Apparently, it took Quentin Tarantino's name above the title to get Hero, in its current form, into theaters. The Chinese import was released at home in 2002 and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 2003. Miramax, after acquiring the rights to U.S. distribution of Hero (a huge hit in China), reportedly wanted to trim from the film some elements considered too Eastern for American audiences. After months of jostling and negotiation, Hero arrived uncut with a "Presented by Quentin Tarantino" (the director took up the film's cause) tag added to its marketing materials.
Hero (rated PG-13 for stylized martial-arts violence and a scene of sensuality) will remind many of Ang Lee's 2002 hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with its acrobatic, gravity-free sword fights. Acclaimed director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) makes his first foray into the Wuxia style-a martial-arts genre involving chivalric heroes with supernatural powers-with this tale of assassins intent on killing the King of Qin, a despotic ruler with plans to conquer and unite neighboring regions.
A warrior called Nameless (Jet Li) is invited before the king to describe how he defeated three infamous assassins long sought for their murderous attempts on the king's life. Most of the film is told in flashbacks to Nameless's encounters with the assassins, both he and the king offering differing interpretations of the events, each one given its own striking, symbolic color scheme.
In many ways, Hero is a stunning achievement. Hero is about as impressive a film to look at as anything ever put on the screen. Any single frame, taken on its own, presents a perfectly composed, visual feast. Mr. Yimou's use of color, particularly in framing the flashbacks, is extraordinary.
But as much as one might hate to admit it, Miramax execs may know a thing or two about their audience. The conflicting flashbacks, which shift the nature of the relationships between the main characters, undercut the emotional resonance of each previous segment. Until the end, when some profound meditations on sacrifice and common good come to the forefront, Hero begins to seem like just a lot of beautifully staged martial-arts exhibitions. And the film's nationalistic story, which focuses more on the early unification of ancient China than anything immediate or personal (and thus of universal appeal), is likely to leave many viewers feeling oddly detached from the otherwise impressive epic.