Once the future of martial arts cinema, now a classic of the genre that is one of the must see movies for people getting into martial arts cinema. Who would've thought that Yimou Zhang (The Flowers of War), master of the Chinese rural drama, would be the one to make such a big difference in a genre that wasn't really his own on his very first attempt. Yet that's exactly what happened when Hero [Ying Xiong] was released.
Sure enough, go back two years from Hero's release and you run into Ang Lee's Wo Hu Cang Long, a film that did much of the ground work for the resurrection of the martial arts genre. But Lee's film cannot stand up to Hero, not in a hundred million years. I know that's just an opinion, but looking at the ones that would follow in Hero's footsteps (Ye Yan, Shen Hua, Wu Ji, ...) I feel confident that Yimou's film is what inspired other directors' attempts to make a similar film.
Hero is nothing like the 40 years of Hong Kong cinema that came before. The 70s and early 80s were all about long intros, fighting techniques named after animals and one kick-ass final fight sequence, the 90s martial arts films were about crazy camera work, blue-lit smoky nights and dazzling action scenes. Hero instead focuses on the beauty, the finesse and ballet-like qualities of the martial arts. It takes away some of the action edge, but substitutes it with classy and poetic choreography.
The story is maybe a little underdeveloped, though several Rashomon twists do add some nice intrigue to the whole. Basically we get several versions of the same basic plot line that slowly converge on the truth with each iteration. It's a rather simple tale about an assassination attempt on king Qin (one of the many rulers trying to unite China), but the path of Nameless and his fellow assassins is everything but straightforward.
Hero is an extremely visual film. Each story iteration has its own primary color (ranging from red to blue, white and green) that literally dominates the screen during the entire segment. The attention to detail is stupefying, the man responsible for this enormous accomplishment is Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-Wai's old partner in crime). Every aspect of the visuals is stunning, only the CG has lost some of its power over the years. But those technical faults are easily compensated by Doyle's impeccable eye for beauty. To this day it remains one of the most consistently beautiful film's I've ever seen.
The soundtrack, as is often the case with these kind of large-scale martial arts films, is less adventurous. Inspired by traditional Chinese music, the soundtrack is filled with grandeur and epic-sounding pieces. The music does fit the scenes and I can't say it detracted from the experience, but it never becomes more than proper background noise and you'll be hard-pressed to remember anything specific afterwards.
Even though I keep remembering Hero as a Yimou Zhang /Jet Li collaboration, there's also an amazing cast to fill the supporting roles. Apart from Li (who stars as Nameless), the all-star cast includes names like Ziyi Zhang, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Donnie Yen. That's enough talent put together to make three of four different martial arts epics. It's no surprise then that the acting is ample and more than meets the required level to push the story forward.
The only downside of Hero is that it never truly becomes a single fluid experience. It's a film made up of very memorable scenes (the first fight with Donnie Yen, the autumn forest scene, the green throne fight, ...) but they are only loosely connected. The different visual identities don't help of course, but it's mainly an issue with plot structure that divides the film in several separate sequences. It's only a minor quibble and to be honest, with this much beauty on screen it's very hard to care, but it is something I do notice every time I watch the film.
Even though it was one of the first, Hero remains one of the best epic wire-fu films ever produced. With an all-star cast, a terrific cinematographer, a legendary director and some of the most spectacular fight scenes ever choreographed this film delivers more than you could reasonably expect from a martial arts film. Unless you believe plot is a primary driver of good martial arts cinema, you can't really go wrong with this one.