June 18, 2005
Known more for his period dramas, Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), director Zhang Yimou decided to fulfill a life-long ambition of making a swordsmen epic with Hero (2002). Despite garnering huge box office returns all over the world and being nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, Miramax sat on this film for two years until Quentin Tarantino (a very vocal supporter of the movie) pushed the studio to give it a proper theatrical release here in North America. The film was number one at the box office the weekend it opened.
Hero is set in a time when China was divided into three warring states. One of the kingdoms, Qin, had a ruler (Chen) who sought to united them all and end the war. A nameless warrior (Li) arrives at the king’s palace to have an audience with his highness in recognition of eliminating three master assassins—Sky (Yen), Broken Sword (Leung) and Flying Snow (Cheung)—who tried to kill the king. As Nameless talks with the him, he recounts how these feared and revered assassins were found and confronted.
The scale of this movie is breathtaking. The establishing shots of the Qin palace show a vast landscape of polished stone inhabited by thousands and thousands of people. There is also an impressively staging of an epic battle as the army of Qin attacks a town in the rival Zhao kingdom with wave upon wave of arrows. When Flying Snow surfaces to defend its inhabitants, she uses her flowing robes to repel the arrows like some sort of omnipotent, insanely graceful whirling dervish.
Director Zhang Yimou’s use of a particular colour to saturate a scene is incredibly effective. Flying Snow and Broken Sword’s apprentice, Moon (Ziyi), fight in a vast forest of bright yellow leaves that compliments the blood red of their outfits. At one point during their fight all the leaves magically turn red. Long-time Wong Kar-Wai collaborator, Christopher Doyle’s stunning cinematography is the biggest star of this movie as he saturates a room in deep blue, making this one of the loveliest martial arts epics since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
After starring in a series of lackluster, generic action films (i.e. The One, Kiss the Dragon); Jet Li reignites the spark of greatness he showed in earlier movies, like Once Upon a Time in China (2001) and The Legend (2003). He delivers an impressive performance that is more than just a series of impressive fight sequences. He conveys a rich soulfulness that has been missing in his recent films. It doesn’t hurt that he’s ably supported by the likes of Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love), Maggie Cheung (Chungking Express) and Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). They all manage to make one emotionally invested in their respective characters and this pays off at the film’s powerful climax.
While not as comprehensive as some of the Asian special edition DVDs that can be found on the internet, Miramax’s version does feature an excellent 24-minute Making Of featurette entitled, “Hero Defined.” Yimou has always wanted to make this kind of film and was also interested in examining the notion of heroism. He tried to adapt an existing story but with no success and so he wrote an original screenplay. The stylized look of the film and how the colours reflected the emotion of a given character are also examined. The cast speak eloquently about working on the movie and the physical challenge they faced with the impressive fight sequences.
There is also an option to watch the storyboards simultaneously with the final version of four scenes from the movie.
“Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li” features uber fanboy Tarantino gushing about Li’s career as they show clips from some of his older work. Also included are behind-the-scenes footage from the set of Hero.
Finally, there is an ad for the film’s movie score.
Among other things, Hero is a story about love, revenge, loyalty and honour. While it doesn’t quite have the emotional pull or depth of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it does share the same sense of poetic beauty and incredible action sequences. On a purely visual level, the film contains some of the most striking images and use of colour in recent memory. Hero is further proof that martial arts movies aren’t merely quaint chop socky B-movies that can be easily dismissed.