By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Two years ago, Harvey Weinstein, who runs Miramax Films with an iron fist that no doubt smells of cigarettes and meat, bought a Hong Kong-made movie called Herofor $20 million. That is an extraordinary amount of money for a foreign-language film made by a director, Zhang Yimou, relatively unknown in the United States; for his money, Weinstein bought the right to distribute the film not only in North America, but also Latin America, the U.K., Australia, Italy, Africa and New Zealand.
Weinstein imagines Heroto be Miramax's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--a swordplay spectacle that will cross over to American audiences wowed by the sight of actors soaring from invisible wires and moved by the complex relationships between men and women who must fight for peace. In a release announcing the purchase, Weinstein said Miramax was "thrilled to be distributing" Hero, which he described as "an incredible project involving some of the most talented people in Asian filmmaking," among them Zhang, Jet Li and rising stars Donnie Yen and Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi. Weinstein bought Heroin February 2002, well before it opened in China and shattered that country's box-office records.
A friend bought Hero on DVD for $16.99 in May 2003, as a gift for me. Today, you can find it on the Internet or at a local Chinese-language video store for even less; there's one on eBay for $4.99. Hell of a bargain, especially when you consider that Hero--which was among the five nominees for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards last freaking year--has still not been shown on a single U.S. movie screen, outside of one film festival.
There is, as far as those who have seen Heroare concerned, no good reason for its delay in reaching these shores. It's an astonishing film, the kind for which clichés such as "breathtaking" and "awe-inspiring" were invented for movie posters and TV commercials. It tells the story of the birth of a nation through a man, played by Jet Li, who may or may not be trying to assassinate a king who wants to expand his kingdom till it encompasses all of China. Li, playing a character called Nameless, tells the king he has successfully eliminated the assassins trying to do in the paranoid ruler, who has encased himself in armor.
Nameless tells of his duels with Sky (Yen), who attacks with a spear; with Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), whose power comes from calligraphy; and with Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword's lover and a woman so quick she can dodge thousands of arrows launched at her. Those who would compare it to Crouching Tiger(with its treetop duels and ability to walk on water) or Rashomon (with its repeated tellings of a tale, never quite the same) miss the point; Herois its own spectacular entity, a magic trick you've never before seen. "Zhang Yimou may have dipped his cinematic pen in 'mere' genre," Richard Corliss wrote in Timemagazine's Asian version in December 2002, "but in doing so, he has inscribed a masterpiece."
So where the hell is Hero?
Miramax, which is owned by Disney, has had Heroon its release schedule several times--most recently, for April 16 of this year. But that changed on January 8, when Miramax announced it was moving the second installment of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Billfrom February 20 to April 16. There is, quite simply, no way on earth Harvey and brother Bob Weinstein will keep Heroon that date to compete with beloved Quentin.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations between Miramax and Hong Kong-based Elite Group Enterprises, which financed Hero, the Weinsteins don't have to release the movie by any specific date. But Miramax does have to give it a major release "in such a way that will bring in the greatest box office and reach the most people," says one source.
Word is the filmmakers aren't frustrated with Miramax's jumping on and off dates--Zhang is already onto another film, a romantic epic, which is due out this year in China--and won't be upset as long as Miramax makes good on its word to put a lot of zeroes at the end of Hero's box-office totals. The studio says it's been busy making and marketing the likes of Chicago, Gangs of New York, the two Kill Bills and Cold Mountainto give Herothe respect and release of which it's worthy.
"Every film needs tender loving care," says Kevin Kasha, Miramax's executive vice president of home entertainment. "It's just a question of finding the right spot to get the audience it deserves and making sure the money is well spent."
Yet there can be no doubt the studio has squandered the film's momentum, which included pieces in The New York Timesand Los Angeles Timesmore than a year ago, not to mention its international acclaim and Oscar nomination a year ago.
"Miramax is the one company that can create its own wave," says one source. "I am sure Harvey must believe once he figures out what to do with these territories, he can create his own campaign. Do you treat it like Crouching Tiger? Do you treat it like a Jet Li movie? How much do you focus on the action and CG effects? It's an interesting issue. He just has to come up with an explanation for some people why it was delayed. Most people don't care."