Sharp blade, big action

'Hero' and 'Bang Rajan' put an Asian spin on thrillers.

Asian historical epics are storming American theaters as summer draws to a close. That's especially good news since this week's imports, "Hero" and "Bang Rajan," are especially good movies.

"Hero" comes from Zhang Yimou, who led China's so-called Fifth Generation filmmaking movement with offerings such as "Ju Dou" and "The Story of Qiu Ju," then went into a slump.

I hereby declare his slump officially over. "Hero" is a walloping entertainment, brimming with the magic-realist action that made Ang Lee's somewhat similar "Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" a hit.

Jet Li plays a man with no name (shades of Clint Eastwood in his old spaghetti westerns!) who visits an emperor to receive praise for killing the monarch's enemies. In flashbacks, we see the warrior's valiant deeds - driven by martial-arts expertise and psychological savvy - as he recounts them to the king.

The ruler listens closely, then starts asking a few questions, leading to a plot twist that sheds startling new light on everything we've watched.

"Hero" gains its excitement less from the story it tells than from Mr. Zhang's brilliance in telling it. The screen pulses with choreographed movement, vibrantly framed images, and cascades of color that match plot events.

"Bang Rajan" comes from Thailand, where a strong movie renaissance has recently been under way. Based on an old Thai myth, Tanit Jitnukul's movie also bears close resemblance to "The Seven Samurai," the popular Japanese film about threatened villagers defended by a band of newfound friends. The main characters are downtrodden townsfolk, their wounded king, and the leader of a distant tribe that agrees to aid them.

"Bang Rajan" is a violent movie, so stay away if simulated jungle mayhem turns you off. That said, it's also graced with great visual flair and more suspense than most Hollywood thrillers.

Still to come are "Warriors of Heaven and Earth," due from China next week; "Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War," coming from South Korea the same day; and the bittersweet "Goodbye Dragon Inn," arriving from Taiwan next month.

"Hero," rated PG-13, and "Bang Rajan," not rated, contain violence.

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