They Might Be Giants

Two movies bring a whole new meaning to “heroic proportions”

In the eye-catching art-fu epic Hero, virtually every shot is suitable for framing, and every battle is poetry in motion. We'd expect nothing less from Zhang Yimou, director of the sumptuous arthouse faves Raise the Red Lantern and Ju-Dou, but Hero takes the Chinese filmmaker's eye-popping uber-aesthetic to such absurd heights that those susceptible to vertigo might want to proceed with caution. It's not enough, for instance, that each of the movie's gorgeously executed action sequences is less a fight scene than a poetic flight of fancy, accompanied by an off-screen narrator explaining that battle is an art form, and that its essence is strategy. No, Zhang ups the ante by giving us at least one duel where the action plays out entirely in the minds of his combatants — brilliant super-assassins who are able to will their struggle to life through the power of sheer imagination, like grand masters projecting future moves in a life-or-death match of chess.

If only in this regard, Hero manages to out-Matrix The Matrix (although that was probably the last thing on Zhang Yimou's mind), just as the film's stylistic prowess outflanks Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the movie to which it will inevitably be compared on almost every front.

At least that's what Miramax, Hero's U.S. distributor, is counting on. Zhang's film, which is reportedly the most expensive production ever mounted in Hong Kong, has smashed box office records all over Asia, and Miramax is hoping for similar success here. Hero was released in China in 2002, and Miramax, who purchased the U.S. rights well over a year ago, has been sitting on the film all this time, watching the buzz grow and waiting until just the right moment to release it. It's not clear whether it was Buddhist oracles or Miramax's marketing consultants who ordained it, but Aug. 27 is that moment.

Hero is nothing if not a feast for the senses, a cross between a lavish historical epic, a dazzling martial arts extravaganza, and an astonishingly graceful ballet performed with swords, arrows and fists. The film offers an account of events taking place 2000 years ago, when Qin, the ruthless leader who eventually became the first emperor of China, enlists the services of a great warrior to eliminate the handful of assassins preventing Qin from assuming ultimate power. Jet Li plays Qin's nameless champion — an iconic figure of few words (in the best Eastwood-esque fashion) called, appropriately enough, Nameless — while the movie unfolds in flashback, Kill Bill-style, as the seemingly invincible warrior tells the future emperor how he defeated each of his deadly foes.

There's more than a little Rashomon here as well, with Nameless' version of the truth eventually called into question by alternative versions offered up by Qin and, still later, by various other witnesses and survivors. By the end, the film's assorted stories-within-stories and convoluted conspiracies-within-conspiracies have us shaking our heads at the elusive nature of truth, a conundrum inevitably leading us to wonder which cause here is the just one and, for that matter, what it really means to be a hero.

Where Hero really transcends black-and-white thinking, however, is in the visual department. The movie features some of the most stunning images you'll ever see on a movie screen, and each of the major battle scenes is specifically color-coded in a way that may be more decorative than meaningful, but is no less ravishing for it. For that matter, the characters here are less fully defined and, some might argue, less human than in Zhang's previous films — but then again, this is a different sort of movie than anything Zhang's previously attempted.

In the epically proportioned world of Hero, giant-sized, iconic figures swoop and glide through the air, racing up walls and skimming across ponds with a blatant disregard for gravity or the laws of physics. This is the stuff of legend, after all, and emotions are frequently condensed to flashpoints like that one perfect tear virtually every one of the film's characters is required to shed at one point or another. The movie's talented and charismatic cast of Asian superstars is more than up to the task of playing men and women who cast such enormous shadows, so much so that it's almost shocking when those inevitable hints of vulnerability finally appear. This is a film full of lush, unexpected pleasures, and one that puts the art back in martial arts, big time.

Meanwhile, a gigantic shadow of a very different but no less imposing sort looms through another movie opening this week — A Home at the End of the World — and that's the shadow of Colin Farrell's penis.

Yes, this is the movie that was notorious long before it opened for including full-frontal footage of a nude and reportedly very, uh, healthy Farrell. The naughty bits were eventually cut (so to speak) for being too "distracting," but the publicity surrounding the deletion may be the best thing the movie has going for it.

In point of fact, Bobby — the character Farrell plays in this forgettable effort — is such a gentle, androgynous and thoroughly amorphous soul, it's hard to imagine him having a penis at all. He's basically a Ken doll with a bad Rick Derringer shag. For all the time we spend with him, we don't really learn much about Bobby other than that he's an orphan, smokes a lot of pot, and responds to all the slings and arrows of the universe with a half-shrug and a big, utterly non-critical smile.

A Home at the End of the World follows Farrell's wide-eyed character from small-town kid to big-city adult, with special attention paid to Bobby's friendships and on-and-off-again sexual dalliances with longtime pal Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) and multi-hued-haired comrade Claire (Robin Wright Penn). The relationship isn't quite a ménage-a-trois (it's not quite clear what it is, so muddled are the movie's sexual politics and narrative skills), but the essence of what's going on seems to revolve around everybody being maybe a little too in love with Bobby.

In any event, the threesome embark on a road trip (complete with obligatory sequence with the characters oohing and ahhing at the Grand Canyon), and they eventually decide to abandon the city altogether for the calming comforts of the country. The whole thing ends rather abruptly, as if the movie had simply run out of steam, but not before a convenient tragedy or two turns up out of the blue, just in time for the finale.

Scattered throughout the proceedings are ham-fisted signposts that are supposed to illuminate the characters and their emotions, but don't. Much is made, for instance, of Bobby's childhood home being located next to a graveyard (he's yearning for life but can't escape death, get it?), and even that ridiculous shag is telling us in no uncertain terms that Farrell's character is stuck in time. Even the film's gay aspects feel more like a marketing hook than something genuinely felt or essential to the story, causing A Home at the End of the World to resemble one of those marginal productions that routinely make the rounds at gay and lesbian film festivals and then disappear forever. And frankly, were it not for the factor of Farrell's name recognition — and the specter of his manly organ — A Home at the End of the World would almost certainly share that same fate, just another disappearing act in the black hole of second-rate cinema.

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