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Kung Fu'd

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 Hero for $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 Hero to 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 Hero in 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 Hero are 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; Hero is 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 Time magazine'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 Hero on 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 Bill from February 20 to April 16. There is, quite simply, no way on earth Harvey and brother Bob Weinstein will keep Hero on 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 Mountain to give Hero the 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 Times and Los Angeles Times more than a year ago, not to mention its international acclaim and Oscar nomination a year ago.

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