Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei
Chinese Title: Ying xiong
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Writing Credits: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou
Starring: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, CHen Daoming, Donnie Yen
Genre: Sword fighting action
Year Released: 2002
Runtime: 96 min
Rating: **** (out of four stars)
With a budget of US$30 million, Zhang Yimous epic martial arts film, Hero, is one of the most costly Chinese films ever. Other than the respected director, the rest of the cast and crew also reads like a whos who of Asian cinema - produced by Bill Kong (producer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), cinematography by Christopher Doyle, action choreography by Tony Ching Siu Tung, costume designs by Emi Wada, score by Tan Dun (this time with Itzhak Perlman on strings and the Kodo Drummers on drums), and a star studded cast featuring Tong Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen and Chen Daoming, expectations for this film have been very high. Yet, Hero does not disappoint, and to call it a masterpiece is not premature at all.
The opening title cards gives notice to the audience that the following story is one of the myriad tales of attempts to assassinate the first Emperor of China - the Emperor of Qin (Chen Daoming), who was also responsible for unifying the seven Warring States into one nation. Without further ado, the audience is immediately acquainted with Nameless (Jet Li), who enters the Palace and claims that he has disposed of the three skilled assassins that have been after the Emperors life - Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung). The Emperor is shocked, as Nameless is only a small county official, whilst the three assassins are all highly skilled. Nameless is allowed to come within ten steps of the Emperor, and the Emperor requests that he recount the demise of the three pugilists.
Thus begins a series of flashbacks and flashback-within-a-flashbacks, offering different spins on the same tale of the assassins. Its very similar (although the subject matter is much tamer) to Kurosawas Rashomon, and Zhang Yimou has even added a visual flourish to the narrative structure by colour-coding each version of the story. It will be spoilerly to reveal any more of the plot, but suffice to say that things, as usual, are never what they seem to be. What is interesting about Heros script is that for a film that short (96 minutes), its an intricately plotted affair, rife with twists and turns, and still manages to be an emotionally resonant film to boot. Central to the plot is the question: what makes a hero? And the film presents a rather unconventional take on the pros and cons of assassinating the Emperor of Qin, and the moralistic questions it poses is nothing short of philosophical. There has rarely been a martial arts movie that lay claim to that particular feat.
The romance between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, whilst always only hinted at, is given additional depth by the superlative acting of both Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, who again need not speak at all to convey their emotions, reminiscent of their previous collaboration on In The Mood For Love. Jet Li is suitably expressionless for most of the film, whilst Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi (who plays Moon, servant of Broken Sword and whom harbours affections for her master) are given very minor and arguably inconsequential roles, although their performances are still nothing to complain about. Chen Daoming possesses enough of an authoritative air to bring a relatively authentic feel to his role as the Emperor, aided no doubt by the powerful delivery of his lines. Despite the rather shallow characterizations that each actor has to work with, all of them manage to do rather well within the confines.
Yet, all these have to play second fiddle to the technical aspects of the film - Hero is easily one of the most overproduced movies I have ever seen. Every shot, every hair, every leaf, every turn and every roll seems meticulously planned, and nothing ever seems to occur unplanned. However, it is very hard to consider this a drawback when everything comes together so well. Hero is a beautiful movie in every sense of the word - Christopher Doyle goes into overdrive in this film, using luscious colours to paint the world the characters exist in, and every colour theme employed (red, yellow, blue, white and green) is stunning to look at. His work is aided by Emi Wadas fantastic costume designs, immaculate art direction, and a slew of scenic China locales that are postcard-perfect. There is one sequence in which a small province faces the wrath of thousands of arrows from the Qin army, and another where Flying Snow and Moon battle each other in a forest full of yellowed leaves that are guaranteed to take ones breath away.
Then there is the exceptional action choreography by Tony Ching, and Hero manages to work in quite a few action set pieces, practically pitting every main character at each other at least once through the film. Some of the fight sequences are raw and visceral, whilst others resemble more a dance than anything else. This is as good as action choreography can get, and the set pieces are definitely on par with that other martial arts movie that the Western world is acquainted with - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. All this plays out to a evocative score by Tan Dun, which employs Itzhak Perlmans violin solos for the more emotional scenes, and the energetic drumming of the Kodo Drummers for the action sequences.
Comparisons will definitely be drawn between Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which seems to be the benchmark martial arts movie nowadays, but ultimately Hero wins out due to its excellent visuals and an emotionally stronger script. An epic without the standard length of an epic, and definitely one of the best looking films ever committed to celluloid, Hero is undoubtedly already one of the best films that will be released this year.
Final Word: It takes the word "overproduced" to a whole new level, but with the stunning cinematography, mostly impeccable action choreography, great acting, and a surprisingly well-written plot, Hero simply cannot go wrong.