Note: This article contains spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
After the runaway success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, it seemed like every Chinese director of note decided to cash in on the wuxia (i.e., Chinese swordplay) genre. The result was a series of hyper-stylized and overblown martial arts epics, including Chen Kaige’s The Promise (2005), Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet (2006), and Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). But one wuxia film has withstood the test of time, and, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above the rest of its peers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon included: Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002).
Hero isn’t only my favorite wuxia film, nor is it one of my favorite martial arts films: it’s one of my favorite films period. The first of Yimou’s wuxia trilogy — the other films being House of Flying Daggers (2004) and the aforementioned Curse of the Golden Flower — it’s far and away the best, thanks to its evocative visuals, stirring soundtrack, intriguing non-linear story, and strong performances from the principle cast (which features some of Asia’s best and brightest actors).
As I watched Hero for the umpteenth time, I was struck by several things. It feels like a quintessential arthouse film due in large part to the plot’s obtuse nature, which unfolds as a series of Rashomon-esque flashbacks, as well as the sometimes opaque nature of the main characters. But to its credit, Hero‘s storytelling is also quite economical — the theatrical cut runs a brisk 99 minutes — so the film never feels heavy or gets bogged down by the flashbacks or cryptic characters. It is a lean, efficient film, without a single superfluous scene. (An extended edition was released on DVD in China with eight additional minutes, though the general consensus seems to be that the extra footage adds little to the film. Additionally, it’s rumored that the film’s original cut was twenty minutes longer than the theatrical cut, though it has not been released in any form to the best of my knowledge.)
At the same time, it is also undoubtedly an epic. From the early scenes of the Imperial palace, its vast estates crawling with thousands of black-robed courtiers, to later scenes of the emperor’s legions of soldiers (in black armor, of course) darkening the sky with volleys of arrows, Hero is a film of massive scope. One that, I would argue, feels every bit as epic as the Lord of the Rings movies. However, it’s not shot like a modern epic film.
While CGI appears throughout in the film, it doesn’t have the hyper-real look that one associates with modern epics. Much of the film, especially those early scenes, feel almost documentary-esque and contain a verisimilitude that you don’t often see. Of course, it helps when the Chinese army supplies a couple thousand soldiers to serve as extras, but just as much credit goes to Yimou’s impeccable eye and Christopher Doyle’s not inconsiderable talents as a cinematographer. Then there’s the way that the film’s stunt and action crews implement old-school techniques, such as wires, to give even the most “out there” scenes — such as an aerial duel in which the combatants swoop and soar over a pristine lake — an authenticity that just wouldn’t be there had the film relied solely on computers to make its swordsmen soar.
I could go on and discuss Tan Dun’s poignant score, or the way in which the film implements other Asian cultures into its Chinese milieu (e.g., the Japanese flourishes during Jet Li and Donnie Yen’s amazing duel), or Chen Daoming’s amazing performance, but I want to address one final thing: the film’s politics.
I’m always reluctant to try and discern the political “stance” of films, if only because doing so feels reductionistic more often than not. But with Hero, it’s difficult not to bring up its politics. The film has already been criticized for advocating tyranny and totalitarianism as methods for bringing about national peace and stability. For example, several of the film’s protagonists are ultimately revealed as willing to sacrifice their ideals and freedom in order to help the emperor’s plan to unite China under his autocratic rule. Given certain events in China’s history, this does feel problematic.
At the same time, though, I feel that such a view is, as I said before, reductionistic. For one thing, the film — though based on the history of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor — could never be mistaken for a historical film, if only due to the presence of those aforementioned flying swordsman. Zhang Yimou — who, it should be pointed out, has clashed with authorities in the past over his films’ content — is clearly not interested in historical accuracy. Indeed, it often feels like he is using the historical account of China’s first emperor as a jumping off point for what he seems to be really interested in: a visually ravishing exploration of the sacrifices that people are willing to make for causes larger than themselves, sometimes foolishly, and the human foibles that plague and hinder our attempts at nobility.
This can best be seen in the character of Broken Sword, played by the great Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Broken Sword, along with his lover and fellow warrior Flying Snow (the always radiant Maggie Cheung), had tried to assassinate the emperor once before, but relented right when he had the emperor where he wanted him. Since then, he’s become more philosopher than warrior while earning the disgust of Flying Snow, who sees him as a traitor to the cause. In the film’s final act, he manages to convince the movie’s main character, an assassin named Nameless (Jet Li), to spare the emperor’s life.
Flying Snow, irate that this one last chance to kill the emperor has failed, challenges Broken Sword to a duel. Although he tries to explain his reasons, he realizes that a duel is the only possibility. However, just as Flying Snow lunges, he drops his guard, allowing her to land the fatal blow. Broken Sword’s final words to Flying Snow are a request that she continue to live, ostensibly to enjoy the peace that will now come as part of the emperor’s uncontested reign. Overcome with grief, though, Flying Snow commits suicide while embracing Broken Sword’s body. It’s a tragic ending that might get overshadowed by the more dramatic end to Nameless’ story, but in some ways, it’s the movie’s truly tragic ending, and not simply because it features two dead lovers. (The sense of loss and tragedy that pervades the film’s closing scenes also, I think, serves to undercut the pro-tyranny message that film’s detractors accuse it of having.)
Broken Sword had given himself entirely to a certain ideal, one which he believed to be quite noble, i.e., the peace of an entire nation (albeit, a peace forged through tyranny). However, the one person whom he arguably wanted to enjoy that peace more than anyone else refuses it. What’s more, she’s so driven by grief that she disobeys his final request, and instead, seeks to fulfill their former dream of retiring together after the emperor’s death, a dream that he had summarily rejected. It’s been asked “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Zhang Yimou offers his own little spin on that, essentially asking “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall bring peace to a nation, and yet, be unable to convince those he loves the most to accept that peace?”
One of Hero‘s greatest strengths is that it lends itself so well to such discussions. It’s ambiguous enough to support varying interpretations, much like the film’s own color-coded narrative, and yet not so ambiguous as to render those interpretations meaningless (or allow any and all interpretations under the sun). At the same time, though, it works incredibly well as pure eye candy, from the amazing color schemes to the jaw-dropping fight scenes. However you look at it, it’s a masterpiece of the wuxia genre, and one that I wholeheartedly recommend for anyone remotely interested in delving into the world of Chinese swordplay films.