Hero is a movie so rich in content that I almost can’t bear to watch it. In my opinion, nobody should sit down and watch Hero from beginning to end in one sitting. What you should do is get the DVD of Hero and watch a section at a time. Better yet, watch each section several times. This isn’t the kind of movie in which the plot slowly unfolds. Though yes, it is one of those movies where the plot line is gradually revealed to be radically different than the way in which it was previously presented, even that isn’t the point of Hero. What is the point? Visual art painted in motion, the artful juxtaposition of cinematography with not only martial art but also the art of etiquette, ritual and ceremony.
Here is the story.
As the movie opens, we meet Nameless, a Prefect (the lowest rank in the kingdom of Qin). He has come to let the Qin Emperor know that he has defeated, and killed, the emperor’s three legendary assassins, Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow. The Emperor, naturally, wants to know how Nameless managed to defeat such peerless warriors. As Nameless tells the story, we see it unfold — first his telling, then the version told by the Emperor, who is shrewd enough to read between the lines, and then Nameless’ correction of the details overlooked by the Emperor. The question is, did Nameless truly defeat Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow — or did he conspire with them, convincing them to lay down their lives in order to give him the opportunity to get close enough to the Emperor to have a chance at slaying him? Or was there a conspiracy, but one in which there was dissension in the ranks?
The answer to all these questions, the real crux of the matter, lies in the question of whether or not it was possible for Sky and Flying Snow to throw their matches with Nameless so skillfully that the Emperor’s own troops could be made eyewitnesses to testify on Nameless’ behalf. Likewise, was Nameless skillful enough to defeat Sky and Flying Snow by apparently, but not actually, killing them — with a sword stroke so precise that it appears to kill, but allows one’s opponent, later, to be revived?
I’m not going to tell you the rest of the plot, because it is so convoluted that, frankly, you should just watch the movie and see it unfold for yourself. Let’s move on to the actors, who are incredibly awesome. This is a star-studded cast. We have Jet Li (five time Wushu gold medalist) as Nameless. Donnie Yen, who often stars in films with Jet Li, plays Sky – and these two incomparable martial artists deliver what I consider to be the best scene in the film, the duel between Nameless and Sky. Broken Sword is played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who you should recognize if you have seen Red Cliff, in which he played Zhou. (If you have not seen Red Cliff, you are excused from the rest of this review – please take four hours RIGHT NOW to go watch Red Cliff.) Maggie Cheung, an actress who from the age of 18 has been handed role after role in Hong Kong films without even having to audition, plays Flying Snow. Because Hero unfolds several different plots for your consideration (and the Qin Emperor’s), each of these actors essentially played at least three different roles.
I can’t speak in any kind of an educated way about the cinematography of this film – I’m not an artist – but I have to bring it up, because it literally makes the film. Hero’s director, Yimou Zhang, should join the ranks of Kurosawa in film history. Each scene is Hero is up to Kurosawa’s standards – and that is saying a lot. These scenes also bring to mind the duel between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in Kill Bill (another Quentin Tarantino film, though I am puzzled about Tarantino’s role in Hero – the credits mention him somewhat ambiguously).
Each scene has a color theme, and the actors wear different colors depending on the plot variation that is being acted out. The use of color in Hero can only be described as exquisite, and it is something that you almost never see in American films. (Or rather, I have almost never seen it – but I don’t watch as many movies as the rest of you JPFMovies fans.)
And then there are the truly sweet parts of the film. Nameless and Sky stopping their fight to give coins to the blind Biwa player, asking him to play on as they duel. The calligraphy teacher telling his students to keep practicing even as arrows rain down through the school’s roof and walls. Broken Sword’s decision not to block Snow’s fatal sword thrust, just because he needs to make a point. The lesson being taught again and again here – let’s not miss it, please – is that it’s not about WHETHER you live or die. It’s about HOW you live or die. That’s the point of all the etiquette. It’s not some cute cultural reference or cinematic device – not ultimately – what it’s about, is dignity.
Some movies are all plot. Some are all about the character development – and/or the cast. Some movies focus purely on cinematography. Some movies push a strong moral. This movie does it all.
Finally, I know JPFmovies has been waiting a long time (probably more than six months) for this review. But now do you see why? Any sort of proper consideration of this movie takes a person in a million different directions. How can it even fit in a blog post? In 800 words or so all I have done is to sketch the outlines of Hero for you. Can you blame me for taking so long to write this? (JPFmovies can!)
Go forth and watch this rose of a movie, but just a little at a time, as if you were eating a box of chocolates – I know it’s Christmas, but that’s no reason to stuff yourself.