The Hero Sucks (Not "stunning," not "stirring," not "ravishing"...)

The Hero was really hard for me to stomach. It has several major annoyances, no logical dramatic movement, and a wretchedly jingoistic theme (genocide is acceptable in the interest of national unity).

Physically, the film is hard to listen to, especially if you see it in a big multiplex where the volume is up loud. The sound track during the fights is full of the sound of swishing and clinking swords, mixed very high to sound "big." But as I as watched the film the other night, the sound during the fights often felt more like nails on a chalboard than magical Chinese swordplay. I had to cover my ears.

So: bring your earplugs.

The visual aspects of the fight sequences aren't all that good either. There is a very beautiful swordfight at the beginning of the film, and the famous sequence on a lake is also cool as a feat of cinematography (though it doesn't register as a "serious" fight). But many of the fights are fluffy. The kind of rigorous physical engagement that has become a trademark of Yuen Wo-Ping (who did the fight choreography for The Matrix and Kill Bill) is often absent here. The fights involving women were especially fluffy -- as if Zhang Yimou and Tony Ching Siu Tung (the action director) didn't want to put their actresses to any trouble. Instead of asking them to hold swords (all of the characters in the film are sword-fighters and professional warrior-assasins), they have them flying through the air in billowing red gowns as bright yellow (paper) leaves magically gust. It's pretty, but it's not compelling.

When the characters aren't fighting, the film is incredibly, unbelievably, dull.

Oh and did I mention the fascist moral of the story? It's so repulsive, I feel I should go back to earlier Yimou films like Raise the Red Lanterna and Ju Dou to see if American movie reviewers were on crack when those came out too. Like many critics, when I was younger I tended to accept anything "exotic" as inherently valuable. I spoke in earnest tones about the great Chinese directors, Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, and Chen Kaige (Farewell my Concubine, Temptress Moon).

But with age comes an important lesson: the fact that a film is exotic doesn't preclude the possibility that it is crap.