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Directed by Zhang Yimon with Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Chen Dao Ming and Zhang Ziyi, color, 99 minutes, 2003

Cover of DVD

Cover of Blue-ray edition

By Carter B. Horsley

"Hero" is an astoundingly and stunningly beautiful epic story of an attempt to assassinate a Chinese ruler during the Warring States period.

Although in essence a "martial arts" film, its awesome cinematography, fine acting and challenging plot raise it far above the genre's ever-rising standards.

A warrior called "Nameless," played with great intensity by Jet Li, who appeared in "Romeo Must Die," brings the emperor the weapons of three other warriors who had sworn to kill the emperor and in flashbacks tells the emperor of how he obtained them. After hearing his stories and rewarding him by letting him approach closely, the emperor offers a different version, one that suggests that the warrior's tales were part of a plot to permit the warrior to assassinate him.

This "Rashomon" treatment unfolds a bit confusingly, but, like "Rashomon" (see The City Review article), it has a very fitting ending. Each of the "versions" employs a different dominant color scheme.

The film is the first "martial arts" movie directed by Zhang Yimou, whose previous works include "Raise The Red Lantern" and "Ju Dou."

The movie is ambitious and has many extremely memorable fight scenes that employ every trick in the genre's arsenal to stunning effect.

The most spectacular scene is a battle on a lake in which the "Nameless" warrior fights Broken Sword, played admirably by Tony Leung, who appeared in "In the Mood for Love," and "Hard Boiled," and they walk, spin and fly over the still water in a balletic duel that is mesmerizing.

Earlier in the film, the "Nameless" warrior battles with Sky, played by Donnie Yen, in a fantastic fight in the rain in which the rain drops are ferociously shattered.

Another very lyrical duel is fought between Flying Snow, played by Maggie Cheung, who appeared in "Irma Vep, Comrades, and "Almost a Love Story," and Moon, Broken Sword's servant, played by Zhang Ziyu, who appeared in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," in an autumnal explosion of leaves.

The final confrontation between the "Nameless" warrior and the King of Qin, played by Chen Dao Ming, takes place beneath billowing and cascading drapes.

Each of these scenes alone is worth the price of admission, or the DVD, which includes two lengthy and fine special features about the movie.

Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, Jet Li, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi

Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, Jet Li, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi

The beginning and end of the film, however, are even more formidable. They are monumental scenes involving thousands of troops and the cinematography by Christopher Doyle is exquisite and truly awe-inspiring.

The acting is consistently gripping and Maggie Cheung is a quite remarkable dragonlady of great beauty.

The film is sumptuous and spell-binding and even Bruce Lee would have been very impressed. The special effects are amazing but do not detract from the poetic artistry of the film.

Move over Gone with the Wind!  Step aside John Wayne!

This sensational film is rated 3rd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.

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