The Gloriously Unexpected, #7: ‘Hero’ (2002)

by Gillian Kerruish

This week I’m looking at a film which is not unexpected, but, fifteen years since release, it is still glorious. After all, who can forget the waves created by the seminal Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? It splashed onto international screens with astounding artistry and skill, and the new age of wuxia film was born. From titles such as House of the Flying Daggers, Red Cliff and Curse of the Golden Flower, one has always stood out for me above the rest: Hero.

A fictional story set at a time before the king of Qin rose to become the first Emperor of China (some 2,200 years ago), Hero is loosely inspired by the story of assassination attempts made on the king, while he was manoeuvring his armies to annex all of the surrounding kingdoms in an attempt to unify them under a single ruler. It starts with a nameless warrior, who approaches the king with proof that he has slain three of the assassins, and is being rewarded.

While the conversation between warrior and king spans the entirety of the film, have no fear – after all, this is a martial arts film, and we’re here to see awesome displays of skill! With a cast which includes heavyweights Jet Li, Donny Yen, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Chen Daoming, and Zhang Ziyi, we will be treated to some truly awe-inspiring fight scenes. The film is composed of a series of scenarios as described by the warrior (Li) in which he slays the assassins Sky (Yen), Falling Snow (Cheung), and Broken Sword (Leung). The King(Chen), however, is no fool and counters what he believes to be an inaccurate portrayal both of events and of the assassins. Each new telling of the story slowly leads us to the ultimate truths of what leaders, heroes, and honour are.

Every time I watch this film, I’m left with the distinct impression that director Zhang Yimou woke up one day and thought to himself: “I’m going to write a wuxia story, and then I’m going to round up the best damn cast to play it, including dramatic veterans, a rising star, and two wushu masters; and I’m going to drag them to some of the most beautiful (and sometimes most inaccessible) locations in China and Inner Mongolia, and no matter how difficult it is to set up or how long it takes to get the perfect take, we are going to make the perfect film. And it is going to be good.”

And then he did.

Of all the words I can use to describe this film, the most apt would be ‘Epic’. From the hair-raising sound of a thousand arrows being loosed into the air, to the sweeping austerity of the desert in Dunhuang force my mind to expand, as I desperately try to take in everything at once.

But the true skill of this film is rendered in the smallest details: the slightest movement of Snow’s eyes as she impales Moon(Zhang), the precise tap of a water-bowl landing unbroken on the flat of the nameless warrior’s sword, the snapping of a blind guqin player’s strings launching Sky and Nameless into battle…and can I get a shout-out for the bad-ass calligraphy master who sits calmly practicing his art, while hundreds of arrows rain down on him? Even the fight between Donnie Yen and Jet Li is a subtle nod, both to their careers in the old-school wuxia era, and to their on screen rivalry in Once Upon a Time in China.

It’s not just the small details, but the attention to detail that Yimou gives. Every shot, every take is perfect, because he went back and did each one over and over until they were. From ensuring that every leaf in Moon and Snow’s confrontation is exactly the right shade of yellow, to spending hours setting up rigging over a lake that is perfectly still for only two hours in a day, so that two warriors could fly over a mirror of crystal-clear water.

And through all of this, I am manoeuvred dexterously toward a higher truth, about what it is to be a hero. Each layer of falsehood is represented by a single colour, ranging from the red of base desire to the blue of inner truth, all juxtaposed by the martial black of the king who would rule the world, and the man who would try to stop him.

There is a lot to take in with this film, not only when trying to understand cultural differences, but also in finding every detail which Yimou chose to include. As a student of Mandarin and ardent linguaphile, I personally watch this film without dubbing (to test myself) and I’ve found that this adds an extra dimension of lyrical quality to the script.

When all is said, though, even if you’re just a fan of art, this film is for you. If you’re a fan of wuxia and other martial arts films, this film is for you. If you’re a fan of epic military movies, this film is for you. Just watch this film. It will be for you!

Gillian Kerruish lives at the southern tip of Africa, and spends a lot of time bending the English language to her will. She’s seen more movies than any healthy adult should. She also claims that this qualifies her to write about movies. She might be right.

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