IF YOU THOUGHT "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the "Kill Bill" films were balletic spectacles, you are so ready for Zhang Yimou's "Hero."
Zhang, the Chinese filmmaker who gave us such classics as "Red Sorghum" and "Ju Dou," has created a breathtaking epic about almost supernatural martial artists who walk on water, hang in the air, and slice and dice their opponent into a thousand slivers with breathtaking elegance.
In the 3rd century B.C., a Chinese king called Qin (Daoming Chen) has been trying to unify the seven rival kingdoms of China. It is an idea, the opening titles note, "soaked in the blood of his enemies." Not surprisingly, Qin has faced some formidable resistance for a decade, particularly from the likes of Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen). He has resisted countless assassination attempts.
Relief appears to be at hand when a warrior with no name (Jet Li) comes to Qin's palace, claiming to have the weapons of the now-defeated enemies of the king.
The king, who prevents assassination by forbidding anyone to come near him, bids the nameless swordsman approach to tell his story. From a respectful distance that becomes closer with each chapter of his narrative, Nameless tells Qin how he defeated such mighty contenders, one by one. But with each of his three tales, details seem to change. It isn't long before we realize this is a "Rashomon"-style affair, in which the swordsman's account may or may not be true.
Qin, who is no fool, picks apart the warrior's stories, trying to assess their truth or lack thereof. We are kept wondering through to the very end.
This wuxia (martial arts) film, which has sat mysteriously in the Miramax house for a couple of years, leaves no doubt as to Zhang's mastery. And it should serve as a delectable appetizer for Zhang's "House of Flying Daggers," due in Washington later this year.
Here, the performers are outstanding. There's a lovely chemistry among them all, particularly between Leung and Cheung, who were star-crossed lovers in "In the Mood for Love." And those acting performances are graced with their adroit balletics. They make this a compelling experience. But the magic is what's around them, the massive work of technicians and Zhang's direction. This is a movie about Siu-Tung Ching's amazing choreography, Emi Wada's rich, silky costumes, and Christopher Doyle's pristine cinematography, which renders the mysterious warrior's three stories in the schemes of red, white and blue. In slow motion, droplets of water fall majestically through the air and feet dance on the surface of lakes -- barely dipping into the water. You can feel the movie's sensibility and its powerful emotions in every aching image, which leaves you so caught up in these ancient times, you're loath to return to present-day normalcy.
HERO ( PG-13, 99 minutes) -- Contains stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality. In Chinese with subtitles. Area theaters.