Hero: Not Just Another Martial Arts Film
The movie Hero, presented by Quentin Tarantino, was released in the US August 27, 2004. It was directed by Yimou Zhang and starred Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and Maggie Cheung. Writers included Feng Li, Bin Wang, and Yimou Zhang. Hero was filmed on location in China and Mongolia.
The story begins with a local prefect in the kingdom of Qin being brought before the king to receive a reward for successfully defeating three assassins feared by the king. Being brought before the king, he is asked to recount how he was able to come away victorious from his confrontation with these assassins. In the course of relating his success, it is discovered that neither the hero nor his accomplishments are exactly what they seem.
The Experience of Hero
First, I’ve just got to say this was the most esthetically beautiful film I have ever seen. The cinematography was breathtaking. The chosen locations for this film made for some of the most jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on in a movie. As for the story, it starts out very simply. A man claiming to be a prefect of the kingdom is brought before the king with the news that he has successfully defeated three assassins that have been after the kings life. The story takes a turn when, in the course hearing the details, the king discovers that this prefect is not what he claims. The story as a whole progresses as the telling and portrayal of each encounter with the assassins. As the prefect gives the king the details of each encounter, the scene of each encounter is shot differently, respective to the account. Each time a portion of the prefect’s experience is recounted, the scene depicting it appears in a certain single, dominant color scheme. It’s not that it was shot through a filter of any kind (though, in some of the scenes, it clearly was). Almost all of the elements in the scene; walls, furniture, objects held or used by people in the scene, clothes, accessories, even makeup was, for the most part, some shade or variety of a single, dominant color, or a mix of that color and a related color. There were, of course, natural exceptions, like outdoor scenery, rocks, trees, the color of people's hair, skin, eyes and so on. The armor of the kings officers and troops, however, were an exception in whatever scene they appeared after the first. What made color an element of the story was that, with each recounting of events, even if it was in the same place, or involved the same people, the color scheme was different. If the story changed, the color scheme changed. (Being the simple minded person that I am, it made it easier for me to keep track of the story.
The first encounter detailed by the prefect was with the first of the assassins, Sky. Now, as the story is told, there isn't much in the direction of character development. What's shown is simply the details of the encounter, just as it was told to the king. This is largely the case with each of the encounters. Whatever is shown of the characters that could be considered of any depth is superficial at best and only appears as it's relevant to the telling of the respective account. (This is understandable as this is primarily a martial arts film.) This can quite easily be seen where the character of Sky is concerned. As for the aforementioned use of color, in the encounter with Sky the dominant color in the scene is pretty much a dark gray, like the color of stone. This is seen primarily in the uniforms and armor of the king's officials and soldiers. In the encounter with Sky, this color scheme appears, not only in the uniforms of the officials and the prefect, but in the walls, pillars, and pavement of the courtyard and surrounding structures. Sky's clothes were a different color, but of the same or a similar shade as the uniforms, walls, pillars, and pavement. As mentioned before, the king's army, when they appeared in other accounts, appeared in the same color scheme as in this encounter regardless of the dominant color of the respective account.
The prefect's account of his encounter with Flying Snow and Broken Sword was a bit more involved. The dominant color in the portrayal of the account was red. This seems appropriate considering the dispositions of Flying Snow, Broken Sword, and his servant Moon. In this account, the prefect paints an uncomplimentary picture of them. He describes them as childish, impulsive, and short-tempered. It is at this point that the overall story takes a turn. What the prefect doesn't know is that because of the history between the king and the two assassins, the king was able to glean something of an understanding of the kind of people that Flying Snow and Broken Sword were. Flying Snow and Broken Sword made an attempt on the king's life before, giving the king an opportunity to get a glimpse of who they were in the way they fought. This is especially true since the king found himself in face-to-face combat with Broken Sword. This personal encounter showed the king that Flying Snow and Broken Sword were not the people that the prefect made them out to be. It is at this point that the king realizes that the prefect has been attempting to deceive him and that he is not who he claims.
Now, the king shares what he believes is the truth about Flying Snow and Broken Sword, as well as what he believes transpired between the prefect and the two assassins. This account is shown with blue as the dominant color.
The prefect corrects the king's account with the truth, revealing what was shared with him by Broken Sword about the king's personal encounter with them. The truth of what transpired between the prefect, Broken Sword and Flying Snow was shown with white as the dominant color. What Broken Sword shared with the prefect about their encounter with the king was shown with green as the dominant color.
All this, coupled with the way the movie was acted and the choreography of the fight scenes, (for me at least), made this film a work of art. That impression was so strong that, in order to maintain the integrity of the experience, I found it more enjoyable to watch it in Chinese, even though I don’t speak a word of either Cantonese or Mandarin. I found watching it dubbed in English a bit . . . distracting (odd as that sounds). Like a great many others, I find that having to read subtitles can take away from the experience of a movie. But this, of course, depends on the perceived quality of said film. I’ve found, however, that the distraction of the subtitles is not so much the case with "Hero". It has been my experience that a film with a well told story can overcome the language barrier to an extent. To a small degree, I found this to be true with "Hero". This kind of made the subtitles more of a bonus than a necessity.
Now, in light of what I’ve just shared about this movie, I find myself having to issue a bit of a warning. I’ve encountered a number of movie fans who have something of a preference for realism. When faced with what is shown in the fight sequences in Hero, they can’t seem to get past how unrealistic and impossible they are. The fight sequences in Hero are fairly typical of many martial arts films, particularly those coming out of Asia. Especially the “period” martial arts films. If you require what I’m going to call a significant amount of realism in movies, I can’t recommend you see this movie. Whatever I’ve said about the quality of this film as a cinematic production will do nothing to offset the absence of realism in the fight scenes. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to who has a significant preference for reality in the movies they watch always runs into a problem with films like Hero. The lack of realism distracts them from just about any and every other attribute of the movie. The experience, pretty much, just spirals right down the drain. On the other hand, if (like me) you get a kick out of well-choreographed fight scenes that show the combatants in possession of impossible abilities and seemingly unobtainable skills, then this is the movie for you. As far as I’m concerned, Hero is every bit the equal of any of the popular martial arts cult classics. Also, what I think is an added bonus is the “big budget” feel that the movie has with the scenes of the king of Qin’s army and the attendants at his palace. Like the old big-budget, blockbuster movies of the late 40’s and early 50’s, they actually went to the trouble of acquiring the services of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. An estimated 18,000 of them were used as extras in the movie.
I don’t want to be mistaken about this. Hero is by no means your average run-of-the-mill martial arts film. I would recommend this to any fan of big productions with good stories (especially if it’s something based on actual history). I also have to give Hero an enthusiastic recommendation if you’re a fan of just a well and creatively told story. I think it’s just fantastic how the cinematography is used as an element in the story-telling. All things considered, Hero is an excellent example of great movie making.