written by Feng Li and Bin Wang
directed by Yimou Zhang
starring Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Ziyi Zhang, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung
review by Stephen Notley
Okay, granted -- Hero isn't exactly new. It
came out in 2002
Ah, the Chinese; they really know what
they're doing. Back
in the early 90s the Hong Kong style was a revelation, John Woo's
slomo gunfights and the astonishing wire-work kungfu of films like Iron
Chinese Ghost Story and Once Upon a Time in China, mixing horror with
with heart-stopping images of beauty. It took a few years for
Hero is the next-level summation of the earlier HK films, a star-packed examination of heroism, bursting with light and color and holy-shit-did-you-see-that? action. Think of it like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Run, Lola, Run, a sequence of events replayed and reiterated, each new perspective illuminating a deeper facet of our ideas of hero.
The story is deceptively simple. Jet Li is a Nameless swordsman who arrives at the Emperor's Palace with extraordinary news: he has killed the three assassins --Sky, Flying Snow and Broken Sword-- who have for years so threatened the life of the Emperor that noone is allowed within 100 paces of him. Nameless sits 100 paces from the Emperor and explains what he did, how he defeated each enemy in turn, first Sky in a battle fought in the mind, then Flying Snow and Broken Sword by using their own jealousy against them.
Makes perfect sense until the Emperor says it's a lie. He knows Flying Snow and Broken Sword, knows they could never act so dishonorably, so the Emperor tells his own version. Nameless admits the truth but then tells a new version, and so on. What we end up with a kaleidescope of stories, the same characters and the same basic facts read one way and then the other, each telling dominated by a different color -- red for the story of passions and blood, blue for the cold scheming of treason, white for the transformative revelations at the end.
So that's the backbone, the basic idea of the film. What makes it kick is that you can't go five minutes without some jaw-droppingly original visual moment or action beat. Arrows, for instance. It's safe to say that Hero is the definitive arrow movie, eclipsing even The Two Towers in the ferocity and sky-darkening power of its arrows, arrows heaving in clouds from the Emperor's army of archers, arrows raining down on a town, pincushioning everything black with shafts and feathers.
Or how about the scene where Jet Li has to display his prowess with a sword so he tosses a white caligraphy brush up into the air, kicks a barrel of black brushes up after it, spins, lunges with his sword and gently guides the blade up the brush's shaft, splitting it lengthwise to the bristles which poof! away like dandelion seeds? Or the battle between Flying Snow and Broken Sword's apprentice Moon, an angry, lunging knife fight between women amid swirling vortexes of autumn leaves? Or the battle between Nameless and Broken Sword, dancing across a lake, batting a single drop of water back and forth between their blades to protect the honor of Flying Snow? Or the candles, the candles that sense murderous intent? Or, or, or… you get the idea.
It's a thick film, full with passion and honor and loss and courage and sacrifice and beauty. And its conclusion is so bold, so fearless, it fully earns the name Hero. It is one of the best movies. If you ain't seen it, do.