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Film Review: Hero

Beautiful contrast between his red wardrobe and black hair (Broken Sword acted by Tony Leung)
Beautiful contrast between his red wardrobe and black hair
(Broken Sword acted by Tony Leung)

The director of Hero, Zhang Yimou, is one of the most popular Chinese 5th generation film directors. Since his debut with Red Sorghum, he has been made numerous films such as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lanterns, and Flowers of War. One of his masterpieces, Hero, was released in 2002, and has been famous especially for its beautiful and artistic use of color and impressive martial arts collaborated with majestic nature in mainland China. It is also famous for the widely well-known actors such as Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi who have acted in a lot of Chinese or Hong Kong movies.

 Hero is a story about the Qin state and assassins intending to kill the emperor of Qin during the Warring States period in prehistoric China. The emperor was famous for brutal and relentless politics, and did not allow any unfamiliar people to be close to him because of his fear of assassins. One day, a nameless man comes to see the emperor to show the three swords of Long Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow, very famed assassins in China. Nameless tells three stories about how he killed them, and the emperor allows Nameless to get closer to him. However, the emperor finds out that Nameless is also a part of the assassins. Later, the emperor realizes that Broken Sword understood his feelings about the peaceful unification of China. This is because Nameless confessed the fact that Broken Sword did not kill the emperor because he knew that the emperor has the power to unite China including the Zhao region where Nameless and Broken Sword came from. The emperor passes his sword to Nameless, but he gives up killing the emperor.

 The film has a lot of unique film techniques. In particular, the use of color gives viewers very impressive and strong images of each scene. There are the scenes whose coloring is black, red, blue, green, and white, and the way of coloring is different in each scene. For instance, red is used in actors’ wardrobes or make-up, and it also reflects the passion and love between Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Moon who is a student of Broken Sword. Their bright red wardrobes have good contrast with actors’ long black hair, and these images create very strong impressions of the story in the viewers’ minds. In the blue scenes, almost everything including settings and actors’ costumes is colored by blue. Actors wear beautiful wardrobes, and their epic figures are outlined by huge blue rocks generating cold and dry atmosphere in the scenes.

The collaboration of martial arts and nature They are like ones of leaves.  (Flying Snow acted by Maggie Cheung / Moon acted by Zhang Ziyi)
The collaboration of martial arts and nature
They are like ones of dancing leaves. (Flying Snow acted by Maggie Cheung / Moon acted by Zhang Ziyi)

 Furthermore, there are many contrasts with nature such as rain, huge rocks, desert, fallen leaves, and lakes. They reflect the harmony between people and magnificent nature especially in action scenes. Throughout the film, these essences of nature are projected very beautifully, and viewers can see how they are collaborated with martial arts. Particularly, at the scene where Nameless and Long Sky fight together, drops of rain, water spray, and dripping water make actors and their swords look very lively and powerful. Slow motion editing enables the watery scene to be more refreshing. When Flying Snow and Moon fight on the yellow ground covered by ginkgo’s leaves, the leaves dance around the actors and sometimes blocks viewers’ sights. This harmony between actors and nature reflects how ancient Chinese people adapted to China’s magnificent nature and lived with it.

These contrasts between actors, colors, and natures not only differentiate each scene clearly, but also express mystic and magnificent nature and its multicolored seasonal images which have been an important part of Chinese people’s lives. Hero is an action movie combining martial arts, but at the same time, the beauty of images refers to Chinese people’s artistic sensation and tradition harmonized with nature in China.

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.