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China (2002), 99 minutes
Starring: Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Zhang Ziyi
Reviewer: Teri Tom
Genre: Fantasy, Martial Arts
Rating: 5

When I review a film, there are certain laws of nature you can count on. If it’s got wirework, I won’t like it. If it’s very plotty – and Hero’s got multiple plot lines – I won’t like it. If it’s got Jet Li, I won’t like it. If it’s completely devoid of humor, I ain’t gonna like it. Well. Hero has all of these things, and it’s easily the best martial arts film I’ve seen all year. I hate to recite plots, so once again, from the DVD case:”At the end of China’s Warring States, the Kingdom of Qin is the most ruthless and ambitious of the seven states. Its King is the target of assassins from all over China. Of all the would-be assassins, Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky are the most dangerous. When Nameless kills all three, he is offered a chance to meet the King. Nameless explains to the King how he used their personal relationships to expose and attack their weaknesses, but the King tells a different version of the same story.”

The plot summary alone kept me from popping this disc into the player for weeks. As I said, I’m not a plotty person. Don’t let it scare you, and that’s all I’ll say before I give something away.

Visually, Hero really is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There are color schemes for each major chapter in the story. The extras on Disc Two of this set describe them as red for “passion,” blue for “romance,” and white for “truth.” The costumes, landscapes, and elaborate sets all change with the story. This excruciating attention to detail allows the viewer to fully enter the fantasy – and enables curmudgeons like me to accept the wirework.

Yes, let’s talk about those fight scenes. I complain quite frequently and loudly about wirework, CGI, and fast editing. In general, I like to see real people moving the way real people can – on the ground! Needless to say, I wasn’t a huge fan of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But where that film’s fight scenes differ from Hero’s is in the tempo. Crouching Tiger is like speed metal, and maybe I’m just getting too old for speed metal. Hero goes the other way. Everything is in slow motion. And it’s beautiful. Some of you may ask, “What about the forest scene in Crouching Tiger? That’s in slo-mo.” And I don’t have a clear explanation. Again, maybe it’s the attention to detail. Or perhaps we get to see Jet Li and Donnie Yen in slo-mo – two guys who move a wee bit better than Chow Yun Fat.
Presenting everything in slo-mo means that everything flows. And I mean everything. Robes, hair, sand, drapes, leaves. The sets have a life of their own, and the overall effect is so convincing, that even I had to forgive, and actually enjoy, the wirework. Kudos to cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Fucking brilliant.
Of course, all of this art direction and fight choreography means nothing if the actors aren’t up to snuff. Well, the acting is top notch all around. Why is it that when a bunch of marquee names in Hollywood star in the same film, it sucks? Yet here we have some of the biggest names in Chinese film, and the result really is epic – one of the most overused words in film reviews – but in this case, it does fit the bill. Chen Daoming is exactly how I would imagine an emperor. Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, Zhang Ziyi, and my fave, Tony Leung Chiu Wai – all subtly brilliant and proving that less really is more. And, yes, I even liked Jet Li this time around.
Earlier I mentioned the lack of humor. It’s torturous to watch a film that takes itself too seriously or is painfully self-important. Hero is so good, though, it pulls off this sweeping story, raising questions about politics, martyrdom, and, of course, love. At a time when cynicism and irony are revered, Hero, without a shred of humor, is a welcome change. As Morrissey once wailed, “It’s so easy to laugh. It’s so easy to hate. It takes guts to be gentle and kind.” Hero’s got guts.