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Hero (2002)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

HERO (2002)

Starring: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen

Written By: Zhang Yimou, Wang Bin, Li Feng Directed By: Zhang Yimou

The Short Version

History is mythologized into artistic legend.

Hero is a movie no Western studio would dare to make; pity, that.

Swordplay becomes poetry, and color becomes time.

The choreography, cinematography, music, direction, and acting are all fantastic.

Hero transcends action; this is just a great motion picture, period.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

ARTISAN CHEDDAR.

Rich, flavorful, and beautifully crafted.


Pairs Well With...

GEWURZTRAMINER.

An explosion of lush flavors and sensations; a beautiful experience in a glass.

“Great calligraphy.”

“Great swordsmanship.”


As the millennium approached, Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who had gained worldwide acclaim for dramatic works such as Raise the Red Lantern, decided that he wanted to try his hand at a Wu Xia picture – a martial arts flick.  After perusing a plethora of adventure stories in search for something to adapt, he found that nothing previously written allowed for the style of story he hoped to tell, and so, with the help of two collaborators, he set about writing his own, using the foundation of the nation of China itself as the basis of his tale.

The result was Hero, and it is truly a wonder to behold.

Though its martial arts elements are certainly key enough to qualify Hero as the Wu Xia film Zhang Yimou sought to make (and to satisfy fans who are only interested in watching fantastic fight scenes), in reality, the fight sequences are merely a device used to get to a much greater story.  (Just as the martial arts themselves are but a means to discover higher truth, if one follows a traditional master.)  For surrounding this tale of four assassins and a man who would be Emperor, there are stories of love and betrayal, trust and idealism, and, in the end, the creation of a unified nation known as “China.”  These are stories told not just with swords, but also with colors and music and breathtaking vistas.  Over the course of just under a hundred minutes, Hero blooms like a flower before the eyes of the viewer, and in the end, takes its rightful place a masterpiece well worth owning for cinephiles of any stripe.

What makes Hero so wonderful?  Consider these elements to be but a taste from a grand buffet.


The Neverending Story.  At its core, Hero is a conversation between two men: the Prefect/assassin Nameless (Jet Li, The Expendables), and the King of Qin, Who Would Be Emperor (Chen Dao Ming, Back to 1942).  During the course of the conversation, several different versions of the same stories are told through flashbacks, all of which cannot be true; it’s possible that none of them are.  (Those familiar with the canon of great Asian cinema will readily recognize this storytelling device from Kurosawa’s Rashomon... not to mention the notion of a hero with no name from Yojimbo, et.al.  Not that this is a damnation; far from it.  There is no shame in being inspired by Akira Kurosawa.)  Far from being repetitive, the results are engrossing, and the storytelling rich.  Indeed, by the end, one realizes that the only way to reach the truth is to have considered all of the presented possibilities.  Beautiful stuff.  (And hey, for the fight fans, it allows one to see the same characters die several different ways.)

An Epic Premise.  For its frame, Hero finds itself near the end of the Warring States Period, a time during which the land now China was still a collection of – surprise – warring states.  The above noted conversation is about a single obstacle preventing the King of Qin from moving completely forward with his vision to unite all of these states as a single empire under his rule: his fear of a trio of assassins.  The elimination of these assassins – and the removal of one more obstacle, when all is said and done – allows the King of Qin to forge ahead, leading to the creation of China.  (This is, of course, not really accurate history, but rather, a myth woven into history in almost fairy tale fashion.  My regular readers already know better than to get true history from dramatic films.)  The foundation of a nation and empire: how much grander a stage could one ask for?  Even more impressive, though, is the fact that while there are definite Chinese patriotic notes here, this is not a bombastic “rah-rah” flag-waving film that most Western – and by that I mostly mean American – filmmakers would go for.  This is a tale without villains that allows for honor on all sides, and that is an incredible accomplishment in and of itself. 

The Sights.  Just as important to Hero as the framing stage is its series of physical stages, from the elaborate (even while empty) Great Hall of the King of Qin to the almost surreal calligraphy school; from a perfectly calm lake to a wind-whipped desert; from a grove of trees with perfectly arranged leaves to a chess house in the rain.  The locations are beautifully chosen and meticulously set, and the eye of DP Christopher Doyle assures that they are captured at their very best.  Colors become characters and markers of time, and the movements of the actors poetry itself.  Few films earn the description “visual feast” as readily and beautifully as Hero.

The Sounds.  Those visuals are perfectly accented by a sublime score from composer Tan Dun, with outstanding featured performances by Japanese taiko drummers Kodo and the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman.  This is a soundtrack album worth owning on its own merits.  [Additional note: please, please, please watch this in Chinese with whatever subtitles you require.  The sound of the original language lends additional weight (and beauty) to all that is said, especially the two-word pronunciation of what Westerners read as “China.”]

Wu Xia.  And then, of course, there are the fights, choreographed in a style that combines extraordinary combat, graceful dance, and wire work fantasy.  (This is not Western wire work; this is how to do it right.  The fantasy style makes the impossibility acceptable.)  Outstanding setup and support from behind the camera allows dramatic actors with no real martial arts experience to stand toe-to-toe with real masters and look good doing it, and the masters are allowed to go to town against each other in one of the film’s most outstanding sequences: the chess house duel, which pits Jet Li against Donnie Yen (Ip Man).  Even with wire work to exaggerate things, the skill of these men is plain for even the untrained eye to see, and their fight is an absolute treat to watch.  (Bonus: the polite request for the blind musician to continue playing as they fight.  Brilliant.)  Alternatively, the forest duel between Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, 2046) and Moon (Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is an altogether different work of art, presented with such awesome grace that the uninformed viewer might never know that this is not, in fact, a match of trained fighters.  Even to the informed viewer, the fact matters little; it’s still amazing to behold, as is all of the combat in Hero.

Performances.  The quiet storm that is Jet Li.  The emotional magnetism of Zhang Ziyi.  The towering strength of Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk.  And so on down the line.  Missed notes?  None to be found.


If all of that sounds too full of superlatives to be true, I’d have to say that you‘ve not yet experienced Hero for yourself.  If there’s a flaw to be found in this film beyond the false history that is automatically forgiven as a matter of course in such stories, I haven’t discovered it, even after several viewings.  It’s beautiful.  It’s breathtaking.  It’s exciting.  It’s sublime.

Bottom line, whether one is normally a fan of martial arts films or not, Hero is worth experiencing, and owning a copy of for one’s permanent library.  It is a movie with high ambitions, and incredibly, it not only reaches the heights of those ambitions, but exceeds them.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January 31, 2014

Chinese New Year - Year of the Horse


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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