Dir: Zhang Yimou
'Hero' was the most expensive film ever made in China. From Yimou's intimate portrayals of human struggles, he takes on a historical story on a truly epic scale. Not only that, it is his first film in the 'wuxia' genre - the martial arts genre that is perhaps best described as the Chinese equivalent of the American western.
And yet in spite of this radical change in genre, Yimou manages to impose his unique style.
The action, whilst often stunning, is seen through the eye of someone obsessed with beauty, images, composition, and the emotional involvement of the participants. There are undoubtedly certain similarities in the stylistic treatment of action with 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', and of course the comparison has been frequently made.
These comparisons are somewhat irritating, since the similarities are purely superficial. It would be somewhat like someone from China saying that 'The Wild Bunch' and 'Destry Rides Again' are similar because they are both westerns.
This is an incredibly visual film - cinematographer Christopher Doyle is given total scope by Yimou to display his talent. Each sequence of the film uses a different colour palette, and although Chinese culture uses colours symbolically, Doyle has since stated that the choice was made for aesthetic and not symbolic reasons.
It is the message of the film that baffles, frustrates, and sometimes outrages audiences.
Emperor Qin ruthlessly sets about uniting China as one mighty nation. However, one of the ways that he achieves this is to silence and eradicate any dissenting minorities.
And the film appears to show this as a successful policy, and implies that it might even be the correct policy.
This flies in the face of everything we believe in the West. We believe that democracy, freedom, dissent, debate and diversity make our countries stronger. However according to 'Hero', China grew greater and more powerful by trampling on these ideas.
Is Yimou supporting this message - that respecting individual rights is not as important as achieving a common goal?
This would seem unlikely, given that his previous films were often about an individual struggling against an oppressive society.
Why does Yimou seem to suddenly preach the opposite message to the one that he has worked on for his entire career?
Did he somehow cave in to the government's 'message' in order to get financing and support for his grand epic?
Or is he somehow playing devil's advocate and inviting debate?
Or were we wrong about him all along? Perhaps he was a supporter of the Chinese ideals all along, and we just wanted to believe that he was a revolutionary anti-government filmmaker.
It certainly is interesting to see how this central conundrum affects western attitudes and opinions about the film.
While all agree that it is a visual feast, a directorial tour-de-force, viewers find themselves uneasy as to what to make of the messsage.
The film was bought by Miramax for US distribution, but was then kept on the shelf for two years, before being released as 'Presented by Quentin Tarantino'. I must say that I find this ludicrous publicity stunt, in some way trying to hook into Tarantino's fan base for a film that has absolutely nothing in common with anything that Tarantino has ever made, to be way more offensive than any of the messages in the film itself..