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Crouching tiger, hidden message

Dan Thomas
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Trite as they are sometimes, movie taglines really provide you with some pretty good insights, such as: “Kono kuni wa mada, hont no hero wo shiranai.”If you got that, you’ll have no problem understanding and appreciating “Hero.” If that sentence strikes you as a little foreign (it’s evidently Mandarin for, “This land doesn’t know a real hero. Yet.”), the movie might get a little confusing. And that’s too bad, because sometimes the sheer culture shock factor of “Hero” obscures its spry plotting, clever storyline and gorgeous visuals.

But don’t fault director Yimou Zhang or Feng Li and Bin Wang, who co-wrote it. In the golden age of martial arts movies that get lost at the art house, it’s surprisingly swift-moving and, at 99 minutes, brisk for all the subtlety and subtext it contains. According to the Internet Movie Database, “Hero” was the most expensive Chinese movie ever and has gained a foothold in the United States as a cult favorite. And despite its big-budget look, it feels more like a cult movie – more “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” than “Braveheart” – simply because it rests on conventions and assumptions that might not be evident to casual U.S. moviegoers.For example, I wouldn’t have considered it a spoiler to read the IMDB’s passage about red symbolizing imagination, blue perceived reality, white truth, and green enlightenment or peace before I watched “Hero.” But I suppose everybody else remembered that from intro to East Asian art back in freshman year.

There were rumors on some Web site – I thought it was imdb.com – that held that Quentin Tarantino, fresh off adjusting Western palates in Eastern cinema with his two “Kill Bill” appetizers – wouldn’t help release “Hero” here unless it was the original version, which some audiences deemed too incomprehensibly foreign. That would have explained a lot, with Tarantino’s feel for Hong Kong cinema being more refined than mine, but I couldn’t figure out where those rumors came from – or went.But even without a guidepost or two – maybe thinking about what the colors mean while you’re watching the movie will add a layer – “Hero” is easy to follow, albeit in an “Arabian Nights” kind of way. Through a series of stories, a nameless mercenary (Jet Li, who took a pay cut to star) tells the king of Qin (Daoming Chen) of his campaign against three notorious assassins: sad-eyed Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai of John Woo’s classic Hong Kong shoot-em-up “Hard Boiled”), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen). Nameless’s story provides a framework for some beautiful martial-art-house combat that evokes “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and suggests some overarching political message.



And while the fight sequences are spectacular and the movie moves briskly, I couldn’t help thinking that I lacked the background to enjoy it as much as I should. “Hero” is a satisfying movie in itself – but holding neither a doctoral thesis in Chinese film or the printout of a blog by the guy from the video store, I don’t think I appreciated it as much as it deserved.Dan Thomas will be earning his doctorate in Chinese film this fall, unless the guy from the video store offers him a job. In the meantime, you can reach him at (970) 945-8515, ext. 512, or at dthomas@postindenpendent.com.


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