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"A masterful tale - a tapestry of extraordinary color."
"Aesthetically, this is one of the most magnificent movies I've ever seen."
"Hits the highest degree of artistic expression - cinematic enlightenment."
Hero  

Cast

Nameless: Jet Li
Broken Sword: Tony Leung
Flying Snow: Maggie Cheung
Moon: Zhang Ziyi
King of Qin: Chen Dao Ming
Long Sky: Donnie Yen
Review September 2004

After two years of trying to find a distributor, "Hero" finally arrives in American theaters. And not a moment too soon! Championed by Miramax and Quentin Tarantino, this 2002 Academy Award nominated film has it all - romance, drama, action, and intrigue. Starring Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi, "Hero" explores the events leading up to China's first Emperor by demonstrating how legends are made and heroes are born. When a minor official defeats three of the King's fiercest enemies, he is summoned to the King's court to present his story in elaborate detail - one filled with jealousy, deception, love, and honor. Using a unique blend of Chinese art forms, tradition, and philosophy, writer/director Zhang Yimou creates a masterful tale - a tapestry of extraordinary color.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, before the First Emperor, China was divided into seven warring nations (Qin, Zhao, Han Wei, Yan, Chu, and Qi), each vying for power over the land. Out of the seven, the largest and strongest was Qin, ruled by a ruthless king who wished to conquer all for himself and in turn, become its first Emperor. For decades, the country endured inner turmoil and war, inspiring many to hone their skills as assassins. Among those resisting Qin's conquests were three legendary assassins: Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Sky. To anyone who could defeat these assassins, the King of Qin promised worldly riches and power, not to mention a private meeting with the King himself. And for 10 years, no one came close to claiming the prize. Until now.

When a county sheriff arrives at the fortified palace with weapons of the three assassins, he is welcomed with open arms and brought before the King. Sitting only ten paces from the King, Nameless tells the tale of how he defeated his mighty foes single handedly with weapons far superior to the sword. Suspicious, the King offers up his own version, contradicting much of what Nameless has described. Back and forth the two exchange fact and fiction, moving toward an ultimate truth. A truth about love, honor, and duty. A truth that will reveal the purpose of Nameless' visit. And a truth that symbolizes the future of China.

The film takes place during the Warring States Period in Chinese history (475-221 BC), a period noted for endless violence and bloodshed. And it all ends before the King of Qin, Yinzheng, defeats the six other warring factions and centralizes them under one bureaucratic empire. The aftermath, known as the first Imperial Era, saw the Great Wall erected (or reformed) to ward off barbarian invasions, the Terra Cotta Army built to guard the Emperor's tomb, and a series of standardized systems put into place to handle weight and measures, legal issues, currency, and the written word. Although the first Emperor of China will forever be known as a ruthless tyrant, his political foresight helped set the precedence for China for well over two millennia.

"Hero" represents the first martial arts film in Zhang Yimou's illustrious career. And it just so happens to be the largest budgeted Chinese film ever made too. Responsible for alluring period films like "Raise the Red Lantern" and "The Road Home," Yimou brings the cultural qualities and traditions of Chinese history and mythology to life. An accomplished cinematographer himself, Yimou adds a magnificent vision to the piece, transforming what was a very brutal time into one of simplicity and elegance. In "Hero," fight scenes become fluid art forms, calligraphy equals good swordsmanship, and dialogue is spoken like poetry. Undoubtedly inspired by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Yimou also projects pride and passion as the film's central themes rather than vengeful violence. Just like there are those willing to die for power and greed, there are those willing to die for peace and honor. Concludes the King of Qin: "Swordsmanship's ultimate achievement is the absence of the sword in both hand and heart."

Aesthetically, this is one of the most magnificent movies I've ever seen. With bold, epic like cinematography from Christopher Doyle and graceful choreography from action director Tony Ching Siu-Tung, "Hero" manages subtlety and sophistication. As armies approach launching thousands of arrows into the air, Nameless and Flying Snow launch a defense that can only be characterized as a dance. And when a blind musician breaks a harp string in the middle of a song, Nameless and Sky pause for the music to continue before clashing amidst raindrops. Adding further texture to the main themes are the colorful costumes from Emi Wada and the production design of Tingxiao Huo and Zhenzhou Yi. Working together in perfect tandem, stunning scenes like the foliage fight between Flying Snow and Moon or the carefully crafted water ballet between Nameless and Broken Sword become wonderfully expressive.

Distinctively, as the stories transition from acts of jealous rage to undying love to death and honor and ultimately, inner peace, so too do the aesthetics. As Nameless relays his ingenious story of entrapment the palette begins with red, symbolizing imagination. When the King of Qin raises doubts about Nameless' story, his interpretation transitions to blue, defining his perception of the assassins and their motives. And eventually, the two sides come to terms and the truth emerges when all is white. But it's not until the colors turn green that true enlightenment is reached.

Well schooled in wuxia (martial arts literature), Yimou spent three years developing this highly original story. Combining traditional values with modern motives, "Hero" is a myth based in historical fact. And its delivery is similar to that of "Rashomon," a murder mystery where four defendants share their stories and perspectives about a horrific crime. The only problem with "Hero" is that the final picture is never made clear. We are told the story from Nameless' perspective, the re-interpretation from the King of Qin, and several more retorts until the only truth remaining is the present reality - Nameless situated ten paces from the King. Was anything Nameless said really true? Did anyone die under his sword? And did any of it really matter?

Fact or fiction, legends are born from great acts of heroism and sacrifice, passed on from generation to generation. The ambiguity of which, only enhances the magnitude of their perception. In other words, it's the telling of the story that gets us enraptured and excited, allowing our imaginations to run wild with the details. And certainly, "Hero" instigates our imaginations to roam free inside and out of Yimou's magnificent piece. Immersed in vibrant color, ethereal beauty, and poetic swordplay, "Hero" hits the highest degree of artistic expression - cinematic enlightenment.



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