Boy, the People's Republic of China sure went all-out when they wanted to make a fancy martial arts fantasy that was also pro-nationalist propaganda. For the most expensive Chinese feature ever (with a budget of a whopping $20 million - that's about as much as Adam Sandler makes per film), they hired one of their nation's greatest directors, Zhang Yimou - which is comical, considering how the Chinese government banned several of his earlier films for being critical of the regime - uber-cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon composer Tan Dun. Not to mention an all-star cast of Chinese luminaries including Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi (also from Crouching Tiger).

It's no coincidence that I mentioned Crouching Tiger twice, for it's clear that China saw the success that their bete noir Taiwan enjoyed with that 2000 blockbuster, and so they wanted themselves a piece of that. In fact, Hero went into production in 2001. So why did it take more than two years to reach American shores? Blame their stateside distributor Miramax, who by various accounts sat on it either because they were hoping for a Crouching Tiger and were disappointed, or because they were waiting out any Crouching Tiger backlash by releasing it when Hero could deserve praise on its own. Though I'd more readily believe the former, the fact that the belated release grossed over $30 million in the US - a heady sum for any foreign title - suggests that there was method in Miramax's madness.

Anyway, Hero retells a classic Chinese fable in Rashomon-like fashion, where in a feudal China still split into several warring regions, a nameless man (Jet Li) is allowed an ultra-rare audience with the Emperor of the largest region because he apparently killed the three top assassins the Emperor most feared. Only his story doesn't quite hold up, and so the film tells it again, twice, with significant changes.

The thing is, whereas the multiple perspectives of Rashomon were integral to the film's message that truth is subjective, there isn't much purpose to Hero's story structure, other than providing some neat color-coded costumes. The film is really a showcase of Zhang's and Doyle's sumptuous visuals. But what a showcase! I've made no secret before of how I love Zhang's visual style, and Doyle is simply one of the greatest cinematographers on the planet. Together, they spew out one indelible image after another - no small thanks to some of China's most eye-popping natural scenery. (The flying swordfight scene between Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi amongst falling golden leaves is a standout.)

The visuals are well-matched by Tan Dun's spectacular score, with help from Itzhak Perlman on violin and Japanese taiko drummers Kodo providing percussion. And then you've got that great cast, including the unstoppably cool Maggie Cheung. Go see it on the big screen while you can, to revel in the pictures and music. The story will leave you cold, though; one wonders if Zhang's heart was really in this one, or if he was just thrilled to helm a hugely-budgeted epic with big stars and top-drawer technical talent. Whatever the case, he seems to have been pleased with the results, for he made a second martial arts film right afterward (House of Flying Daggers, due in the US just a few months after Hero).