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Hero (Ying Xiong) (12A)

Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Inside The Action - a conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li. Hero Defined. Storyboards.

CROUCHING Tiger, Hidden Dragon marked something of a watershed in the way martial arts movies were perceived by mainstream audiences, in that it opened their eyes to a world in which spiritualism and sentiment could sit comfortably alongside moments of spectacular action.

Yet if you thought Ang Lee’s epic was impressive, wait until you get a load of Hero (Ying xiong), Zhang Yimou's breath-taking masterpiece about a lone warrior who bids to assassinate a king in pre-unified China during the 3rd Century BC.

Jet Li stars as the nameless assassin in question, a mystical fighter who has captured the imagination of a nation by single-handedly defeating the trio of resistance fighters who were believed to represent the biggest threat to Daoming Chen’s king, Quin.

It is only when Li is granted an audience with Quin, however, that his true motivations are revealed, via a series of Rashomon-like flashbacks during the course of the conversation between the two.

For while Li’s defeat of Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen) rates among the bravest of feats, not everything is quite as it seems, as hidden motives become revealed and issues of honour and destiny are gradually resolved.

Hero, somewhat ironically, has been sitting in the Miramax vault for a couple of years, despite being hailed as a work of genius by most who have seen it, and earning an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film at the 2003 ceremony.

When it did emerge in American cinemas a few weeks ago, it stormed to the number one spot, and held on to it for a couple of weeks.

If there is one criticism to be found, it’s that the film probably doesn’t engage as emotionally as it might like to, but there is no denying the visceral beauty that heralds Zhang Yimou as an artist of the highest calibre.

Many of the set pieces contain a surreal, almost balletic beauty, thanks in no small part to Siu-Tung Ching's amazing choreography, Emi Wada's rich costumes and Christopher Doyle's ravishing cinematography, all of which serve to ensure that proceedings are consistently breath-taking and demand to be seen on the Big Screen.

A rain-soaked confrontation at the beginning of the film, for instance, contains a hypnotic quality that puts the effects-dominated likes of The Matrix Revolutions to shame, while another confrontation in a forest filled with red leaves is, quite simply, mesmerising.

It is during such moments that the film sets new standards, while raising expectation for Zhang’s follow-up, The House of Flying Daggers.

Yet, while the set pieces will undoubtedly become the main talking point, they never come at the expense of the story, or its characters, which both offer plenty for the viewer to enjoy.

The interplay between Li and Cheung is particularly well-realised, while Ziyi Zhang also builds on the good work she did in Crouching Tiger.

Fears that the Rashomon-style of the story might make it feel repetitive also prove unfounded, as Zhang proves himself adept at ensuring that proceedings never feel as though they are re-treading old territory; instead, managing to pack proceedings into a crisp 96 minutes.

It is yet further compelling proof that some of the best films of the moment are coming from shores further afield than Hollywood.

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