All posts by Maddie Stearn

Hero Film Review

Hero (2002)
Hero (2002)

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.

Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung)
Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung)

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.

King of Qin (Chen Daoming)
King of Qin (Chen Daoming)

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.

blue sno
Flying Snow in battle

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.

Review of Spring in a Small Town

The love triangle explored in Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town takes on a new depth when set against China’s post-war backdrop of 1948. The film is narrated by Yuwen (Wei Wei), a young woman stuck in an depressing marriage to her sick husband, Liyan (Shi Yu). The two characters feel weighed down by Liyan’s illness and despair, the latter caused by the destruction of his home during the war. The arrival of Zhang (Li Wei), an old friend of Liyan and former romantic interest of Yuwen, shakes the household to its core. Over the course of the film Yuwen and Zhang are drawn to each other more and more, struggling to leave the past behind when the present is so dim.

Spring in a Small Town takes place after the war with Japan and the Chinese Civil War in 1945. Film production slowed drastically during the Japanese Occupation, and Spring was created when film production resumed. Spring in a Small Town was the last film directed by Fei Mu before he was forced to flee to Hong Kong to avoid persecution during the Communist Revolution. After his arrival in Hong Kong in 1949, Fei did not make any more films before his death in 1951. Spring is considered to be Fei’s greatest accomplishment, although he and his works fell into obscurity until the 1980s following the Cultural Revolution.

The theme of war and loss weighs heavily on the characters of Spring in a Small Town.  Amidst the crumbling rubble of their home, Yuwen and Liyan struggle to move into the future. Meanwhile Liyan’s alarmingly cheerful teenaged sister (simply referred to as “Meimei”, the word for “younger sister” in Chinese) represents China’s bright future. Zhang’s character is also rooted in the future. He wears western-styled clothing and works as a modern-day doctor, starkly contrasting Liyan and Yuwen’s traditional clothing and style of living.

Zhang’s arrival to the household adds a vitality sorely missing from the family (despite Meimei’s constant cheer). He serves a different purpose for every character, but provides a positive influence across the board. He is able to match Meimei’s excitement and playfulness, while inspiring hope in both Yuwen and Liyan. None of the characters want Zhang to leave, but his past relationship with Yuwen complicates the family relationships the longer he stays.

Zhang (Li Wei) and Luwen (Wei Wei) in Spring in a Small Town

The film is understated and demure, much like its heroine Yuwen. However, at times I thought the acting was trying to overcompensate for the film’s subtle nature. Yuwen’s character tends toward the dramatic, while Meimei’s intense cheerfulness is grating. Liyan, too, is guilty of dramatic antics, however he remains largely solemn throughout the film. Aside from Yuwen’s narration, the film features little dialogue, sometimes causing the pace to slow to a crawl. Many of the film’s most anticipated moments never come to pass, perhaps disappointing only American audiences not accustomed to loose ends.