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Film Review: Hero

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.

Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story has an interesting legacy about it. American film critic Roger Ebert lists it as one of his “great movies,” BFI’s Sight and Sound includes it as number three in its most recent “Top 50 Films of All Time” of 2013, and it has seen similarly exceptional attention on an international stage. For its director, Yasujiro Ozu, it is regarded as his masterpiece. However, what makes the story of Tokyo Story so interesting is that its story is so very not-interesting. Rather than a film that relies on its plot to be particularly dramatic or enticing, Tokyo Story follows an elderly couple through a handful of everyday events. They visit their children and grandchildren, they make small talk, they muse over their activities for the day, and not much else. What the film relies on instead of an enticing story is just about everything else.

Despite the distinct lack of any truly noteworthy events within the film, the actors still manage to offer memorable dialogue. What can be learned about the characters is packed into the natural and ordinary decisions they make, in how the elderly couple treat their adult children and how those adult children treat their elderly parents. Some emotions and opinions are made clearer as the film plods along, but for the most part these aspects of the characters trickle out for the audience through actors’ subdued expressions and lines. The acting is only buffered by Ozu’s choice in camera technique.

Ozu uses “tatami shots” frequently throughout the film, where the camera is filming the scene from a lower angle, giving the impression that the audience is viewing the scene from the perspective of someone seated on tatami mat. The camera is kept at this “tatami shot” angle for much of the film, changing only occasionally to capture the faces of characters as they speak. This perspective and the stillness of the camera lend themselves to the film’s quiet and slow progression, placing the viewer not in the audience but bringing them into the everyday that Ozu explores.

Aside from the lack of anything interesting, what might be even more distinct than Ozu’s use of camera is his editing of scenes. To describe the experience of watching Tokyo Story as “in medias res” is correct yet not wholly accurate. It would be partially misleading to claim that there are very many “things” for the viewer to have been placed into, but at the same time Ozu leaves out some aspects of the story. At the very beginning of the film we find that the elderly couple are packing and preparing to go to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren, and in the very next scene we find them already there. The cuts themselves are also immediate, rather than fades or anything of the like. With Ozu’s choices in which scenes to include or exclude, one made seemingly arbitrarily with consideration to how little anything of real “interest” occurs, the sudden cuts can leave an unsuspecting audience taking some time to figure out exactly where they are.

Even though Tokyo Story is a critically acclaimed film throughout the world, Ozu’s various choices in editing and his distinctive style can create a polarizing experience for viewers. For those looking for a less complicated film for entertainment, your attentions might be better suited turned away from Tokyo Story. For those more inclined to watch a film and spend some time trying to figure out its message, Tokyo Story seems to be a film certainly worth the time to decode.