For an epic martial arts movie, Yimou Zang's Hero is surprisingly short. But despite clocking in at just 95 minutes, the film achieves a grandness of scale and a poetic visual beauty that many films twice it's length fail to match.
Set two thousand years ago in ancient China during a time of disparate warring kingdoms, the plot follows the nameless hero of the title as he is summoned by the king to relay his account of how defeated the ruler's three most feared would-be assassins. However, as the narrative is retold from different points of view, it becomes apparent that all is not as it looks, and that nothing is clear-cut.
Hero is part of the Chinese wuxia (swordsman) genre of films, and the stylized action sequences and lavish mise-en-scene bear resemblance to the swords and sorcery of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan / Hong Kong: 2000)
Martial arts legend Jet Li gives a powerful yet understated performance in the lead role , and the film's visually stunning action sequences provide many opportunities for him to show off his abilities. Veteran's of Hong Kong cinema Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, and martial arts star Donnie Yen also put in fine performances as assassins Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky.
But the real stars of the film are those behind the camera. Featuring an impressive line-up of off-screen talent, Hero has won awards from all over the globe for its direction (Yimou Zang), cinematography (Christopher Doyle) and costume design (Emi Wada), and was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
One of the most striking visual elements is the use of color. Each flashback sequence is dominated by an individual color which, like the strokes of an artist brush, sets the mood and tone. For instance, in the first flashback story, the dominant color is a deep and vibrant red, underpinning the emotions of love, passion, jealousy and anger which lie at the core of the sequence. In another scene, a cool blue is used to emphasize the sorrow and loss felt by the combatants. All this is achieved beautifully using both costumes and settings.
Like Crouching Tiger … , Hero's intricately choreographed fight sequences very heavily on neatly orchestrated wirework to produce fantastical stunts which may put off some martial arts action purists, but are a feast to the eye and give the film a slightly 'magical' dimension.
Director Yimou Zang is quoted as saying "two years after you saw a great film, you may have forgotten the story but you always remember a few seconds of a particular scene." Hero is one of those films- whether it be the sight of a thousand arrows bearing down on valiant warriors dressed in brilliant red, the breathtaking duel on the perfectly still surface of a serene lake, or the beautiful rendering of countless remote locations, here is a film that ingrains its images in your memory like a painters brushstrokes on canvas.