Shiny Shelf


By Mags L Halliday on 12 October 2004

I had better admit, straight away, that I had been looking forward to the UK release of ‘Hero’ for at least a year. Thankfully, it lived up to my expectations by being a beautiful, contemplative and dramatic wuxia film. Plus, it has Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi in a fight scene.

For anyone whose familiarity with Chinese/HK cinema reaches as far as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, wuxia is a slightly different form of martial arts film. It does feature lots of kung fu and, unsurprisingly, wirework of the highest order, but it is set in a more mythological framework so that the protagonists have supernatural powers. The most famous example to have been popular in the west is the Taiwanese ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’. It’s been argued that wuxia doesn’t perform well with western audiences because there is a problem accepting the fantasy elements: clearly this overlooks the popularity of the musical in which characters just as improbably burst into song. It is noticeable, however that both ‘CTHD’ and ‘Hero’ got widespread western press coverage because their directors (Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou respectively) are art house names. Enough of the primer on wuxia: why is ‘Hero’ a good film?

It is the time of the warring states: Chin (Daoming Chen), leader of one of the seven kingdoms and a man trying to unit the states into a single country, grants audience to Nameless (Jet Li), a warrior who claims to have killed the three most fearsome assassins in the land. Nameless recounts how he has achieved this, but Chin begins to suspect the story is not entirely true. Alternative versions are told and retold, each colour coded, until the truth is reached. This is not a simple action movie, but a contemplation on the nature of heroism and of the nature of state. It is noticeable, for example, that the idea that all must pull together to create a single state comes out of mainland China at a time when it is struggling to integrate Hong Kong.

There are, inevitably, comparisons. The most obvious one is to Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’: it is evoked by the soundtrack by Tan Dun, who worked with Yo Yo Ma on the Ang Lee film, and especially by the lakeside sequence. This lakeside battle is, I think, more effective in ‘Hero’ as it indicates the emotion within the characters more effectively. The body of work I really came away thinking about, however, was Akira Kurosawa’s. The hails of arrows is from ‘Throne of Blood’, the colour coded scenes evoke ‘Ran’ and the multiple versions of a story recall ‘Rashomon’. It is not entirely a surprise to see the costume designer for ‘Hero’ was Emi Wada, who worked on ‘Ran’. Everything is drenched and saturated with colour.

This determinedly non-realist design and direction creates breathtakingly beautiful fight sequences: a sword is so sharp and fast that is whips up whirlwinds of yellow autumn leaves; an army marches and drums on black shields that absorb the light; two lovers in green (the colour of hope) battle in front of a waterfall. Combined with this choreography, the actors are the finest in their field. Jet Li trades his old wushu skills for swordplay and a role which suits his acting skills; Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are skilled as Flying Snow and Broken Sword, the quarrelling lovers, with Zhang Ziyi as the third person in their unhappy triangle. I’m not sure if the film has the same poignancy for viewers who do not know the history of China but I suspect what is lost in sad horror is made up for in suspense.

If you’re looking for a simple action hero film, see what the latest Hollywood nonsense is. If you want to see a contemplation of what being a hero means, watch ‘Hero’.

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