Recent East Asian Cinema #5: Hero.

Welcome to the fifth of seven posts that will detail East Asian cinema, giving genre history leading up to a recent movie which will be reviewed! I hope you enjoy the series. For more information or previous entries, check the posts below this one.


Genre: Hong Kong Action Cinema/Wuxia.

History: Hong Kong Action Cinema was a brand of movie that took the Hollywood view of the action movie and mixed it with Chinese tradition and mysticism. The first brand of this type of movie was called wuxia, starting back in the 1920s, which typically emphasized the mysticism and fantasy aspects. They used wires and trampoline acrobatics, along with camera techniques, to show quick moves and flying styles. Most of these early movies were based on literature of the same style. Some of the first big stars of the wuxia subgenre were Cheng Pei-Pei and Jimmy Wang-Yu, as well as Connie Chan Po-chu, a woman famed for playing male roles.

However, in the 1930s, the wuxia subgenre drifted out of cinema due to political reasons and were replaced with more realistic hand-to-hand kung fu combat. After World War II, due to severe cultural changes, wuxia began to come back into style with grittier violence. In the 1970s, Bruce Lee made famous Hong Kong Action Cinema, only to be succeeded by Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the 1980s.

Though while Chan and Li might have brought some new appeal with the martial arts films, the mid-1990s put Hong Kong films into a slump. Two types of movies helped bring them out of the slump. One type will be talked about now, and the other tomorrow. The first type is the rebirth of the wuxia film with the international hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. Soon after, even though he had seemingly left the martial arts epic for more American films, Jet Li returned to his roots with yet another wuxia film, Hero, in 2002. Hero helped, along with the aforementioned film, to bring wuxia back into popularity. It was a hit in China, so much so that Quentin Tarantino (who has often been inspired by the martial arts/wuxia films himself) took notice and decided to finance it enough to bring it to American audiences in 2004. And it is the very film we’re going to look at today.

Hero (2002).

Country of Origin: China/Hong Kong.

Original Title: Ying xiong.

Director: Yimou Zhang.

The first couple times I saw this movie, I thought it was really good, but didn’t fully comprehend what it was doing (as in, respect it). After my most recent viewing, however, I think I really get the film and like it that much more. Hero is about Nameless (Jet Li), a low-class man who defeated three of the most powerful assassins in the country—Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung)—who had been trying to murder the King of Qin (Daoming Chen). The movie chronicles (as imdb states) a series of Rashomon-like flashbacks to try and figure out how Nameless truly came about defeating these assassins. The movie also stars Zhang Ziyi as Moon, a servant to Broken Sword and Flying Snow.

First, I have to mention the obvious: this film was beautiful in numerous ways—its cinematography, its color-coding, its choreography. Every scene had a special color-coding (usually specific to the flashback sequence or location), and that was only helped by the amazing cinematography. The choreographed fights were amazing, as well. One big issue I’ve always had with fights scenes that are usually one-against-many is that the many always stand around and do nothing, giving the one person an easy time in the fight. There are two movies in recent memory that actually have everybody attacking at once: the first is the previously reviewed Oldboy (in the hallway fight) and this one. When Sky takes on all 7 guards toward the beginning, he’s really taking them all on at once, and it’s amazing to watch.

The story is simple, yet complex. There are 3 versions of the story told via flashbacks, and you don’t get the full truth until the very end. I think the plot twist would have been stronger had it not been revealed halfway into the movie (which I think had been my original issue with the movie), but it’s still a strong message and a cool plan that was set up.

There was one specific moment, though, that I’d like to bring attention to, because it was just weird/funny, and I’m not sure if it was meant to be. Halfway through the first flashback’s fight between Nameless and Sky, an old man who had been playing music starts to leave. They don’t even show the two stop fighting, but randomly, Jet Li is facing the man and asks him if he would please play some more music. Then the camera shows the blank faces of all three men one by one as the man gets out his instrument to continue playing. It was just a really bizarre scene, but it was followed by a cool fight sequence, so it didn’t really bother me.

There’s really not much else to say about the film. Jet Li’s voice over, I think, could have been better, to a degree, but besides that and anything previously mentioned, the film was fine (though it could have used some Zhang Ziyi nudity. There was a sex scene, after all). But the movie was beautiful to watch, the story was great, and a few things actually reminded me of 300 with Leonidas, so that was cool. So yeah, that’s about it for this one.

A Keanu 'Whoa'

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