A year ago GR was at ComicCon in San Diego. Its dealers room is huge, equal to at least a couple of GenCons. As you’d expect, it’s comics, comics, comics. And as you’d expect from me, I found the booth in the back selling Hong Kong DVDs…

I picked up a couple of titles, including Legend of Zu. On returning to the booth, I told Hal about it and he went and picked up several movies as well, amongst them a film called Hero. Hal watched it, then loaned it to me at GenCon. 11 months later I finally watched it. This almost didn’t happen, as this was in import with no English anywhere on the interface. Took me 15 minutes of trial and error to turn on the English subtitles, but I was finally successful.

Hero is a film by Yimou Zhang, better known for more arty films like Shanghai Triad and Raise the Red Lantern. He assembled an all-star cast of Hong Kong talent, including Jet Li in the title role, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Boston’s own Donnie Yen. Two things immediately impress. First, the cinematography is great. The film is well shot and simply gorgeous. Second, the soundtrack is excellent. This may not seem like a big deal, but so many HK flicks have dreadful soundtracks full of Canto-pop (often sung by the stars of the movies) that a good soundtrack really stands out.

The film is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with the story changing in a series of flashbacks. Interestingly, Yimou makes a visual distinction between each flashback by having the leads wear clothing of a different primary color. A nice touch, I thought. The movie begins with Nameless (Jet Li), a renowned swordsman, going before the King of Qin. He has slain the three legendary assassins (Leung, Cheung, and Yen) who had vowed to kill the king and now he is to receive an audience and his rewards. The flashbacks happen as Nameless and the king spar verbally, as the king tries to reveal the true story and Nameless’ real motives.

I won’t say much beyond that, as much of the film’s effectiveness rests on the way the story is told (quite a rarity in a martial arts film). There are many well-executed fight scenes, using all the classic wuxia elements (flying, bouncing off water, sword power, etc.). Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before it, Hero pays homage to the work of King Hu back in the 60s. And that is not a bad thing.

Hero is one of the best HK flicks I’ve seen in a long time. While it is not exactly easy to find right now, there is an American release planned later this year. I believe that version will hack out 30 minutes of the movie though. Also note that Western liberals probably won’t love the political implications of the film, but those don’t appear until late in the film and are easy to forgive since they lead to a good story. Hero is definitely worth checking out.

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