Hero is bright, colorful, dramatic, and dazzling. The visual effects, mise-en-scene, and star power come together to create a powerhouse of entertainment. While the commercial success of the film is a tribute to its blockbuster status, the overall appeal of the film is tainted by the troubling nature of some of the themes. Hero is surely entertaining, but the underlying ideas surrounding power vs. the masses cannot be ignored.
Hero takes place during the Warring States period of Chinese history, occurring just before the King of Qin succeeds in creating a unified China. The story follows the journey of a skilled martial arts fighter called Nameless (Jet Li), who is credited with killing three assassins–Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung)–who attempted to murder the King of Qin (Chen Daoming). As a reward for his feats, Nameless receives the honor of sitting within 10 paces of the king. During their time together the king asks Nameless to recount the stories of killing the assassins. The rest of the film is made up of smaller stories told by Nameless and the king, interspersed with returns to the conversation between the two men. Nameless and the king of Qin engage in a battle of their own, fought within their minds.
Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou, was released in 2002 and was the most expensive project in the history of Chinese cinema. After its release, Hero also became the highest grossing film in China’s history. The film was not released in the U.S. until 2004, where it debuted as #1 and garnered the second highest opening weekend for a foreign language film. Hero was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Alfred Bauer Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
I would argue that Hero‘s international success is largely due to its visual appeal. The film includes beautifully choreographed fight scenes that resemble dances more so than battles. Despite Hero’s categorization as a martial arts film, emphasis is placed on the beauty and skill of the craft rather than the violence. The costumes and set design work in conjunction with the choreography to create a visual masterpiece. Typical of Zhang Yimou, the colors in Hero are vibrant and emotionally charged, highlighting the action and overarching ideas within every scene and the film as a whole.
Needless to say, Hero was an international success from both a commercial and critical perspective. However, I found that the visually beautiful scenes often eclipse the film’s major themes. Some of the visual elements assist in emphasizing nationalism (surrounding a common Chinese identity), but often distract from some of the more troubling aspects of the film. Hero is meant to convey a sense of pride in a national identity, but it also implies that the masses are not capable of deciding their own fate. Instead, the masses must place their trust in the implied superior intelligence of the ruling body. Troubling indeed.
Hero is undeniably an entertaining film. Its visual elements are absolutely captivating and the plot will keep viewers on their toes. I would recommend watching this film for the quality of entertainment, but not for the content of its overall message. I believe it is certainly possible to enjoy Hero, but, as with any film, it is also important to maintain a critical eye towards the underlying themes.