- Hero is a significant artistic achievement. Yimou Zhang’s film is simultaneously one of the great Wuxia films (martial arts films set in ancient China) and one of the most considerable visual achievements in 21st century cinema.
- It was one of the most expensive Chinese films made to date in 2002.
- The prologue introduces the scenario. There are seven warring nations in China. “In any war there are heroes on both sides.” Jet Li plays “Nameless”- with a complex strategy to assassinate the king. To get close enough to the king (Daoming Chen) he has to kill Sky (Donnie Yen), and either Broken Sword (Tony Leung) or Flying Snow (Maggie Ceung)- the last two back working together just after their landmark collaboration a few years earlier with WKW in In the Mood For Love (2000).
- Speaking of WKW, the cinematographer at work here in Hero is WKW’s chief collaborator Christopher Doyle. There are many stories of Yimou Zhang’s fastidious detail as he designed the endlessly exquisite production.
- Hero has stunning action choreography and epic scope (there were reportedly well over 10,000 extras used to give it scale) yet also seems to have the elegance of an art-house color-immersed Kieslowski film. The rigidly symmetrical compositions, the character blocking and work with architecture recalls The Conformist while the exaggerated sound-mix (water dropping) combined with combat duels recalls some of the best of Leone.
- Told in a sort of Rashomon style (Yimou Zhang has said as much) flashback structure with each point of view strand told in a different wholly dedicated color scheme. So, the formal storytelling pattern is as dogmatic as the film is beautiful. First black, then red, then blue, then white, and green. Nameless is telling the story (first his encounter with Sky) and then the king takes the baton.
- The wire-fighting choreography seemed to be at an all-time artistic high in 1999-2002 with The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (it is tough to read a review of Hero where this film is not mentioned—and Dun Tan does the music for both- and Ziyi Zhang stars in both). Yimou Zhang uses wind machines (the handsomely colored robe and fabric seem to float) and slow motion as cinematic tools as well.
- A masterpiece – it serves as confirmation of the talent that created Raise the Red Lantern in 1991. It would be seem inappropriate to talk about some of the greatest uses of color in cinema without talking about Hero.
Whoa, that’s huge! You made my day. A thing like this was much needed at the end of a bad week. Stunning film. Along with The Assassin’s (an anti-wuxia indeed) poetic pace both are at the top of the genre. Ik you’ll disagree with me but I may go on and say that it can for sure be my best film from 2002.
Ik it’s hard to notice acting in a wuxia & even harder when the wuxia in question is expressionistic & technically explosive like Hero. But what are your thoughts on that section of the film?
Awesome stuff here! I can’t wait to see how this factors in for 2002. I also can’t wait for when you get a chance to see Ashes of Time again, annoyingly it was on Amazon Prime months back – and now isn’t – but it is still found for free with ads in a few places.
Do you plan to watch House of Flying Daggers soon because of this? Funnily enough given that this page came out the next day, I’m pretty sure I recall that film appearing my dream last night.
@Zane- Not right not at least. I did get to Shadow (2018)
@Drake – Archived?
@Zane- yes- page coming soon
You cannot imagine the joy I felt seeing this review and the grade you rightfully bestowed upon Hero. I pumped my fist into the air and nearly cheered.
I’d like to note that none of the magnificent images on this page were the same as any of the ones I hyperlinked in my comment on the 2002 page that convinced you to rewatch the movie. There’s so many beautiful moments in Hero that we can both find splendid examples of the film’s brilliance without including any of the same shots. If that’s not a sufficient case for this being one of the most beautiful movies of all time, I don’t know what is.
@Graham- Is that right about not using the same shots? haha. That does speak volumes about this film.
You followed my plea to watch Hero before the 2002 update, so I hope it isn’t too much trouble that I have another request to make.
I’ve suggested the 2018 movie Woman at War once before, but to my knowledge you haven’t seen it yet. I hope you can catch it before the 2018 update. Don’t expect an all-timer masterpiece like Hero, but this film is anchored by a formal ingenuity film that brings it firmly into the top-ten of the year quality-level of cinema, perhaps even a step or half-step higher than that. I’ve seriously never seen a more clever or diligent use of diegetic music than this, and the beautiful Icelandic setting lends itself to many attractive shots. The lead actress’ performance (actually a double performance – she plays the protagonist as well as her sister) is also exceptional. I can definitely envision Woman at War being mentioned in “gem I want to spotlight” category of the 2018 page.
It seems you didn’t see my request here. Are you planning to see it?
@Graham- Sorry- I did see this- and thank you you for the recommendation. I just did not respond at the time. I would love to be able to get to it but have a bit of a backlog right now. I’m hoping I can get to it soon.
Four questions and a comment:
1. Which segment (determined by the different colors) of the film is the best? I think it could be split into: black/dark blue (scenes in the Qin palace complex) , gray/brown (fight with Long Sky), red (includes yellow leaves sequence), blue, white, and green (which is a little less defined than the others because it is not part of its own story). I think I’d choose the red sequences because of a combination of factors including the magnificent acting from Cheung, Leung, and Zhang Yiyi; the creative camerawork including rack focus and the camera tilting side to side; the flying leaves fight; and the attack scene with the deluge of arrows that recalls Kurosawa’s Ran. However, I could see a case for the blue segment or the scenes in the palace as well.
2. Which fight scene is the best? There are so many to choose from, and each has its own unique elements of mastery. The lake confrontation, which you praise heartily here, is rapturously beautiful, but Cheung and Zhang’s fight among the swirling leaves is just as awe-inspiring. It’s also hard to resist the fight with the green curtains falling in slow-motion or the martial choreography and meticulous sound design of Nameless’ fight with Long Sky (which may be my ultimate choice).
3. I know this is terribly difficult to envision, but what might the film’s grade be if it were in black and white, completely forgoing the indelible color design.
4. After your rewatch, where does this land in comparison to Raise the Red Lantern? Are we talking ten spots apart on the all-time list or over a hundred, and which one is above the other? I expect you won’t have a certain answer to this question.
5. As Westerners not sufficiently educated in Asian history, it’s not necessarily clear to us how ridiculously important the historical instance fictionalized in Hero really is. I say this because I learned a little about Qin Shi Huang (the eventual title of the emperor character) in my world history class and researched a little more. I would argue he’s the most important person in East Asian history (except for maybe Genghis Khan) – many might advocate for Confucius, Mao Zedong, Emperor Hirohito, or Genghis as I said but Qin cannot be ruled out. Hero is very very loosely inspired by an event where an assassin attempted to kill him before he conquered the warring states of China, which would have rerouted the course of world history forever. Qin Shi Huang is basically the reason that China exists today, because without him it’s more than likely that China would never have unified. That means that papermaking, printing, gunpowder, compasses, and a myriad of other inventions likely wouldn’t have been developed as early or in the same way. East Asia would probably have not nearly the population density found their nowadays, and China would be made up of many little countries like Europe. Essentially I’m saying that the world would look incredibly different if not for the existence of Qin Shi Huang. Zhang based an entire wuxia action film on one of humanity’s greatest what-ifs.
Another question: what is your opinion on Jet Li’s performance? I think he is fine, but I would probably argue that Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung (she especially gives a great performance), Zhang Yiyi, and Chen Daoming (the actor playing Qin Shi Huang) all show significantly greater skill and talent. Li’s martial arts skill and facial determination during the action sequences and the ending is admirable, but otherwise his acting seems a little more flat and blank-faced than that of the others. This may in fact be on purpose; after all, the character is literally named Nameless. He is likely supposed to be more of a vehicle for the other characters’ conflicting ideologies than a psychological complexity on his own.
And let me reiterate one more time that I absolutely love this film. It’s amazing. It’s great. I love it infinitely.
@Graham- I don’t know about all four better than Jet Li- but I thought Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung clearly came out on top