It's been over two months since I saw Hero, and the question that's been racing through my mind for weeks -- inevitably planted months before I saw the movie -- is, "Do I like it better than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?" After careful consideration, and realizing I still haven't been able to stop thinking about Hero, I'd have to say the answer is yes.
To be fair, it's difficult to compare the two, they're so different. Crouching Tiger is a very personal, intimate film about love, betrayal, and words spoken too late. Hero, by contrast, is a grand, sweeping epic that examines the pawns swept up in the tide of history. Whether you're moved by the little picture or the big picture will have much influence over which movie you prefer.
Merging and diverging
The directors are a subtle contrast in styles. While both movies have great storytelling and fantastic cinematography, Ang Lee leans a little more towards the former, while Zhang Yimou invests excruciating effort into the latter. If you've seen both films, you'll know what I mean; Ang Lee selects naturally stunning scenes and landscapes from within the heart of China, while Zhang Yimou not so much chooses, but sometimes creates beautiful scenes by sheer force of will.
I liken it to the difference between an Ansel Adams photograph and one totally concocted in Photoshop -- you know the Photoshop image doesn't exist anywhere in nature and owes all its impact to digital manipulation, but sometimes it doesn't make it any less striking.
The two movies also share some ties. Bill Kong and Philip Lee were producers on both films. Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun wrote the score for both projects. And Zhang Ziyi was cast in a supporting role in Hero, no doubt counted upon to contribute some Dragon luck.
Jet vs. Fat
But the roots go even deeper: Jet Li was originally offered the part of Crouching Tiger's Li Mu Bai, but turned it down. Sometimes life unfolds as it should -- Jet Li could not have pulled off the role as well as Chow Yun-Fat, who is the superior actor. (Chow's best American movie? Hands down, the exquisite Anna and the King.) Chow's portrayal of Li Mu Bai was masterful: a martial arts master torn between love and honor, the burden weighing heavily upon him even as a spark of hope gives him motivation to chase a potential disciple of boundless talent, one to carry on his martial art and offer him redemption.
Having said that, let's make no mistake about the flip side of that coin: the role of Nameless was a perfect fit for Jet Li. Only he could have played a martial artist of unparalleled ability, able to smite down all challengers across the land and perform stupendous demonstrations of sword-fighting skill. Li's reputation, after all, precedes him; Chow, in contrast, is not a martial artist by training. And Li's Zen poker face and understated delivery only heightened the anticipation and apprehension of what was to come. (When he was but ten paces away from his assassination target, you could have cut the tension with a knife.)
Note that I'm not saying Li is a good actor; it's just that he does Nameless' resolute, dead-fish stare better than Chow could. Chow's face contains too much deep expression. (I know he often has that stern "hit man" look, but when Chow breaks out into a smile, the joy and mischievousness he radiates is downright infectious.)
What's going to complicate things -- and perhaps reinforce my argument -- is that Li is slated to play Li Mu Bai in the upcoming Crouching Tiger prequel, possibly titled, Precious Sword, Gold Hairpin. I'd bet real money that every movie critic and fan around the globe will be in unanimous agreement afterwards: "Jet Li wasn't as good as Chow Yun Fat, and he wasn't as good as his own role in Hero."
Many people I've talked to say their favorite scene is the sword fight between Flying Snow and Moon, fallen leaves becoming one with the wind, swirling and ebbing around the two women in their dance of death. Even though I already knew about Zhang Yimou's relentless quest for autumnal perfection (this TIMEAsia.com feature is a must-read), I was still wide-eyed with wonder the first time I saw it, it was that powerful.
But what really had me gasping in sheer awe was the sword fight in the palace between Broken Sword and the Emperor. Having the two antagonists pirouette and play hide-and-seek among the pale green gossamer curtains was breathtaking enough. But when the Emperor decides to put an end the game and starts cutting the drapery down, the resulting waterfall of shimmering, undulating cloth is filmmaking at its highest level. There is not another scene in the history of celluloid that I would place alongside that pinnacle of perfection.
As for my favorite character, it was an agonizing choice between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. I went back and forth several times, even during the course of putting my thoughts to (virtual) paper. But in the end, I settled on Maggie Cheung over Mr. Cool, Tony Leung.
Let's sweep aside the others first. Jet Li, as we've already agreed, only had to bring his stellar martial arts abilities to the table. Donnie Yen, who I have always found more striking and charismatic than Jet Li, garnered woefully little screen time. Zhang Ziyi's character was marginal, and quite possibly could have been left out of the screenplay altogether without much ill effect. (Except then we wouldn't have had that signature battle amongst the sea of leaves.)
Chen Daoming, who plays the King of Qin, was also very compelling, and singled out as the favorite by some people I've talked to. The problem is, as magnetic as the character was, I don't think Chen had to call upon deep reserves of acting until the very end of the movie, when the King realizes the person that might understand him best is his most bitter enemy. No, the only two viable contenders are definitely Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung.
Leung vs. Cheung
With the possible exception of Chow Yun-Fat, is there anyone cooler in the history of Hong Kong film than Tony Leung? His boyish good lucks and charisma, combined with a wide range of expressive roles, have garnered a legion of Asian movie fans. It's probably no surprise, then, that my favorite Hong Kong movie utilizes the talents of both actors mentioned above: Hard Boiled. For those of you looking for a Tony Leung exhibition with a little less bloodshed, try the gentle and touching In The Mood For Love.
In Hero, Leung starts off not particularly endearing himself to the viewer, playing an aloof, snobbish artist type who explodes into a rage, engaging in an angry tryst with assistant/disciple Zhang Ziyi just to spite his lover. But later on, it's Leung's turn as the insurgent rebel with a change of heart that arguably makes his character the true Hero of the movie. Slowly, gradually, Broken Sword grasps the King of Qin's ambitions, realizing that the brutal dictator is the kingdom's only hope for peace and a unified China. Broken Sword's transformation from warrior-assassin to an enlightened martyr is truly remarkable, and one cannot help but be moved by his willingness to set his life's purpose aside, sacrificing himself to shock Flying Snow into understanding the bigger picture of history.
Originally the runner-up in my mind, Maggie Cheung stole the number one spot after I watched the movie for a third time. Boy, has she come a long way from playing Jackie Chan's countless sidekicks/girlfriends! Despite the initial ice-queen veneer, which was accentuated by severe-looking makeup, she was the only one that truly changed like a chameleon, shifting moods and portrayals to match the different-colored garb she wore in each telling of the story.
In red, she was the vengeful, heartless lover who mows down her friends like wheat and finally falls apart in one last outburst of self-destruction. In blue, she was the stoic co-conspirator who goes along with Nameless' master plan, meeting her end willingly -- but not before wounding Broken Sword so that he may stay behind and live. The wistful smile she throws across the dunes to her pale and shaken lover is one of the two most heart-wrenching scenes in the movie.
In white and green -- the "factual" versions -- she was the righteous, unyielding rebel whose ferocious idealism is suddenly shattered in one shocking, heartbreaking instant when Broken Sword allows himself to be cut down by her hand to prove his point. Although Flying Snow lacks Broken Sword's vision, her character is the movie's personal touch, a reminder of how lives can be destroyed and forgotten by the relentless crush of nations.
So will there ever be another martial arts movie as good as Crouching Tiger or Hero? One can only hope. I had doubts Crouching Tiger could ever be topped, but Zhang Yimou was equal to the task. Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou themselves might be the only ones capable of surpassing their previous work, especially with the aforementioned Precious Sword, Gold Hairpin.
Or perhaps Chen Kaige or Wong Kar Wai will be next in line for their shot at epic glory -- they're the only other Chinese filmmakers that come to mind who have the cachet and talent to attract studio backing, a huge budget, and A-list Asian stars. Interestingly enough, Chen Kaige already took a stab at this story -- and set the bar quite high -- with The Emperor and the Assassin, starring Gong Li. If you haven't seen it, it's well worth checking out, especially since the comparison to Hero will be all the more fascinating. Hmm, sounds like a good premise for another review...