Visually spectacular but slight on story, Hero is a swords'n'scowling epic in the mould of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Jet Li stars as a sombre-faced 3rd century BC swordsman, granted an audience with his war-mongering emperor (Chen Dao Ming) after killing three feared assassins. The inquisitive king questions his heroics and we're given three versions of what happened, each story sequence distinguished by a dominant colour (red, green, blue) and the key characters' changing motivations: patriotism, jealousy, loyalty, love.
There's not a great deal more you need to know; those who liked Crouching Tiger should love Hero, but if you found the former film emotionally uninvolving, you'll feel even chillier here. Not that there isn't some impressive acting on offer from a Who's Who of Asian cinema. Li does little more than frown throughout, but Infernal Affairs star Tony Leung gives subtle variations on the same character. His face reflects decency, jealousy, sorrow and self-sacrifice with such truth, the subtitles aren't really necessary. Maggie Cheung, too, delivers as a blade-wielding warrior woman you definitely wouldn't want to cross. And Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger's lithe killer, does enough to suggest brains behind the beauty in her lesser role.
"FEELS SLIGHTLY UNSATISFYING"
Despite this, Hero feels slightly unsatisfying. Its multiple takes on the truth serve to dilute any immediate emotional reaction, and its grand set-pieces sometimes suffocate the humanity. It is also a strikingly communist picture, suggesting people should submit to a murderous state. Perhaps these criticisms are the result of watching too much whiz-bang Western cinema, and repeat viewing will reward the slow burn of Zhang Yimou's film. Hero may be worth holding out for.
In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Hero (Ying Xiong) is released in UK cinemas on Friday 24th September 2004.