Hero is the kind of film that often imitated, but never duplicated here in the States. This film is proof positive that it is possible for a film to stand on only style points, with the actual story taking a backseat. To watch Hero is to watch visual poetry, and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor as the end credits started rolling.
Hero was actually released in 2002 in China and Hong Kong. Wind of the film reached American directing maestro Quentin Tarantino, and he was chomping at the bit to get the film released in the U.S. An agreement was reached where Tarantino’s name would be attached to the film (although he played no part in the actual production, but reportedly did agree to attach his name for no monetary payment), and in return Miramax Studios would have to see to it that the film was released uncut and undubbed.
And how happy I am that Hero did find its way to the U.S. Cinematic beauty on this level should be seen by all.
The core story takes place in ancient China. At this time the country is divided into seven kingdoms, and the territory is hostile. The most powerful ruler of the land, Qin, is under constant assassination threats, most notably from warriors Sky (Yen), Broken Sword (Wai), and Flying Snow (Cheung).
One day a magistrate, Nameless (Li), enters the presence of Qin to tell him that he has killed all three of his major adversaries. Asked how this was possible, Nameless tells Qin of how he defeated the enemies using his sword fighting skills and elements of human nature.
The majority of Hero is flashbacks to how Nameless defeated the ruler’s enemies. These are extended scenes of incredible beauty and movement. They truly are poetry on film, and the viewer is immediately drawn into the style. Nameless and his opponents walk on water, glide through the air, and partake in unbelievably well-filmed sword fights.
The most mind-blowing scene involves Nameless’ homeland being attacked by thousands of soldiers from afar armed with bows and arrows. Sights like these are seen rarely in film these days, and director Yimou Zhang is nothing short of a directing prodigy.
Zhang has made the most visually striking film in years with his use of color (the battle involving the falling leaves is astounding) and actually letting the battles play out instead of inserting a cut every five seconds. Oftentimes his camera sits back and watches the way a spectator would. He lets the true magic of the actors and their undeniable talent unfold on screen. This gives the film a gigantic scope, and gives us so much to look at.
It is very easy to argue that the story is paper thin. This is in part true, as the story is fairly predictable from the beginning and is essentially a placeholder for the action. But this is a movie that never makes us believe that story is its first and foremost concern. We have long action scenes with intermittent cuts back to Nameless and Qin. This is just essentially to set up the next battle. The film shows us the story through action, not dialogue.
The entire cast turns in solid performances, with Li appropriately subdued. He is proud of his work and treats Qin with the respect a ruler insists upon. Wai, Cheung, and Yen all turn in physical, heartfelt performances as the villains. Screenwriters Li, Wang, and Zhang really gives these characters depth, separating them from the cutout villains of so many other films.
Hero is worth seeing on scale alone, and also as a reminder that the true Hong Kong action films only come from Hong Kong. This film will be imitated here in America, but never duplicated. Hero is a visual, emotional, and poetic masterpiece.
Studio: Miramax Films
Length: 96 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality.
Theatrical Release: August 27, 2004
Directed by: Yimou Zhang
Written by: Feng Li & Bin Wang & Yimou Zhang.
Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang, Daoming Chen, Donnie Yen