Director: Zhang Yi-mou
Cast: Jet Li, Chen Dao-ming, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, Zhang Zi-yi
(Possible spoiler below)
Directed by the internationally renowned Zhang yi-mou, Hero is the collaboration of the filmmaking elites in China and Hong Kong. From the production scale and the level of discourse raised up by this movie, it is clear that Hero was not merely made for the Chinese audience. Similar to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, it was supposed to open the overseas market and provide an opportunity for foreign audiences to appreciate the beauty of Chinese cinema.
The movie is about a fictitious story of assassination set in the warring period in China. It centers on Wu Ming (Jet Li), Emperor Qin (Chen Dao-ming) and three assassins. As you can expect, sword fight battles are inevitable among their encounters. The original story is quite short and direct. To make things a little more complicated and intricate, Zhang yi-mou borrowed the narrative approach of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, he repeated the same story several times, with each one described by the two characters, Wu Ming and Emperor Qin. Obviously, it was a measure to enhance the depth and the meaning of the film. To me, it doesn't seem to be a very successful setup, and in fact, the plot is the weakest link of this movie, which I will discuss in details below.
Hero is Zhang Yim-mou's first wuxia movie. As a first time effort, Zhang was very careful about the action choreography. Most of the action scenes are well designed and planned. For instance, the scene when Jet Li and Maggie Cheung are fending off the arrows is visually stunning, as well as the scene when Tony Leung and Chen Dao-ming are fighting in the palace. In addition to the action choreography, the production design and the costumes are also splendid. Zhang used theme color to distinguish different versions of the story. The contrast of the colors is very intense and eye catching. In general, the technical aspect of this movie is almost flawless, the only problem is probably that Zhang tried too hard to imitate Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon at certain point, for instance, the use of the background music and some sword fight designs resemble CTHD a lot. I was little disappointed as Zhang always displayed his unique visual aesthetic in his previous works, but this time, with the biggest budget and production scale, his peculiar style is unfortunately gone.
Since Zhang Yi-mou's movies always carry a serious theme, most audiences would develop high expectation for the plot of this movie. The theme of Hero is the concept of "Tian Xia" (literally known as "Below the Sky"). This concept propels the assassin to give up his plan and the emperor not to spare the life of the assassin. It's actually quite risky to use the Qin emperor as the role model to exemplify this theme. Without doubt the Qin emperor was a capable person who had the power to end the war and unify the country, but he was also a notorious despot who had established the harshest law ever in Chinese history. The collapse of his empire in less than 15 years was a clear evidence to substantiate the failure of his rulership. Since no one can predict the future, I can understand why the assassins would trust the Qin emperor and consider him as the savior. Neverthelss, it seems that the filmmakers have forgotten that we, the audience, were not living in the warring period. We are familiar with Chinese history and are aware of what kind of character the Qin emperor was. It is absolutely too foolish to convince the viewers that the Qin emperor was the savior by simply praising his achievements and ignoring his evils, which is what the filmmakers were trying to do. That may explain why this movie received mixed response when it was premiered in Hong Kong. But for the foreign audience who have no prior knowledge of Chinese history, it might not be a big problem, as most of them would probably just see it as another fictitious wuxia story after all.
Hero successfully demonstrates the level of professionalism Chinese filmmakers can achieve, but considering the critical flaw of the plot, I can hardly regard it as a masterpiece. Nonetheless, it is still a work of great sigificance. For any Chinese movie lovers, this is a movie you don't want to miss.
Reviewed by: Kantorates