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'Hero' (2002) Movie Review

Updated on October 7, 2017
Winnie Khaw profile image

Winnie Khaw graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an English M.A. (concentration in creative writing).

Movie Rating

4 stars for Hero (2002)

Hero is an undoubtedly visually spectacular cinematic production, each frame an artistic riot of color and texture, and despite its overly simplistic interpretation and justification of a bloody period in China’s history, manages to mostly successfully combine in one work the conflict between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism.

Hero (2002) Movie Review

Released in 2002 to glowing praise as well as discomfited criticism from both Western and Eastern audiences, Hero marks director Zhang Yimou’s first film entry into the wuxia genre. Told in Rashomon-like flashbacks, the basic storyline—set in warring states feudal China before unification by the Qin dynasty—centers on that of Nameless (Jet Li), a warrior who has apparently killed three assassins of the greatest threat to the Qin warlord (Chen Daoming): Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and is consequently brought before the king in order to be rewarded for his efforts.

The Qin ruler urges Nameless to relay the tale of how he managed to destroy the powerful assassins, and the following stories, told in four discrete color schemes of red, blue, green, and white, constitute the next 80 minutes or so (of an overall 99). Hero is an undoubtedly visually spectacular cinematic production, each frame an artistic riot of color and texture, and despite its overly simplistic interpretation and justification of a bloody period in China’s history, manages to mostly successfully combine in one work the conflict between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism.

After stringent searches for possible hidden weapons, Nameless, an official from a small province, is allowed into the presence of the king with hundreds, possibly thousands of watchful guards at a distance. In a chest he has the two swords of the lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow, and the spear of Long Sky. The Qin warlord is eager to hear about how Nameless vanquished the three assassins. Enveloped in red, the story unfolds thus: Nameless first killed Sky in a weiqi parlor and then went to the calligraphy school in which Snow and Sword live in estrangement from each other. Jealous of Snow’s past affair with Sky, Sword sleeps with his disciple Moon (Ziyi Zhang), intentionally allowing Snow to see them.

Furious, Snow kills Sword. Distraught, she is an easy victim for Nameless. However, the Qin warlord is not so easily persuaded of the veracity of the tale because of his knowledge of the assassins’ emotional control; he proposes his own version, in which they surrendered their lives to Nameless in order for the latter to gain access to the king. Nameless admits some truth to the accusation, and provides the real background of himself and what happened with the three assassins. In the end, convinced by Sword’s simple phrase, “All Under Heaven,” Nameless forgoes his attempt to murder the Qin warlord. Sword allows Snow to kill him in order to prove his love for her, and in order to “go home together” she kills herself. Only Moon is left to mourn the sacrifice of a few for the many.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung give fine performances as Snow and Sword, though one gets the impression that, given the material, other veteran actors could have delivered similar results. Jet Li as the intensely stoic Nameless, though wearing a suitably inscrutable expression, could unfortunately be interpreted as having a blank face throughout, one he’s worn before in other films but not to this bland extent. Chen Daoming has a difficult task—he must evoke sympathy from for the historically-hated Qin warlord; Chen does admirably well. Moon, important only for her devotion to Sword, is notable because she is played by Ziyi Zhang, a fact an answer in itself. Richly clothed in whorls of colored fabric and placed artistically by matching set pieces, the actors of Hero execute their roles sufficiently well at the least to make the film intriguingly, surreally credible. Composer Tan Dun’s musical score serves to powerfully emphasize the sense of sadness and loss inherent in the film.

The portrayal of the Qin king as a misunderstood idealist is a controversial topic for reviewers. As well, Western audiences fret over the seemingly pro-Communist message agreeing with the notion of sacrificing one’s life and ideals for the government. However, from another perspective, one not influenced by historical context, Hero can be independently seen as a vibrant ode to the great paladin warrior of Chinese myth and legend who can uphold his ideals for justice despite the odds. If the fictionalized Qin king truly had such noble aspirations, then the reasoning of Sword makes some sense. By the finale one wonders who is the true hero of the film, and that precisely must be the reasoning behind the strikingly bare feature title.

From even the first glance Hero illuminates the screen with its visual splendor, appearing martial arts in poetry, a spectacle on an even overwhelming scale thanks to the vision of Zhang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Some parts are overly so and stretch credulity, as the death scene of Nameless—could the archers’ aim be so horrible that a thousand are needed to kill one man? The wall is left bristling with the missed arrows, giving unintentionally humorous effect to the Qin warlord’s fear that his guards are incompetent.

Rooted in the wuxia genre, this vivid motion picture of both melodrama and self-sacrifice uses its conventions without self-conscious reflection, with the trademark stylized names. Curiously, despite the various aspects seen of the assassins, little character development actually occurs; this may be due to the virtual stasis of the story. Coordinated by action director Ching Siu-tung, fantastical wire-fu fight scenes of cinematically breathtaking beauty dominate the film, especially during Nameless’ fantastical accounts, lessening to more realistic levels when the truth of his intent is revealed. All in all, Hero could be said to function better in separate parts than as a whole


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