So I'm going to cede the floor to playwright David Mamet for the moment. I've been reading the book Writing in Resturants, which is a collection of essays about writing, and American Theatre. I'm pulling from his essay Radio Drama, and I recommend those looking for further insights go track down this useful collection (though its not what I'm reviewing). Anyway, Mr. Mamet:
We, as audience, are much better off with a sign that says A BLASTED HEATH, than with all the brilliant cinematography in the world. To say "Brilliant Cinematography" is to say "he made the trains run on time".
Witness the rather fascistic trend in cinema in the last decade.
Q: How'd you like the movie?
A: Fantastic cinematography.
Yeah, but so what? Hitler had fantastic cinematography. The question we have ceased to ask is "What was the fantastic or brilliant cinematography in aid of"?
And that's what we have in Hero - Fantastic Cinematography. Brilliant cinematography. Its the story that this cinematography is wrapped around that is troubling. (I'm going to give major chunks of the plot away starting the paragraph after next, so if you like surprises, go visit someone else for a while).
Let's start with that cinematography - it is rich and sumptuous, brilliant in its palette. Sequences are shot in a narrow band of colors as stories are told. The nature of the world, from the Imperial palace to the wastes, have their own flavor and texture. The martial arts (including a lot of now-mythological wire-work) are elegant and poetic. It is Ran meets Crouching Tiger.
Here's the short form on the plot (and spoilers start stacking up here, so I'm serious: if you want to go see it, go, then come back here so I can tell you I told you so): Jet Li is the nameless Hero that has slain three assassins who threatened the life of an early warlord king of pre-unified China (Daoming Cheng). The King calls the Hero into his presence, and the Hero tells, through flashbacks, how he defeated the three assassins through ability and guile.
Then the King calls him a liar, and tells him what he really believes happens (more flashbacks, sometimes similar scenes shot in a different spectrum). The King states that the Hero is in cahoots with the assassins, in order to get him close to the King. The Hero then AGREES with the King, confessing to the plot and filling in a few points with more flashbacks. Then the Hero has the chance to slay the King, but spares him, because the Hero realizes over the course of the discussion and flashbacks that the Land needs to be unified, even by a Tyrant. The King then, regretfully, orders the Hero slain to make an example of him.
Its sort of like, in the final Star Wars movie, Darth Vader deciding that, after everything that's happened, the Universe IS better ruled by the Emperor after all, and pitches biological son Luke over the edge of the miles-deep pit (and Lucas is still revising, so that may just happen yet). The End justifies the Means, a truth so obvious that it can turn hardened assassins aside when they see the purity of its belief.
It was like watching Triumph of the Will reshot in technicolor. Pretty, pretty sequences, covering a disturbing central theme (not vacant, which is a sin of a lot of movies, but disturbing and frustrating). Its continual flashbacks and continuity changes is challenging, as characters that died in a previous story come back to life as it is retold, or perish in other fashions. Its ultimate message about the power (and the necessary inevitability) of rulership should sit very well with the current government controlling Hong Kong.
But fantasic cinematography. Effing fantastic cinematography.