie is a procession of wonders. The sheriff's first battle, with Sky, takes place in an ancient chess house, dripping with water, in which chess is played with smooth black and white stones while a blind old man in a corner plucks a gugin (a seven-string lute with a deep, hypnotic twang; it blends on the soundtrack with a doleful melody played by the violinist Itzhak Perlman). The fight itself has all the fantastical, balletic precision you'd expect from any Jet Li encounter. (The man has been a major martial-arts star since the 1979 "Shaolin Temple.") It's a wet, splattery series of vaulting leaps and airborne assaults, and while it's all obviously facilitated by unseen wires, it's shot and edited with fresh invention and a keen eye for visual cliché, which it largely avoids.
"Hero" abounds with magical effects: the simple glimmer of massed candles on polished black floors; an overhead shot of a couple making love under a huge sheet of rustling crimson silk; a sky-darkening barrage of arrows that pours down like a sudden plague of locusts onto a rural calligraphy school, inside which the students sit untouched and unflinching, demonstrating their master's stoic dictum that this is "the true meaning of our art." And when Broken Sword and Flying Snow — who are lovers as well as warriors — take on a fortress full of soldiers, you know there's no way they could triumph, but you can't wait to see how they do.
Color has almost the presence of a character in this movie. Each of the stories told by the sheriff and the king is keyed to a different color motif, with billowing robes and elaborate furnishings rendered in minute gradations of red, blue or white. (Costumes were hand-dyed in 54 shades of red alone.) And Zhang Yimou's meticulous attention to detail is especially amazing in an unforgettable fight scene between Flying Snow and a servant girl named Moon (Zhang Ziyi, of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). According to the production notes, the director had decided to stage this high-flying clash in an oak grove in rather-faraway Mongolia, and he stationed a cameraman there to videotape the changing colors of the leaves as fall deepened toward winter. When the leaves turned a certain precise shade of yellow, he raced north with his crew and they started sorting through the leaves that had already fallen to the ground: Perfect leaves were to be blown past the cameras in front of the actors; slightly less perfect ones were blown behind them; the rest were scattered artfully on the ground. After each take, the leaves would all be gathered up, re-sorted, and individually cleaned for the next pass. The completed scene is a symphony of color and texture and movement, a unique and exhilarating achievement.
"Hero" isn't a "kung-fu movie" in any standard chop-socky sense. There are no severed limbs or spurting gouts of blood, and the characters lack the feral satisfaction that often accompanies the dispatching of enemies. Instead, they endlessly contemplate the meaning of heroism — what it means to be a "hero." Broken Sword and Flying Snow would die for their land and their people, and they would die for each other; but they can't do both. Or can they? One thing would seem to compromise the other. Or would it? They never stop thinking about these things.
The movie is a romance and a dream and a very clever puzzle. The design of the film — its magnificent use of color and music, and its emotionally charged action sequences — is breathtaking. Virtually every moment is striking in some extraordinary way. It is, as Tarantino said, a masterpiece, absolutely. ("Hero" opens next Friday, August 27.)
"Nicotina": Tarantino Lite
A man of many influences, Tarantino continues to influence many other filmmakers in turn. One of them, without question, and in fact by admission, is Hugo Rodriguez, an Argentinean director based in Mexico City. His 2003 movie, "Nicotina," now released here, is clever and zesty in a very Tarantinian way. Tarantino himself, of course, is clever and zesty in his own way, which is a different thing.
"Nicotina" is a caper movie in which we watch the dramatic tremors of the central event rumble out in unpredictable ways among a disparate collection of characters. The amiable Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mamá También") plays a young computer hacker named Lolo who gets a call from a friend, an aspiring felon, informing him that a Russian gangster is trying to buy access to Swiss bank accounts with no-doubt-stolen diamonds — "lots of diamonds." Since Lolo appears to have little else to do beyond high-tech eavesdropping and spying on his flagrantly desirable apartment-house neighbor, Andrea (Marta Belaustegui), he counts himself in.
When Andrea discovers that Lolo is tapping her phone and has somehow installed a minicam in her ceiling, she is understandably irked. She pushes her way into his apartment, gathers up all the computer discs on which he's been recording her life, and sets fire to them. Unfortunately, she also consigns to the flames the disc on which he's stored the Swiss-bank access codes for the diamond-flush Russian. This can't be good, and in fact isn't.
As the deal with the diamonds goes ever more wrong, other characters are drawn in: a prickly pharmacist and his weary young wife; a hapless barber and his own nagging mate; and of course the two small-time criminals who got Lolo involved in this mess in the first place. The only thing these characters have in common is that they all smoke a lot. The pharmacist's wife says cigarettes are "the only thing worth living for." (They help her deal with her husband's irritability — his nerves are fried from trying to kick the habit.) And the two amateur criminals argue about little else, one of them pointing out the fatuous factoid that lots of people who die of lung cancer have never smoked a day in their lives. (Their incessant nattering about the trivia of addiction seems to be — no, blatantly is — modeled on the cheeseburger rhapsodies of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction.")
"Nicotina" has some amusing moments: There's an inventive scene in which a cop walks into the barber shop and the barber's wife wonders what to do with a dead body in her chair. (She decides to just give it a haircut.) And the cheesy music (including what I hope is the world's worst Spanish-language version of "Fever") is actually endearing, in a way. But the whoosh-bang segues between scenes recall Guy Ritchie at his most annoying, and the rest of the movie, as I say, is very Tarantino-like. Not as Tarantino-like as Tarantino, though.