Hero is this year's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Or rather, 2002's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film having spent the last two years sat on Miramax's shelf. Not that there's anything wrong with Hero. By most accounts the film is excellent, the fault lies with distributor Miramax, a company which likes to posture as an independent defender of middle-brow / arthouse fare in a philistine market, but which is actually a subsidiary of Disney, and not only shelves as many acquisitions as it releases, but often re-edits the films it does issue to fit its preconception of what the American market wants. Hence Hero finally reaches us two years late, shorn of around 10-20 minutes of its original running length and with some subtitles deliberately and controversially inaccurately translated.
As for the music, well if it ain't broke… Hero is a film which always had one eye firmly on the western market. Just as director Ang Lee moved with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from Asian arthouse films which had been well received in the West (Eat Drink, Man Woman) to full blown martial arts adventure, so Hero finds Yimou Zhang, previously best known for sensitive dramas such as Red Sorghum, Raise The Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju and To Live, taking very much the same path. Cementing the connection is the employment of the same composer, Tan Dun, a known modern classical name likely to add an air of serious middle class respectability to the production in Western eyes. Taking the connection further… where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon featured the solo cello of Yo-Yo Ma, a hugely popular classical artist who in his very being brings East and West together, Hero features the solo violin of Itzhak Perlman, a hugely respected and popular classical musician, and a familiar name to film music fans if only for his role in John Williams' Schindler's List score. It may not also be coincidental that Tan Dun, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman are all Sony recording artists.
One element knew to the mix is the addition of the Kodo Drummers of Japan, and the new score places much greater influence on wordless choir than did Crouching Tiger… That said, if you liked Crouching Tiger, you'll like this, even while you wonder if you haven't bought almost the same album twice. Happily there's no commercial song included this time around, but otherwise this could very much be the score to a direct sequel to the former film. Musically there is the same restrained elegance and formal beauty, the same lyrical grandeur, the same majestic vistas and sense of impending haunting fate, and here's the rub… almost exactly the same tunes. Certainly they are played on the violin rather than cello, but let the casual listener here this disc and I strongly suspect they would say something like, "That's the theme to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Personally I am happy to have both discs in my collection, but in essence this really is more of the same, Yo-Yo Ma's exquisite cello playing being replaced by Itzhak Perlman's magically violin. As an album in its own right this is very enjoyable, as a film score it presumably functions perfectly in the film. Only creatively does it disappoint, for really it offers very little that is new.