HERO directed by Zhang Yimou, written by Zhang, Li Feng and Wang Bin, produced by Zhang and William Kong, with Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi. 98 minutes. A Beijing New Picture/Elite Group production. A Miramax/Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (August 26). For review, venues and times, see Movies, page 80. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Zhang Yimou's two contributions to the wuxia or sword and chivalry genre are about to descend on Toronto. The two-year-old Hero has its long overdue theatrical release this week, and his latest, House Of Flying Daggers, gets a Gala presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival in about two weeks.
These films are a change of pace for Zhang, best known for period domestic dramas like Raise The Red Lantern and Ju Dou and the modern political films The Story Of Qiu Ju and The Road Home.
The first three of those star his old muse, Gong Li. The Road Home, Hero and House Of Flying Daggers feature his new muse, Zhang Ziyi. Popular belief in North America is that Ang Lee discovered Zhang Ziyi for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it was Zhang Yimou who made her first film appearance happen, in The Road Home.
"I had always wanted to do a sword film, but they are expensive," he explains.
The strange thing about a telephone interview with someone who doesn't speak English is that there's no guarantee that you've ever communicated with the person you're interviewing. I spoke to a translator who'd turn from the phone and speak Mandarin, then come back and relay the answer to me.
I believe I was interviewing the great Chinese director.
"My producers didn't think they could make their money back," reports the translator. "Then Crouching Tiger came out and they realized it was possible with the right stars."
Hero stars Jet Li as a man who claims to have assassinated three of the emperor's most lethal enemies. The entire story is told in flashbacks recounting these great combats - between Li and Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. Then another series of flashbacks undercuts the accuracy of his story.
"I had to have Jet Li, because no one fights more beautifully than he does. There are many Chinese actors who can fight, but no one moves like Li."
With Zhang's history as a visual stylist and the presence of Wong Kar Wai's favourite cinematographer, the Australian Christopher Doyle, it's no surprise that Hero is visually stunning.
Scenes like the pursuit across the lake and the forest confrontation between Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi ("I see you wish to die. I will assist you") make the most visually imposing martial arts films - Crouching Tiger and Tsui Hark's remake of Dragon Inn come to mind - look like cheap exploitation movies.
Zhang's martial arts films look like no one else's. The locations for House Of Flying Daggers include birch forests in the Ukraine, a unique setting in the history of martial arts films.
The presence of Doyle behind the camera and Cheung and Leung in front of it leads to another question. What's with this sudden overlap between the cinematic worlds of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai?
Cheung and Leung are stalwart members of Wong's acting company, starring in the director's most popular film, In The Mood For Love. Wong's latest film, 2046, features both of Zhang's muses, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.
"I've always liked Wong's films, which is why I wanted Chris to shoot Hero, though I had to convince him not to shoot the whole picture hand-held," he explains.
"Maggie and Tony have been together in so many films (seven, to be exact, four directed by Wong) that it's easy for them to play lovers. I don't have to worry about their performances."