Thursday, April 26, 2012

Movie – Hero (2002)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had opened the door for big budget, well done martial arts dramas.  In my opinion the 2002 film Hero perfected them.  First, it is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.  How this did not even receive an Oscar nomination for Cinematography, let alone win, is beyond me.  Second it has universal themes of heroism and sacrifice that will resonate with most everyone who watches it.  Finally, it is directed by the most respected Chinese film director there is – Zhang Yimou.  The result is the best martial arts film I have ever seen.

Zhang Yimou had built his reputation by starting out doing films starring his then-lover Gong Li (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern).  He then moved into a series of smaller dramas starring non-actors or people new to film (Not One Less, The Road Home).  The arrival of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon appears to have given him inspiration for his next set of films.  He did Hero in 2002, House of Flying Daggers in 2004, and Curse of the Golden Flower in 2006.  Hero reunited him with the actress he gave her first big break to in The Road Home – Zhang Ziyi.  She had also had a major role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, of course.  In Hero her role is somewhat smaller.  Zhang Yimou would reward her with a leading role in House of Flying Daggers, though.

Hero stars legendary Chinese martial arts star Jet Li.  This man is the real deal.  He won several national championships in wushu (a modern version of martial arts that is the Chinese national sport) while still in his teens.  He was in many Chinese films before appearing in his first Hollywood film in 1998.  That was Lethal Weapon 4 where he played a villain.  Since then he has continued to split his time between making Chinese films and Hollywood films.  Doing the film Hero was so important to him that he took a pay cut just to be in it.

Hero opens with some brief history about the time period the film is set in, and then it states what will become the theme of the movie – “people die for all sorts of reasons, for friendship, for love, for an ideal…and people kill for those reasons, too.”  Pay attention to this opening.  It will be very important as the film goes along.

A “man with no name” (Jet Li, meet Clint Eastwood) is brought to see the King of Qin.  He is simply referred to as “Nameless” for the entire film.  He is stopped 100 paces from the king.  He is to be honored for killing three famous assassins from a rival kingdom that this king is trying to conquer.  (China is not yet unified in this time period.)

Nameless first presents the head of a spear – one that is immediately recognized as belonging to the weapon of the assassin Sky.  The king rewards Nameless with gold and land, and then honors him by allowing him to approach within 20 paces and share a drink with the King.  He is asked how he defeated so great a warrior.

We now see the tale that Nameless relates.  Sky is played by Donnie Yen.  He’s also the real deal when it comes to martial arts.  Check out his film Ip Man sometime.  Sky is confronted with a few soldiers of the king.  He doesn’t even bother taking off the leather protector covering his spear end and he still defeats them easily.  Suddenly, Nameless confronts him.  Nameless launches himself at Sky and you see this subtle change on Sky’s face that conveys the fact that he can tell this is going to be a real challenge.  He takes the cover off his spear.

What follows is a fantastic scene for the visuals and especially for the sound.  Listen as water drops off structures around the fight.  Watch as the two fight the battle in their minds while remaining absolutely still.  Listen as an old man plays a classic instrument in the background.  I’ve watched this scene several times and I pick up something new each time.  By the way, Donnie Yen was Jet Li’s choice for this scene.  The two had not worked together since 1992’s Once Upon a Time in China II, so this was a reward for fans of theirs.

Back in the palace Nameless presents two more weapons to the king.  They are recognized as belonging to the lovers Flying Snow (Maggie Leung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai).  The king once again rewards Nameless with more gold, land, and then the honor of advancing to 10 paces from the king.  He asks for the tale of how Nameless defeated such a legendary team.

Nameless explains that they were somewhat estranged and he used this to drive a wedge between them.  We now see the tale Nameless tells.  Everyone is dressed in red and the women wear heavy makeup.  Also in the calligraphy school that Broken Sword is operating is Moon (Zhang Ziyi), a servant that is very loyal to him.  We see the king’s soldiers attack the school and Flying Snow and Nameless defend it.  Having won their trust, Nameless now reveals himself and challenges both assassins to meet him in front of the soldiers the next day.  Broken Sword sleeps with Moon that night, which angers Flying Snow.  She kills Broken Sword out of jealousy.  Moon attacks her.  She and Flying Snow have a battle and Moon is defeated.  Flying Snow meets Nameless the next day, but it so distraught over what happened that she is easily killed by him. 

Or was she?

The king starts to suspect something might be up with Nameless’ tale.  He doesn’t believe two such skilled assassins could be so easily undone by their emotions.  The king then tells Nameless what he thinks really happened.  We then see the same characters again, but this time dressed all in blue.  The king concludes by saying that Nameless is actually working with the assassins and they agreed to sacrifice themselves all as part of the plot to get Nameless this close to the king.  Challenged by this, Nameless now tells what really happened.  This time everyone is dressed in white.

I won’t go any further on what happens with Nameless and the king, but I will say that the direction it takes may not be what you expect.

I was mentioning the colors earlier because they are both part of the visual spectacle, and they not so subtly indicate how the characters are supposed to be coming across, depending on who is telling the tale.  In the first tale they are decadent and dressed in red.  In the second tale they are cold and calculating and are dressed in blue.  In the third tale they are virtuous and dressed in white.  There are two other scenes filled with color – one involves a green palette, which happens towards the end of the film.  The other is the fight between Moon and Flying Snow.  This takes place in a forest where the ground is covered with yellow leaves.  The swirls that the leaves make during the battle are breathtaking.

I mentioned that this film re-teamed Jet Li and Donnie Yen.  It also re-teamed Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai.  Fans of the 2000 film In the Mood for Love will recognize them as the two leads whose spouses were carrying on an affair with each other.  Anyone who has seen that film knows that the two can definitely play the subtle emotions needed for two people who may be in love.  That is put to good use in Hero where they play lovers in slightly different kinds of relationships depending on which tale is being told.  There is also some strong emotion in regards to self-sacrifice and ideals (which harkens back to the opening statement in the film.)  By the way, this was actually the sixth time the two had worked together in a film.  I’m sure this helped them play the long-time couple in Hero.

Director Zhang Yimou was a perfectionist when it came to making this film.  He actually had the leaves used in the “yellow” scene divided into separate categories for the ones that would be closer to the camera and the ones that would be further away.  He also sent halfway around the world to England to get exactly the right shade of red clothing dye for the “red” scenes.  The horses of the king were colored black, in order to be historically accurate.  He also had over 18,000 extras in period soldier outfits for the movie’s finale.  The most beautiful scene in the film involves a lake.  It had to be absolutely still to be a mirror reflecting the hills beyond it.  This limited shooting to only two hours a day, and it also meant the extensive rigging for the wire work had to be started very early in the morning.

This film had a curious history in the U.S.  No one wanted to release it here because it was in Mandarin, despite the fact it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.  It finally got released in 2004, and that was only after illegal DVD copies of it had become a sensation.  To the American distributor’s surprise, the film opened at number one at the box office – the first foreign language film to ever do that.  It is an example where piracy very likely increased the box office for a film because such a sensation had been built around it.

For people who have never seen a martial arts film like this I would still recommend starting with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  That is a good introduction to the genre.  Once you have watched that, then you must watch Hero.  It represents the very pinnacle of what can be accomplished.  I give this film my highest recommendation.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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  1. This is a startlingly beautiful film, like most of the modern wire-fu wuxias. I like the simplicity of the story under all of the possibilities, and I like that it feels as if it is an homage to Rashomon with its multiple retellings of events. Few films have this kind of spectacle.

  2. @SJHoneywell - Thanks for your thoughts. Good point on Rashomon. I should have mentioned it in my post.

  3. Great review.

    Totally agree with your final lines. I think, Hero is the summit of the genre, the most spectacular and breath-taking of them all.

  4. @Anton - Thanks. It is a truly great movie, isn't it?

  5. Great job. This is easily my favorite action blockbuster from the last decade. The cast, the choreography, the colors... Just perfect.

  6. @Bonjour Tristesse - Thanks, and thanks for sharing your thoughts, too.

  7. You are right, this is a beautiful film. The cinematography is breathtaking. The fight scenes are spectacular, too.

  8. @KimWilson - Thanks. I'm glad to see so many other people have enjoyed it, too.

  9. Drop dead gorgeous film, easily one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. Choreography was stunning. In terms of plot and performance, I found it only average. I didn't feel as though there was much for the actors to DO. But definitely a stunning film in terms of looks.

  10. @Siochembio - I actually got caught up in the plot quite a bit, especially the bit with the two lovers. Thanks for commenting.