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Should I Watch..? Hero
What's the big deal?
Hero is an epic martial arts action film released in 2002 and was produced, co-written and directed by Zhang Yimou. The film is presented in a similar style to the 2000 release Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (1) and together, they are often hailed as the first wuxia films to become successful in Hollywood. Wuxia films usually concern the adventures of traditional martial artists of legend and Hero remains close to its Chinese origins by telling the tale of the failed assassination of King Qin in 227 BC. It was the most expensive Chinese film in history at the time and the cast included internationally recognised actors such as Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi. Not released in the US until 2004 thanks to intervention by Quentin Tarantino, the film would ultimately go on to take $177.4 million worldwide and is widely acknowledged as one of the finest examples of the genre.
What's it about?
During the Warring States period before China became unified under the Qin dynasty, a man known as Nameless visited the Qin capital city requesting an audience with the king. Having already survived assassination attempts, the king is rightly paranoid and refuses to allow anyone within 100 paces of him. However, Nameless claims to have slain the king's would-be assassins - the spearman Long Sky, swordsman Broken Sword and Sword's lover Flying Snow - and presents each of their weapons as proof. Intrigued, the king agrees to hear Nameless' story and allows him to come closer.
Nameless describes how, having killed Long Sky, he enrols in a calligraphy school where Broken Sword and Flying Snow have taken refuge. Having infiltrated the school and witnessed Sword cheat on Snow with his apprentice Moon, Nameless challenges both Sword and Snow to a duel. After Snow kills Sword in revenge for his betrayal, Nameless kills Snow before the Qin army and recovers her weapon to bring to the king. But the king senses that not everything is as it seems and he soon tells Nameless what he thinks really happened...
King of Qin
Li Feng, Wang Bin & Zhang Yimou
Release Date (UK)
24th September, 2004
Action, Adventure, History
Academy Award Nomination
Best Foreign Language Film
What's to like?
Even if you are aware of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its mind-blowing beauty, nothing quite prepares you for just how stunning a picture Hero which takes Ang Lee's unforgettable style and takes to another level. Characters fly above a lake, duelling with swords that slice through the water with a noticeable lack of Hollywood CG - obviously they're floating on wires but at that precise moment, I didn't care how it was done. I was just enjoying the film which openly plays with our perception of reality and happily blurs the line between truth and fiction. For lovers of pure cinema, you won't find much better than this.
By cleverly retelling the same story from different perspectives, the film allows its extremely talented cast time to not just engage in breath-taking spectacles of action but also develop their characters more than you'd expect. And yet, despite the relatively simple story, the film quickly expands to encompass themes of loyalty, autocracy and patriotism to become a sprawling epic. Gone is the simple one-on-one macho set-ups from the likes of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, this is about something deeper than who can hit the hardest.
- For the scenes involving the Qin army, Zhang Yimou cast thousands of actual members of the Chinese army as well as the stunt performers. 18'000 people are estimated to have been cast as extras during these scenes.
- Originally released in 2002, studio executives were worried that a foreign-language film might flop in the US and delayed its release for two years. Their fears proved unfounded when the film topped the US box office upon release, the first foreign film to do so.
- Jet Li agreed to a pay-cut in order to appear in the film. He also suggested Donnie Yen for the role of Long Sky, reuniting with his co-star from 1992's Once Upon A Time In China II (2).
What's not to like?
I struggled to escape the feeling that the film was made purely for a Chinese audience and disagree that it was made with an international audience in mind - if it was, it was purely to upstage Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the visual stakes. The film speaks to a Chinese audience of a Chinese narrative, telling the story of a man with dreams of a unified China and the price for peace between warring factions. Of course, the US have been making patriotic films where they are the heroes for decades, whether its blowing up enormous alien vessels in Independence Day (3) or fighting the menace of the Native Americans through countless Westerns. I can't criticise Hero for pulling the exact same trick but the magic and majesty was somewhat lost on me.
The other thing I felt I missed out on was a satisfying conclusion. Not being particularly clued up on ancient Chinese history, the film's narrative and ending meant nothing to me so the emotional impact I craved was completely absent and I was left wondering what exactly it was all about. Yes, I had enjoyed a spectacular martial-arts film with enough beauty and grace to leave me lost for words. But it didn't quite land the killer punch I was expecting in the way Yimou's follow-up House Of Flying Daggers (4) did, which has a much simpler narrative to follow.
Should I watch it?
Once again proving to Western viewers that nobody can make a martial-arts movie quite like Asian cinema, Hero is a gob-smacking assault on the senses with countless scenes that feel like painted masterpieces. If ever a film was worth fishing out for the high definition of Blu-Ray then this is it. However, unless you are a scholar of ancient Chinese history and legend, the film's flag-waving finale might leave you a little cold.
Great For: Chinese viewers, the Chinese authorities, fans of visually stunning cinema
Not So Great For: Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal fans, impatient action movie lovers, anyone who hasn't a clue about Chinese history
What else should I watch?
Your first question is inevitably going to be whether this is better than Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Certainly, it offers a greater depth of story and even more imaginative and beautiful scenes that make you wonder why Hollywood even tries to emulate such films. But personally, I prefer House Of Flying Daggers - the story is much simpler to understand (and also isn't so reliant on Chinese history to follow) and offers even greater scenes of almost supernatural beauty.
Wuxia films have long been a staple of Asian cinema and it is only recently that Hollywood have started to copy the formula - with predictably mixed results. Despite the dream team of Jet Li and Jackie Chan on screen together for the first time, The Forbidden Kingdom (5) utterly fails to come close to the magnificent beauty of these genuine works of art. And while taking a more humorous approach, the animated Kung Fu Panda (6) films have been hailed in China as excellent interpretations of wuxia culture while also being hugely successful at the box office.
© 2016 Benjamin Cox