Friday, June 6, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 6/6/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.


I enjoy movies for a myriad of different reasons. How else could you explain the presence of both A Beautiful Mind and Pirates of the Caribbean (the first one, not the sequels) on my DVD shelf? Sometimes I want to see something profound and meaningful, sometimes I want to see pretty colors flash across the screen at a high rate of speed. Rare is the film that can satisfy both desires simultaneously. So, when I say that Hero is perhaps the most beautiful movie I have ever seen on both a visual and emotional level, I hope you catch the level of admiration I have for this film. Last year, Heather and I went on a wuxia film binge, catching up on several of the Chinese films that became popular in America following the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Of them all, Hero stood out as a true masterpiece – an exhilarating and moving tribute to the true nature of a hero.

Set against the unification wars which ultimately led to the Chinese dynasties, the film focuses on a man known simply as Nameless (Jet Li), a humble warrior who has just slain three notorious assassins – Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Sky (Donnie Yen) - who were plotting the death of the King of Quin (Chen Daoming). In his quest to unify China, the king has made many enemies, and after barely surviving a previous assassination attempt he lives a reclusive life – removing all decorum from his royal halls to leave nowhere to hide, wearing body armor 24-7, and allowing no one within 100 paces of the throne. After defeating the king’s enemies, Nameless is summoned to appear before the king to receive his reward and recount the tale of his heroic victory. As the tale is told, we watch in flashback the story of Nameless’ journey and the motivation that has defined his heroic acts.

I'm going to have to fight hard to keep from overusing the word "beautiful" in this review, because I truly think that if I had to sum up the experience of Hero in one word that would be it. On a visual level, the film is simply stunning. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle uses color to tell the story in and of itself, with the palette of each scene subtly communicating its mood and emotion. The action choreography resembles dance more than swordplay, and the actors’ expressiveness ensures that the subtitles (the DVD does include English dubbing, but I highly recommend watching it in Chinese) don’t act as a barrier to keep the audience from connecting emotionally with the characters. The script is expertly constructed – nobody’s a cardboard cut-out, but each character has a depth of motivation that is revealed over the course of the film. Tan Dun’s score is gorgeously haunting – this was the rare movie where Heather and I sat quietly on the couch as the credits rolled and the theme played, a great testament to the enchanting impact of not only the score but the film as a whole. The themes of honor and the true measure of a warrior resonate deeply in our troubled times. Director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers) weaves all these elements together with a presence that is noticeable but never overbearing. The film carries you along, taking you on a journey that is often unexpected but never contrived, often emotional but never melodramatic, and arriving at a conclusion far more profound than you expect from the outset. Just talking about the movie has me wanting to experience it again, so I may well watch my own Friday’s Featured Film this evening. If you’ve got an aversion to foreign-language films, martial arts films, or period pieces, throw it out the window and experience a film you will not soon forget. - **** (out of 4)

Hero is rated PG-13 for stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality.

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