Zhang Yimou’s Hero Is One of the Greatest Martial Arts Films I’ve Ever Seen (Review)

Zhang Yimou’s entry into the wuxia genre is majestic, stirring, and beautiful. Oh, and it features some kick-ass action sequences, too.

I have to confess that I was very, very nervous when I finally sat down to watch Hero. When I first heard rumors of this film — a historical wuxia epic directed by the acclaimed Zhang Yimou and featuring Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi — a year or so ago, my film radar went into overdrive. As always whenever a movie captures my interest, I scoured the Web for anything and everything Hero-related, from set photos to costume designs to box office numbers. I’d pounce all over a review as soon as it popped up on the Web, trying with some success to avoid spoilers, in order to glean any and all scraps of information.

But three or four months ago, I realized this obsession would probably serve only to harm my viewing pleasure when I finally saw the movie. No movie could possibly live up to the expectations I was creating. I realized that I wanted — that I needed — to watch Hero with as clean a slate as possible. That was the only way I could judge the movie on its own merits, the only way I could possibly enjoy it. At that point, I made a conscious effort to ignore reviews and anything else that might ruin the movie for me.

However, now that I’ve seen Hero, I realize my efforts were in vain. A movie this majestic could have easily withstood any amount of expectation on my part, and then some.

Hero - Jet Li
Jet Li as the mysterious swordsman Nameless

Hero is set 2,000 years in the past, before China as we know it existed. The land is currently torn asunder, split into seven kingdoms all vying for dominance. The war has lasted for many years, with the Qin kingdom eventually emerging as the most powerful. The Qin king, Yin-Zeng (Chen Daoming), plans to use his massive armies to conquer the other kingdoms and form one vast empire. Standing in his way are 3 powerful assassins from the rival kingdom of Zhao: Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Broken Sword (Tony Leung).

Nobody has been able to stop them despite the king’s generous bounties. Nobody, that is, until a simple country official called Nameless (Jet Li) arrives at the palace with their weapons. The king, impressed by the deed, invites Nameless to drink with him and tell of his mighty deed. In a series of flashbacks, Nameless explains how he was able to divide and pit the warriors against eachother. Flying Snow and Broken Sword were lovers until Flying Snow had an affair with Sky. After defeating Sky, Nameless uses this to drive a wedge between the former lovers as their own passions and betrayals ultimately defeat them.

After Nameless has finished his story, the king pauses for a moment and suddenly begins telling a different story concerning the three assassins and their deaths. The events unfold again and again à la Rashomon, each version revealing more about the three warriors and their loves, betrayals, and heroism. With each retelling, the truth becomes clearer, as do the motivations of the enigmatic Nameless.

Hero - Zhang Ziyi
Zhang Ziyi as the fiery young warrior Moon

I suppose some might accuse Hero of trying to cash in on the fame of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (despite the fact that Yimou began working on this movie years before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). To be honest, I was afraid of that as well, afraid that Hero might not be able to escape from under the other movie’s shadow. But Hero is a totally different kind of movie. I would even go so far as to say that Hero shatters any Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comparisons simply by being a much more satisfying film on nearly every level. As fine a film as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was, it never fully resonated with me. Hero, on the other hand, left me reeling at times.

One thing that you’ll immediately notice is Yimou’s amazing use of color. Each flashback is cast in a different color to capture its mood (and also serve as a handy narrative tool). Nameless’ scenes are predominately dark and grey, so as to capture his ambiguity. His flashbacks are bathed in bloody reds and oranges to convey the savagery of betrayal and loss. Other flashbacks are filled with blue, green, and white, each scene as vivid and lovely as the last.

Hero - The Qin Army
Hero features a cast of thousands courtesy of China’s army

Such painterly composition creates many stunning and memorable shots, especially when rendered by Christopher Doyle’s cinematography. The calligraphy school where Broken Sword and Flying Snow live in exile is bathed in crimson silk, as is everyone who walks it halls. A palace hall is filled with giant green silk curtains that ripple like waterfalls as the king and Broken Sword fight between them. Flying Snow’s forest duel with Broken Sword’s servant (Zhang Ziyi) is transformed into a whirlwind of gold and orange as the leaves whip across the screen at the behest of Flying Snow’s blade.

However, Yimou isn’t so bogged down in these carefully composed scenes that he can’t pull off the film’s bigger ones. The scenes involving the Qin army are staggering, as thousands of troops clad in black march in step, scramble up palace steps like an armada of beetles, or launch a volley of black arrows so thick it fills the sky. The only thing in recent memory that outdoes these scenes would be the Massive-generated armies of The Two Towers. I can’t think of any other recent movie that comes close.

Hero - Jet Li and Donnie Yen
Jet Li and Donnie Yen soar through one of the film’s many stunning fights

You’ll notice that I have yet to rave about Hero’s fight scenes, despite the fact that the film stars two of cinema’s finest martial artists, Jet Li (Kiss of the Dragon, Fist of Legend) and Donnie Yen (Blade 2, Iron Monkey). I find it hard to separate out the film’s martial arts content for discussion simply because Yimou has integrated it so well into the movie. However, I assure you it’s as stunning as you could imagine. Li and Yen’s battle, a blur of sword and spear, is easily on par with their duel in Once Upon a Time China 2, and that’s just the first of five or six memorable sequences.

The action choreography, courtesy of Ching Siu-Tung (Shaolin Soccer, Duel to the Death), is graceful beyond compare, and Yimou’s camera captures it all with the same attention to detail that he shows everywhere else. The action is accented by tasteful wirework and hints of CGI which allow Broken Sword and Nameless to glide across the surface of a serene lake and Flying Snow to ward off hundreds of arrows with the fiery silk of her dress.

As visually stunning and downright cool as the fight scenes can be, it’s their emotional and spiritual aspects that stuck with me long after the movie was over. At several points, Yimou goes inside the combatants’ heads, revealing the fights to be contests between minds as much as between swords. The movie cuts between the combatants’ swift, deadly movements and their calm outer expressions as they test and probe each other’s skill. Combined with Yimou’s use of slow motion and haunting music, these scenes take on a meditative air.

Hero - Chen Daoming
Chen Daoming as the ambitious yet conflicted King of Qin

For all of Hero’s vivid colors and lush style, the motivations of its characters remain grey and murky up until the very end. This is best seen in the character of the king. At first, it’s assumed he’s a horrible tyrant who has become paranoid of his assassins. But as the movie nears its completion, that assumption is challenged as the king opens up to Nameless and learns more about his enemies. Daoming delivers a solid performance as the king who would be emperor, one that continues to draw me in with each viewing.

Jet Li might come off as somewhat wooden but then again, he’s playing a stoic, nameless warrior who has spent ten years of his life perfecting his craft. Donnie Yen doesn’t have too much screen time, but his martial arts skills ensure his appearance is charismatic. Zhang Ziyi turns in another fine performance, this time as a fiery young warrior named Moon who’s devoted to Broken Sword. However, most of the movie’s drama draws from Flying Snow and Broken Sword’s tempestuous relationship.

Hero - Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung
Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung as Broken Sword and Flying Snow

I swear Maggie Cheung gets more and more gorgeous with each passing film. I initially saw her as Jackie Chan’s mousy girlfriend in the Police Story movies. However, films such as Ashes of Time and In the Mood for Love revealed a luminous onscreen presence. In Hero, she might be at her most radiant, a proud warrior torn between love and her sense of revenge. Her feelings are buried beneath an icy exterior, but when they finally break through, it’s heartrending.

It’s strange seeing Tony Leung as a pained and tired swordsman here, but only because I recently watched him ham it up in Chinese Odyssey 2002. However, Leung once again proves why he’s one of my favorite actors working today. His is the movie’s most textured and tragic character and he pulls it off without a hitch. I love watching his face, often stoic and proud. But with a simple glance, he can convey a tumult of emotions that lies just below the surface.

Hero - Tony Leung and Chen Daoming
Chen Daoming and Tony Leung face off

So is there anything negative to be said about Hero? Some might find its inexorable pace a bit too solemn, especially when augmented by Tan Dun’s haunting score (which is a bit too close for comfort to that of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Others might have issues with the dialog or the acting, which can be very formal and austere. Still some might find that Hero tries too hard to be visually stunning while the plot is left to stumble along as best it can. There may be some truth to all of these, but once the movie enters its final act and things finally start revealing themselves, the solemn pace and rich visuals are nothing short of gripping.

I can remember several times during the movie when I had to suppress a giggle or a big dopey grin. And there were probably more that I can’t remember as I was likely lost in the movie at the time. I wasn’t grinning because Hero is upbeat or because it suddenly tossed out a humorous scene or bit of dialog. Nothing of the sort happens at all during the film, which never once loses its solemn air. I was simply experiencing that all too rare sensation when a film meets and then completely exceeds every single one of my expectations.

I’ve watched the entire movie several times and I’ve also put in the DVD simply to watch a particular scene again: to watch Broken Sword and Flying Snow confront the betrayal that destroyed their love; to watch Nameless battle his enemies with deadly grace; to watch the king realize the weight of his rule. Each time, I come away amazed at the power and beauty of this film. There’s no doubt that Hero is a visually stunning film, but it’s also a stirring tale of heroism and sacrifice, one that moves me every time I experience even a part of it.

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