Sunday, January 23, 2005


Directed by Yimou Zhang
2002, rated PG-13
4 stars
Chinese with English subtitles

Martial arts films have always been popular in American film culture. Actors like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee built their careers on America’s love of Asian fighting. More recently, films like The Matrix and other American action flicks have used sequences and choreography based on martial arts fighting styles. The year 2000 saw a rebirth of martial arts films centered on and originating from Asia, with the immensely popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which incorporated fantasy and myth into its beautifully choreographed fights, giving its characters the ability to fly. In 2002, another such film was created, focusing again on the beauty of choreography and imagery. Hero, directed by Yimou Zhang, originally released in China in 2002, has only recently opened in American theaters.

Everything about this film is beautifully done. Everything is artful and striking, from the scenery and the costumes to the manner in which the story is told. The story takes place in ancient China, when the country was split into seven separate warring nations, and centers around a nameless warrior, played by Jet Li. The king of one of the seven nations (played by Daoming Chen) is determined to conquer the other six and form one unified country. This goal, however, has made him the target of many assassination attempts from individuals who wish to defend their countries from invasion. Nameless (Li) has been invited to this king’s palace as an honor for defeating the three most dangerous assassins to the king: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Wai), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). As Nameless begins to tell his story of how he defeated these three masters, the story begins to unfold in beautiful layers of color and meaning.

Color is the most important part of Hero and is used to define everything from emotions to levels of truth. The story of Nameless’ victory over the three assassins is told in three different ways, each with a different level of truth, and each heavy with distinctly diverse emotions. The first story is the most embellished and untrue, with amazingly choreographed, but wholly unbelievable fight scenes—it is in this first story that the characters do most of their flying. Nameless, when telling this story, also gives its characters passionate and violent emotions. He invents a love triangle between the three assassins, and makes them out to be wildly jealous and emotionally impulsive. Consequently, the characters are all dressed in a bright, stunning red, reflecting their passion, and also, being the brightest color used, reflecting the blatancy of the lie. They are placed in brightly colored settings as well, like forests with deep orange autumn leaves. The next story is told by the king, who does not believe Nameless’ lie. The king gives the assassins more tranquil and controlled personalities—although the story is still embellished some with flying and such, since it is only a guess on the part of the king. Thus, the characters are now in brilliant blue, and set under blue skies, and next to clear blue lakes. The final story revealed is the truth, with the characters in white, to reflect the purity and truth, and also their pure intentions. This white also serves as a contrast against the king and his armies—at the palace, literally millions of black-robed courtiers gather to advise and counsel the king, and similarly, his army is comprised of rows upon rows of fierce, black-armored, terracotta-like warriors.

The film is simply beautiful to watch. The fight sequences are fascinating, beautifully choreographed and artfully filmed, with creative camera shots coming from under water, on top of high buildings, or just framing the scene with a well placed budding branch. Some parts of the film do go a little over the top, with the previously mentioned flying, and candles that can sense a murderous intent. In some ways the film even seems a little like Chinese propaganda in the conclusion. However, the amazing martial art sequences and overall beauty of the film completely make up for these slight shortcomings. Unlike Neo in The Matrix, these guys really do know Kung Fu.


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