Quentin Tarantino may have found his future vocation. His once shining career as a director clouded over a tad when Jackie Brown revealed his insistence on casting B-movie stars of the 1970s and his unwillingness to edit his work to a manageable length. The Kill Bill movies confirmed both directorial tendencies while also raising questions about whether Tarantino still knows how to write a screenplay.
But now, with Hero, the door may have opened onto a new career path: impresario. "Quentin Tarantino Presents," the box cover of the Chinese kung fu epic announces in large type above the title. The names of the movie's stars appear lower down; the director, thrice-Oscar-nominated Zhang Yimou, is not mentioned at all. In theory, Tarantino earned top billing for Hero by persuading his Miramax patrons to distribute the film in the United States. In reality, he's the headliner because he's a brand name in film, perhaps the first director to earn this distinction since Hitchcock (who, it should be said, had exceeded Tarantino's output of five films many times over before he was so honored). "Quentin Tarantino Presents": I envision a television series, like Hitchcock's '50s show--though Quentin's would be on cable, naturally.
Hero, released on video today, would certainly make for a fascinating pilot. It is among the most visually stunning films of recent years, a bravura exercise in the choreography and cinematography of violence that approaches--and on a few occasions exceeds--the beauty of its art-house cousin Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The plot, set in the Warring States period of Chinese history (circa 300 BC), unfolds with a combination of simplicity and complexity reminiscent of Borges (in particular, his stories "The Theme of the Hero and the Traitor" and "The Garden of Forking Paths"). The hero of the title, Nameless (Jet Li), arrives at the palace of the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) to be celebrated and rewarded for his service to the crown. The king has overseen a series of bloody wars in his effort to conquer and unite the seven kingdoms of China and as a result has lived under constant threat of assassination. Until now, that is: Nameless has killed the three most prominent assassins from the enemy kingdom of Zhao--Sky, Flying Cloud, and Broken Sword--and so is granted a royal audience to recount the details of his valor.
The bulk of the film is told in flashbacks that follow the contours of Nameless's conversation with the king. It begins with the hero's straightforward narration: After first dispatching Sky (Donnie Yen) in a lethal ballet of sword and spear, he sowed dissent between the lovers Flying Cloud (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and the latter's apprentice, Moon (Zhang Ziyi); thus divided, the assassins were easy to dispatch. The king is unconvinced by Nameless's story, however, and offers an alternative description of what has taken place--a description that is subsequently amended by Nameless, and so on, with each new telling recasting the story in a different light.
And what light it is! Zhang Yimou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle stage the competing sagas of duty, betrayal, and death in dazzling color, with each successive iteration painted in a new palette--first red, then blue, white, green, and finally black. An aerobatic battle between Moon and Flying Cloud takes place amid cyclones of yellow autumn leaves that turn blood red at the encounter's conclusion. Nameless and Broken Sword chase one another across a limpid lake like skipping stones, anointing their blades in the blue water. And a confrontation between the king and Broken Sword pairs the arts of wardrobe and set design to a degree unseen since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. (Wallpaper having yet to be invented, the actors must content themselves with matching the green silk drapes.) There are visual feats less chromatic in nature as well, as when the Qin army launches more arrows into a besieged village in five seconds than it seems all the world's archers have loosed in all the world's wars.