Hero (2002)

August 30, 2006

hero.jpgI also had a chance this past weekend to revisit Hero. This was the second time I had seen the film – the first being when it was initially released in American theaters in 2004. My reaction now was virtually identical to what it was then. It’s a great film, beautiful and complex; however, when compared to 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which, it seems, is the inevitable comparison), Hero falls short of its esteemed predecessor. (Perhaps I should break in with a brief caveat at this point: Crouching Tiger is one of my favorite films. I feel it blends narrative and style perfectly, and that it has a whole lot of everything cinema aspires to be. Needless to say, the bar is set pretty high when I start comparing other films to it.) The film has an impressive cast, not only starring the two Chinese actors most recognized by American audiences – Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi – but also Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, two of China’s stars who came to the world’s attention in In the Mood for Love and 2046. Hero follows Nameless (Li), a prefect whose slayings of the King of Qin’s greatest enemies permit him to hold royal audience within ten paces of the ruler. The king, however, begins to suspect that the supposed slayings never actually occured but rather were faked in order to bring Nameless within striking distance for a potential assassination attempt. A series of conflicting narratives unfold, and the film keeps you guessing until the very end as to what really happened.

Like both Crouching Tiger and House of the Flying Daggers, Hero is a modern-day wuxia film (a Chinese genre blending martial arts, chivalry, and philosophy) that utilizes wire technology for its impressive and beautiful action scenes. Though used all over the world now, the wire technology and its aesthetics seem particularly appropriate in these Asian films, where there is no definitive boundary between art and the martial arts (Hero, not coincidentally, compares swordplay to both music and calligraphy). The use of this wire technology, the breezy cinematography, and the colorful scenery are all hallmarks of these films, which use them to brilliant effect. Unlike Crouching Tiger, however, Hero has a tendency to overuse these elements. hero2.jpgDirector Yimou Zhang occasionally becomes so enamored with the colors and landscapes that they seem to preempt the story – which is the real heart of the film. As transfixing as the visuals are, their excess threatens to transform the film into one of those cases of “too much of a good thing.” This really is the only problem I have with Hero, and I certainly intend it as only a minor complaint.

On the other hand, the script is undeniably good. As Nameless gets closer to the king, not only are the viewers coming closer to the truth of the story, but as it turns out, they are getting closer to understanding the heart of the king himself. The complexity and texture of the narrative make Hero one of those films you can watch over and over again and still discover something new with each viewing. Not only that, but the quality of the acting and the film’s overall aesthetic appeal (though, as I said, it can be a bit much at times) mean that repeat viewings are hardly tedious. Overall, Hero is just another fine example of why China’s contemporary wuxia films have gathered such a following worldwide. I highly recommend it.