Like many of you, my Netflix Queue is a mile long. Some films have been at the top of that list or hovering around it since the beginning, often being over-taken by other films that I need to watch for research or just for fun. Unfortunately, Hero (2002) was one of those films that I waited much too long to see. On the other hand, it was definitely worth the wait, because it is one of the most beautiful, enrapturing films I have seen in a long time.Hero tells the story of Nameless (Jet Li), a sheriff who has killed three assassins, Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Sky (Donnie Yen) that have plagued the King of Qin for ten years in his attempts to unite the seven kingdoms into a unified China. As a reward, Nameless receives a wealth of gold, dominion over significant stretches of land, and the ability to come within ten paces of the king…no one has come within 100 paces in ten years. As he slowly approaches, Nameless and the King discuss how he killed the assassins through a series of flashbacks. Their back and forth discussion uncovers lies and short-sightedness in each of their stories and finally uncovers the truth behind a grand assassination scheme that surprises, humbles, and enlightens the King.
Despite it’s relatively brief running time (only 99 mins), this is a surprisingly epic film directed by Yimou Zhang (he also directed House of Flying Daggers (2004) and the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics). The cinematography is simply a visual feast as Yimou and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle employ a rich color scheme that aids the various re-tellings of Nameless’ journey (you can see red above and blue below). The film also includes some almost supernatural swordplay, but it is not overdone and adds, rather than distracts from, the overall beauty of the film. Again, what we have is an engaging narrative and Yimou keeps us hooked from the beginning in the search for the truth of how Nameless has made it thus far. A central part of the narrative involves a relationship between Broken Sword and Flying Snow which reunites Leung and the stunning Cheung, who have an incredible chemistry together that transcends any language barrier between actors and viewers. Viewers will immediately recall their work in In the Mood for Love (ironically Doyle also served as cinematographer there as well).
Numerous themes run throughout Hero, which in the end is highly political and possibly a piece of propaganda. Love and idealism…or love of idealism…are at the forefront here. The contrast between violence and nonviolence is a culminating theme, although we realize that even if the King learns a lesson in nonviolence, it will most likely take numerous acts of violence to further unite the kingdoms. As his conversation with Nameless comes to a close, the King recounts what he has learned from the story and, particularly Broken Sword’s role in it. The King says, “Broken Sword’s scroll reveals his highest ideal. In the first stage, man and sword become one and each other. Here, even a blade of grass can be used as a lethal weapon. In the next stage, the sword resides not in the hand but in the heart. Even without a weapon, the warrior can slay his enemy from a hundred paces. But the ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether. The warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists. Only peace remains.” Nameless responds, “I have completed my mission. [...] A dead man begs you to never forget the ideal of the ultimate warrior.” There’s an element of the prophetic here as a literally nameless peasant approaches the throne and challenges the King’s policies.
Hero begs repeated viewings, and some of its scenes are so captivating (thousands of courtiers running up the temple steps or the water fight scene between Nameless and Broken Sword) that they almost demand instant rewind. This is an engrossing drama clothed in some fantastic action. If only American films could figure out this combination as well.
Hero (99 minutes) is rated Rated PG-13 for stylized martial arts violence and is available on DVD.