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Formal beauty: Cheung in Hero.

A Classic Parable
By Ann Morrow

Directed by Zhang Yimou

In Hero, a fable set in the third century B.C., the pivotal swordfight takes place in a chess pavilion. At the urging of the combatants, a blind musician continues to play his stringed gin while the warriors feint, lunge, and leap with impossible strength. The piercing music is appropriate, since the ensuing battle, between a master assassin with no name (Jet Li), and his equally skilled adversary from another province (Donnie Yen), is as much psychological as it is physical. At one point, Nameless hurtles through the air like an unleashed arrow, his sword slicing through a raindrop with surgical precision. Their slightly superhuman maneuvers convey the intensity of their concentration, yet both men appear to be perfectly tranquil. To them, vanquishing an opponent is an art form like calligraphy or lovemaking.

An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film in 2003 (the film’s release was inexplicably held back by Miramax), Hero is the first martial-arts film from the great Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern). As such, it elevates the genre to heights of visual lyricism beyond even those of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although Ang Lee’s lavishly designed hit is a reference for Hero, Yimou’s inspiration is Kurosawa’s Rashomon: In Hero, the same events are told in differing versions, sometimes by the same people. Since the CGI oomph of the wu xui fight scenes also represents the heightened emotions of memory, the exaggerated grace and strength of the combatants creates an alternate reality, one that is astoundingly gorgeous as well as thrillingly kinetic.

Having defeated the three greatest assassins in the seven kingdoms, Nameless is presented to the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) for his reward. The King is waging a brutal war on the other kingdoms to set himself up as emperor of all of China, and is especially appreciative of how a single assassin can be more dangerous than an entire army. To protect himself from assassination attempts, he keeps everyone at a distance of 100 feet, but to honor Nameless, he allows him to approach to 20 feet, and then 10. Spellbound, the king listens while Nameless recounts his battles with Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Falling Snow (Maggie Cheung), who are lovers, and their comrade Sky (Yen). As shown in flashback, Nameless earns the couple’s trust by helping to defend a calligraphy school from attack by thousands of imperial archers. Whirling like wizardly dervishes, Nameless and Snow deflect rainstorms of arrows. At the same time, Sword practices his brush strokes as if casting a spell, and indeed, the magic of the written word will eventually supplant the power of the sword.

The treachery required to overcome the King’s most dangerous enemies is worthy of an opera, and the film creates a hothouse tension that escalates as the King becomes suspicious of Nameless’ incredible stories, and posits a sequence of events of his own. Conflicts are shown and shown again with increasing amazement. From the somewhat realistic showdown with Sky, the battles become more fantastical, climaxing with a duel on a lake to rival the treetop battle in Crouching Tiger: The swordsmen skip over the water’s surface like stones or soar above it as if being propelled by invisible jet streams.

The breathtaking cinematography is by the great Christopher Doyle, whose atmospheric realism runs from In the Mood for Love to Rabbit-Proof Fence. The boldly saturated color schemes, however, are noticeably the work of Yimou, and each set piece is awash in a single color denoting a state of consciousness—the final chapter unfolds in pale green, representing acceptance and resolution. The art direction is equally sublime: Hero is just as much a homage to the beauty of China, in its landscapes (from verdant mountains to shimmering desert), culture (notice the terra-cotta statues holding candles around the king’s dais), and people (the all-star cast is as attractive as it is talented). In one luxuriant shot, Li’s hair cascades down his red-silk robe like a rivulet of ink.

Daoming as the King is impressive, and Leung and Cheung are magnificent in largely symbolic roles. Yet the most passionate encounter is between Snow and Sword’s adoring protégé, Moon (Ziyi Zhang, the firecracker princess from Crouching Tiger). As they square off amid a flurry of leaves that change color with a fury, the level of skill displayed by the two women seems to be dictated by their ability to control their jealousy. It’s one of the few scenes to break through the director’s classicism—due to its formal structure, Hero isn’t quite as involving as Yimou’s best work.

As a moral parable, however, it resonates to the current day. Though King Zheng was a ruthless tyrant, his unification of China ended centuries of territorial bloodshed. The conundrum of his meteoric reign has been the subject of two large-scale Chinese epics (The Emperor and the Assassin and The Emperor’s Shadow), neither of which captured the lasting import of the Qin dynasty. Hero’s greatest feat is that its martial philosophy is as memorable as its martial artistry.

Hank & Edith & Jack & Terry

We Don’t Live Here Anymore
Directed by John Curran

Based on a pair of novellas by Andre Dubus, We Don’t Live Here Anymore is a powerful evocation of adultery in a quiet New England college town. The quasi-quaintness of this setup is deceptive; the hamlet is home to a second-rate community college, where professors Jack Linden (Mark Ruffalo) and Hank Evans (Peter Krause) bore already-uninspired students with pseudo-
intellectual riffs on Dostoyevsky or, in the case of Hank, his own wretched attempts at fiction. Jack’s wife Terry (Laura Dern) fights a perpetually losing battle, first against the mundane nature of housework, but eventually against the encroaching realization of Jack’s affair with Hank’s wife Edith (Naomi Watts).

Set against the backdrop of three of the Lindens’ huge domestic spats, after which Terry scrubs and mends and begs forgiveness, We Don’t spans the time it takes for Terry to let her anger spew forth. Dern makes the wait worthwhile, at least in part because hers is the only truly sympathetic creature of the four main characters. Essentially a decent, savvy woman who just happens to be hopelessly in love with Jack, she at first recoils from the burgeoning truth that her husband’s incessant trips to the library, or the office, or for a run with Hank, simply are lies to cover his philandering. Her first timid efforts to talk to Jack, and each subsequent, more forthright attempt, are blocked by his attacking her for her inability to keep a clean house, or for forgetting to change their child’s wet bedclothes. There is a riveting moment late in the film in which Terry, claws finally bared, demands to know why Jack can’t just love her for who she is, and not what she does. It’s a raw moment in which already tense audience members clutch chair arms and try not to glance at the person seated next to them.

Adapted by Larry Gross and directed by John Curran, We Don’t Live Here Anymore is steeped in small-town claustrophobia and the despair that comes from realizing you aren’t the great talent you once thought you were—or your mate still believes you to be. This is especially true of the men. Jack’s self-loathing and sense of defeat cause him to lash out at Terry, the one steady in his life, who, in another desperate moment, declares she would love him even if he were an out-and-out bum. Ruffalo nicely underplays this difficult role, making it infinitely believable that he could delude himself into thinking that a life with Edith, the domestic antithesis of Terry, could solve everything—and yet not wanting best bud Hank to find out. Edith, meanwhile, stares endlessly into space when she’s not planning rendezvous with Jack. As the movie progresses and the collective unhappiness boils to the point at which someone has to do something about it, Edith’s hunger for Jack consumes her, so much so that she begins taking him in her front hallway or living room, as if this animal contact will fill her aching need.

Still, Edith’s character, so integral to the Dubus stories, is here somewhat oblique. At one point Hank commends her for how far she’s come, which only makes the viewer wonder if perhaps they met and married when she was in diapers, so unevolved is her character. Here is a woman who can cook and keep a beautiful home, but who seemingly has no outside interests. (In contrast, Terry seems to love reading, movies, activities with the family, etc.) Edith’s mopiness is compounded by her absolute loopiness with Jack—she spends their noncarnal moments dissing Hank, wondering about how they’ll get found out, plotting bizarre scenarios, all of which takes the bloom off Jack’s post-coital rose. Another problem is Krause’s portrayal of Hank, an essentially bastard-like character who plays fast and easy with issues like fidelity and loyalty. Basically, Hank is lazy, both as a husband and as a man, and yet there’s supposed to be an edge of passive-aggressiveness to him. Presumably, this is what spurs on the tension between him and Edith, and also between him and Jack, and which sends Hank prowling for the forlorn Terry. Krause’s interpretation shows a blocked writer who is often sleepy, sometimes morose, but hardly ever charming.

The lack of edge in this character is shared, to some extent, by the film as a whole, which—for all its intricacies and balanced textures and Dern’s fascinating, dead-on performance—is just too subtle. Granted, these are married couples whose lives have absorbed boredom and devolved into uninterest, for whom the professional or creative life is devoid of promise. And yet, given the extent to which wives like Terry and Edith go, historically, to avoid confrontation, one would think that the reverberations from their respective adulteries would make some sort of impact on household equilibrium. Without much to jar you emotionally, Terry’s long
swallowed-up howl of pain may be directed at Jack, but is deflected, like a dud paper airplane, off the emptiness that pervades much of this otherwise admirable movie.

—Laura Leon

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