Hero (2003) Movie Review

Much of your ability to appreciate the finer points of Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” depends on your knowledge of Chinese culture and history. This doesn’t mean those of us completely unaware of the country’s monumental struggle to unite itself under one kingdom, or the zen-ish notion of swordsmanship as an art form rather than a martial prowess, can’t also appreciate the film. There’s plenty to like about “Hero”, but unfortunately for anyone who has seen any number of Hong Kong swordplay film (or even Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), there’s nothing new here.

International action star Jet Li (“Kiss of the Dragon”) returns to mainland China to headline “Hero” as Nameless (his character has no name), a low-level provincial official who, as the film opens, is being honored by the King of Qin (pronounced “Chin”) for having slain 3 renown assassins. The assassins have been a nuisance to the King, but they’re only 3 out of many, since the King’s idea of wiping out the other 6 Kingdoms to unite the country under one banner isn’t exactly making him popular with the other 6 Kings. Having proven himself worthy to sit before the King, Nameless begins to tell the story of how he came to kill all 3 assassins. But the King of Qin didn’t get to his present position by being stupid, and before long he’s turning Nameless’ story on its head, and offering his own little tale…

Directed by Zhang Yimou and lensed by the prolific Christopher Doyle, “Hero” is a lavish, high-end production. (I believe it’s the most expensive film ever made in China.) It’s a stunning film to look at, and having seen Doyle’s previous works in the Hong Kong film “Ashes of Time” and the South Korean production “Motel Cactus” (to name just a few), I am not at all hesitant to assign half of the credit for the film’s breathtaking visuals to Doyle. It’s perhaps the best example of cosmic injustice that Doyle has been relegated to second banana for so very long, but hopefully that will change soon.

A lot has been made of the picture’s stellar cast, and why not? The names involved ranges from Jet Li to the too-cool-for-school Tony Leung (“Infernal Affairs”), the long-time stunner Maggie Cheung (“In the Mood for Love”), and Donnie Yen, another martial arts superstar. While Donnie Yen, as spearman Sky, only appears for the film’s first 10 minutes, just long enough to be killed off by Li’s Nameless, the other 3 stars are permanent fixtures.

Yimou has elected to tell much of the movie in flashback form (there’s even a flashback within a flashback!), and because Daoming Chen’s King of Qin insists that Li’s Nameless is not telling the whole story, the movie begins to play games with the truth. As a result, we get whole scenes being replayed from various perspectives, all leading to the full truth. I have to admit, when the twist came (it comes quite early, in fact), I was caught off guard. (“Hero” is only 90 minutes long, and as a result, the plot moves quite fast.) A movie that began as a story about an official reporting the deaths of 3 assassins soon become a personal, emotional tale about love and hate between Tony Leung’s Broken Sword and Maggie Cheung’s Flying Snow, with Nameless caught in the middle.

If you’ve seen any of the previews, you’ll probably notice that the film seems to “change color”. That’s because Doyle and Zhang uses different primary colors to tell different versions of the truth; not only does whole scenes get re-lit and re-colored, but clothes and mood also shifts as well. I won’t pretend to understand the reasons behind the various color schemes being employed (probably that whole Chinese culture thing again), although the color shifts did affect the way I viewed each scene.

Unlike Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger” (which is what this movie will be compared to when it’s finally released in the States), Zhang seems more comfortable using CGI. There are a number of computer-aided effects, such as when thousands of arrows blanket the sky and rain hell down on a building. Which leads me to one minor quibble: Although Zhang has no hesitation about assembling hundreds of extras for possible battle sequences, no such major battles ever take place. Instead, “Hero” is a collection of one-on-one fights. While the swordplay is quite good, even by Hong Kong swordplay standards, I was a little disappointed that so many extras were moved to and fro without one single major battle sequence ever coming to fruition. Those expecting major clashes on the scale of “Braveheart” will be disappointed. Actually, there are no major clashes at all.

“Hero” is a great film to look at, but that might not be enough for some. Like me, maybe they’re jaded from having seen so many films in this genre, and will find that “Hero” doesn’t have anything underneath its glossy surface to grapple onto. It’s melodramatic take on love, hate, and trust are nice, but what else? Unlike Wong Kar-wai’s “Ashes of Time”, an ageless story about human destiny in the guise of a martial arts film, “Hero” plays out as too standard for its own good — excellent cinematography and soulful turns by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung notwithstanding.

Yimou Zhang (director) / Yimou Zhang, Wang Bin, Feng Li (screenplay)
CAST: Jet Li …. Nameless
Tony Leung …. Broken Sword
Maggie Cheung …. Flying Snow
Donnie Yen …. Sky
Daoming Chen …. King of Qin
Ziyi Zhang …. Moon

Buy Hero on DVD