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Original Title:
Ying Xiong

China 2002

Epic, Wuxia, Drama, Romance

Zhang Yimou

Jet Li
Tony Leung
Maggie Cheung
Zhang Ziyi
Chen Dao Ming
Donnie Yen

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Story: In the 3rd century B.C., China is divided into seven kingdoms, that wage a long lasting war against each other. King Qin (Chen Dao Ming) is the most ambitious of all the rulers. With his mighty army he wants to conquer all kingdoms and unite China once and for all.
However, with his bloody warfare he made quite some enemies and so he has no other choice, but to live isolated from the outside world in his palace. Qin gets a really troubled mind when hearing of three particularly skilled assassins, among them two who already managed to assault the palace some while ago. At that time Qin was lucky and escaped with his life.
Because he finally wants to sleep peacefully again, King Qin has offered a great reward for whoever manages to kill the three assassins and provides him with proof of their death.
One day, a sword fighter, Nameless (Jet Li), enters the halls of the king with proof in his hands that he beat the assassins. King Qin carefully listens to the the story how Nameless was able to defeat "Sky" (Donnie Yen), "Broken Sword" (Tony Leung) and "Flying Snow" (Maggie Cheung).
As time goes by King Qin soon has his doubts about the truthfulness of Nameless' story and he starts to depict a new version of the events that he believes to be true. The three assassins willingly gave their lives to Nameless, in order for him to be allowed to be as close to the king as possible, for him to be finally able to carry out the assassination...

Review: "Hero" is a monumental movie event of epic dimensions. You are instantly carried away by the beautiful pictures and landscape shots. Director Zhang Yimou didn't leave anything to chance and it shows - there is perfection in every single frame to be found. No matter if it is a fight in a autumn-gold forest or if it is a "dance" on a lake, the pictures are enchanting and full of poetry. Even the slightest of motions of the actors seem to be choreographed until the very last.
The way of narration is also pretty inventive. Because of the many flashbacks there always remains a certain amount of tension. Until the very end the audience doesn't know which version of the story is to be held true.

One of the many reasons why Zhang Yimou achieves to make his film so visually extraordinary is the strong and careful use of colours. Because of the director's choice of narration, he can tell every version of the story how Nameless defeats the three assassins, with a different colour in the focus of interest. Thus, you can or should link every colour to a certain meaning until at the end everything gets resolved by the use of the "colour" white, so that eventually the whole truth is brought to light.

Apart from the landscape the settings are also very impressive. The temple hall of King Qin is as stunning as the chess tea house or the temple on the lake.
However, the movie is also stunning in other respects. A 10.000 men army attacking a calligraphy school with literally a rain of arrows is something you most likely haven't seen before like this.
Moreover, the magnificent costumes deserve some credit, as they make the movements of the actors look even more gentle and graceful. They also strongly add to the colour aspect of the film.
The sound effects are also high quality stuff, so that you actually believe that a mounted army is passing by in your living room. The clanging of the swords clashing, the sound of water, rain, the whizzing of arrows, or the war cry of the army are all astonishing and underline the film's perfection.
The music of Tan Dun is very well done, even though at first his motifs sound a lot like what he composed for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".
Apart from some wire-effects, naturally, which make the main actors "fly", there are also some CGI-effects that can actually stand the comparison with its Hollywood pendants.

Of course, in a Wuxia movie you shouldn't miss out to put some sword-fights into it. However, this time they look refreshingly different. Martial Arts fans definitely will get their money's worth, and who didn't look forward to finally watch a fight between Jet Li and Donnie Yen (again)? Nonetheless, even newbies, who normally don't mind watching great battles like this, will be able to have some fun. This is mainly, because the fights more resemble dances than actual combat. They seemlessly fit into the on-screen events and are more of an externalized representation of emotions and the philosophy of martial arts in general. Because what's more important are the struggles that take place within the hearts of the protagonists.
Nevertheless, "Hero" is loaded with some of the best fight scenes you have seen for a long time.

The acting of the protagonists is quite well, yet there isn't anything outstanding, which may seem like a contradiction, but it's not. This is because the story is not bound to the actors, but the actors are bound to the story. They fit into the plot exactly the way they should, yet there is not much for them to do.
Nameless is portrayed by Jet Li. Although it is easily assumed that he is the main character, which he is in a way, he is the one who has the least to do in the end. That's a pity, because meanwhile it's apparent that Jet Li actually can act a good part if he has to. At least he plays Nameless quite convincing and solid.

The true main actors, however, are Tony Leung, who depicts "Broken Sword" and Maggie Cheung, playing "Flying Snow". It's not the first time to see both of them together on screen and in "Hero" it again becomes prominent that they are two of the finest actors China has to offer. Their mutual love, jealousy and wishing for revenge is portrayed very believable and bestows the necessary amount of groundwork upon the story.
"Moon" is played by Zhang Ziyi. Unfortunately, there is nothing special to her role. Being the student of "Broken Sword" she is just irascible and angry most of the time.
Donnie Yen's appearance of "Sky" is more of a cameo than anything else. That's really unfortunate, because it really would have been nice to see a bit more of his character.
Chen Dao Ming on the other hand does a really great job as King Qin. Many people will feel offended by the extremely idealistic portrayel of King Qin, because his bloody warfare is a historic fact. Nonetheless, this doesn't change the fact that Chen does provide us with an excellent performance of a king being misunderstood.

Besides the optical perfectionism there is also something else that makes this film very outstanding. "Hero" has a well elaborated story, that is based on historic events and facts. Additionally, there is also a message addressed to the audience.
Concerning this message, there is lots of controversy. Is it legit to say that the sacrifice of one person or a few hundred or even thousand is justified, if doing so means to protect general public interest and maybe even save more lives this way?
This surely is a question that doesn't have an easy answer and a clear "yes" most likely will meet with resistance and rightly so. However, many will read this answer between the lines when watching "Hero". Still, I'm surely not among this people, because actually this "answer" might be nothing less than a provocative question!
At the bottom line, the film is about what makes somebody a hero. How do you become a hero and what cicrumstances are necessary for it?

Zhang Yimou did get endless praise in China. Maybe because his movie's message is that King Qin unified the land and therefore is one of China's greatest heroes?
Well, then some people really did misinterpret the director's intentions. Why of all people would Zhang Yimou, a man whose movies are labeled as provocative and are constantly banned from Chinese screens, suddenly become so idealistic?
As a matter of fact, there is no plural in the Chinese language, therefore "Hero" might be very loosely translated. Maybe "Heroes" would have been more appropriate. After all, "Sky" and "Flying Snow" are also heroes of the movie and they want to see King Qin dead!
At the end, the question comes up if Zhang Yimou didn't intend to raise the question, whether Nameless is a hero or not. Or maybe certain characteristics make individuals like "Broken Sword" and "Flying Snow" more of a hero. Thus, the question remains, how do you become a hero and what makes you one?

"Hero" is a film that is a must-see if only for its sheer amount of impressive pictures and the interesting story. Thanks to Zhang Yimou's perfectionism there are several scenes that will stick to you for several months after watching. Even if you can't get anything out of the movie's message, the fights or the integrated love story, your senses surely will be indulged. A masterpiece!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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