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The trailer for Zhang Yimou's martial-arts epic Hero may rank among the most exhilarating cinema to unfurl this year. (Or at least the version of the trailer without the standard-issue earnest voiceover and title cards.) In a rush of luxuriantly colorful images, four of China's most glamorous stars (Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi) glide through the air, dodge typhoons of raining arrows, and battle in front of stunning natural backdrops. The same scenes are in the movie, of course, but their collective impact feels strangely muted, framed as they are by a tale of patriotic folklore that's as weightless as a stuntman on wires. Brilliant in flashes, thinned out as a whole, the film seems ideal for the DVD revolution, where the greatest hits can be compiled at the touch of a remote.


Always a peerless storyteller, Zhang built his reputation on subversive, politically loaded historical dramas like Ju Dou and To Live, but his recent work has lacked that purposeful edge. Financed at a record $30 million, Hero was the critical and box-office force in Zhang's native country that Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon famously was not, but its state-approved story of unification feels like a sellout, no matter how ravishing it is. Yet as a traditional wuxia film played out on a massive scale, the film's surface pleasures are considerable, with a handful of sequences that seem almost musical in their graceful choreography and composition.

Set before the first emperor's ascension, Hero opens with China fractured into six warring states, which one powerful king (Chen Daoming) seeks to unite through bloody conquest. Through a Rashomon-like series of flashbacks, the king questions nameless local prefect Jet Li about his extraordinary defeat of three assassins who couldn't be thwarted by entire armies. Witnesses can attest to a duel where Li bested the legendary spearman "Sky" (Donnie Yen), but the story gets murkier when he explains how he used the love between "Broken Sword" (Leung) and "Flying Snow" (Cheung) to weaken their defenses.


Photographed in bold splashes of color by Wong Kar-wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In The Mood For Love), Hero incorporates elements of the American Western with the historical sweep of Akira Kurosawa's most celebrated epics. Some of that grandeur goes to waste on a diverting fable without any real gravity, but several setpieces are visual feasts, including a fight on a swarm of dancing yellow leaves and another that flits across the surface of a placid lake. As a technical achievement, Hero finds Zhang at the height of his powers, effortlessly expanding into complex genre filmmaking without losing his command. But in light of his earlier work, the film continues a sharp decline in urgency.