Hero is another in a long line of wuxia films to come out of China. Wuxia translates to martial hero, with wuxia films featuring the adventures of such martial artists and heroes. In particular the martial artists of wuxia films, and in Hero, are capable of surreal and supernatural feats. Such feats include but are not limited to flying through the air, running across water, and leaping through the branches of trees as if they weighed no more than a feather. Directed by Zhang Yimou, famous for prior films such as Raise the Red Lantern (1992) and Red Sorghum (1987), Hero is based off of a real assassination attempt in Chinese history and features an all-star cast. Jet Li, famous worldwide for his roles in various action movies, plays the part of Nameless, the nameless protagonist who is ironically named Nameless for his namelessness. Tony Leung, famous primarily in China for his roles in movies such as Infernal Affairs (2002), In the Mood for Love (2000), and Happy Together (1997), plays the part of Broken Sword, one of three assassins at the focal point of the film. Maggie Cheung, another actress famous primarily in China, plays the part of Flying Snow, another one of the three assassins. Finally Donnie Yen, now famous largely for his role as Ip Man in Ip Man (2009), plays the part of Sky, the third assassin.
Unique to Hero is its extravagent use of color within the film. What makes this even more impressive is how naturally the colors exist in the world of Hero, standing out but at the same never emphasized. The film moves seamlessly through dreary black of the King of Qin’s palace, to the bright lucky red of Zhao, to the blue of the King of Qin’s impression, to the white of truth. Just as the colors of the film change, the colors of characters’ costumes and the the scenery itself, so does the audience see the events the film play out several different times with alternating twists.
These twists lead the audience through a series of viewpoints that can affect their perception of the film’s title itself, Hero. Although Nameless is the film’s protagonist, whether or not he is the martial hero to this wuxia film is a theme played upon by Zhang Yimou. This is a theme set by the very beginning of the film, where a message appears across the screen to the audience:
“People give up their lives for many reasons. For friendship, for love, for an ideal. And people kill for the same reasons… In any war there are heroes on both sides…”
This quote (only a part of the complete message given at the beginning of the film) immediately raises the question of what exactly makes a hero, and to whom. People are willing to fight for friendship, love, and ideals, whether that fighting leads to their own death or the deaths of others. Who then, is right in the end, who is the real hero?
If you’re looking for a concrete answer to that question, you may not find what you’re looking for in Hero, but the message the film does provide is still something more than worth consideration, and with the film itself holding the title of highest-grossing film in Chinese film history, it’s well worth a watch.