Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang
The story of Hero is fairly straightforward. A nameless warrior, literally (Li), is summoned to the Emperor of Qin to relay his story of how he defeated three infamous assassins (Leung, Cheung, and Donnie Yen). Along the way, the Emperor starts to doubt the warrior’s veracity, suggesting other possible alternatives than what Nameless has said.
The story is easily the least interesting part of the film, providing more than anything a framework from which to hang spectacular battles and set pieces. However, there is a hint of Rashomon to Hero through the idea of the retelling of the same story but through different lenses. I rather enjoyed seeing the different ways the same story played out. As each retelling changes, the impression of each character changes as well. Even the Emperor, who is not a character in the stories, goes from hero to villain then somehow back to hero again through the course of the film, and there is a similar sort of circular journey for the other main characters. It’s a neat story-telling method.
The real stars of the film are the fight sequences and the production itself. I am not a kung fu movie fan. I am not a wuxia nut. I don’t seek out Chinese fighting movies for something fun to watch. But HOLY COW the fight sequences are drop dead stunning. All the actors and actresses involved were beyond compare in their breathtaking choreography. It was as if I was watching some sort of grand ballet played out with swords. The movie really makes no pretense that it wants to focus on anything else; within the first five minutes we are already flashing back to Nameless’ first battle with an assassin. Okay, then, jump right in! The slow motion, the flying through the air, the glorious swishy costumes that accentuate every move, all combine to make the fight sequences simply jaw dropping.
The only thing better in this film than the fighting was the production. Simply put, Hero ranks right up there as one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, and I do not say that lightly. It’s stunning. Simply stunning. The film is a continuum of gorgeous set pieces. Opening in the Emperor’s palace, you will be stunned by the hordes of soldiers in black adorned with bright crimson feathers on their helmets. Later in the film, a quiet mountainside lake vista will leave you in awe. And ultimately, a desert mountain top scene with two characters dressed completely in flowing robes of white is dazzling. Shot after shot, scene after scene, Hero puts on a hell of a show. I watched it on the regular television at my house. Now I kinda wish I could see it in a theater. It certainly deserves the adjective ‘epic.’
While the fight scenes and production values are monumental, the acting performances were kind of phoned in. Jet Li does little else than fight spectacularly and speak stoically. We are given precious little insight into the character’s motivation for his action. I suppose it doesn’t really matter; one doesn’t watch a Jet Li movie to hear him recite ‘Hamlet,’ after all, you watch it to watch him fight. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung fare better as two assassins who may or may not be in love with each other, but their roles are certainly not career-defining; I have seen both of them in much more interesting parts. And pert little Ziyi Zhang is somewhat wasted as the apprentice to one of the assassins; she has very little to do in the film except stand at the wayside and look concerned.
Thematically, the film ultimately speaks of loyalty and patriotism. I found this a bit too nationalistic, a bit too much like propaganda in its flavor. But I suppose it’s no different than an American film about the War for Independence, or the Civil War.
Why watch this movie? Simply put, it’s a movie that deserves to be seen. It’s unfailingly beautiful and spectacular. Story-wise, it’s alright, but that’s not the reason to see it. Shot for shot, it would be difficult to find a more impressive film.
Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10