DIRECTED BY

Zhang Yimou

 

STARRING

Jet Li

Maggie Cheung

Tony Leung

Zhang Ziyi

Chen Daoming

Donnie Yen

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

2002

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 39 Mins.

Hero May 31, 2019  

o often in wuxia, an action subgenre which typically finds talented martial artists milling around ancient China (wuxia literally translates to “martial heroes”), plot doesn’t matter. Even though many have tortuous, epic-feeling ones — "Shakespearean" is a descriptor frequently coming to mind — rare is a viewer who walks into a wuxia hoping for a particularly full-bodied story. The main events are inarguably the fight

Maggie Cheung in 2002's "Hero."

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choreography and the ways the performers, often masters of this kind of thing, pull it off, and how their directors dress it all up.

 

Hero (2002), co-written and directed by Zhang Yimou, is among the best wuxia features. It's also a great example of style being ever-more important than substance in the subgenre. If anything, the plot’s here mostly to give action sequences something to snack on to have enough energy to keep moving. This is the kind of movie where a pair of assassins have a sword fight while walking on water with Jesus’ aplomb, flying and shimmying in the air as if they were a couple of herons. This is the kind of movie where we will watch a katana, in close-up, slash a water droplet in half, and where we will watch a junta of arrows crash through the roof of a richly red-walled and red-floored one-story-high calligraphy school and elegantly kill everyone inside. So much work has been put not just into the fight choreography but also into the presentation of it that that’s ultimately what matters here. Zhang seems to know it himself.

 

The narrative is provocatively structured. It's a riff on Rashomon (1950), which told a tale through the perspectives of many, basically. But it's largely ineffective when it comes to evoking exigence. The movie stars Jet Li, whose face is always fixed in a no-nonsense rictus, as a Qin prefect only known as Nameless. Before the film, which is set during the Warring States period (roughly between 475-221 B.C.), begins, the king of Qin (Chen Daoming) has survived an assassination attempt, seemingly at the hands of a band of killers comprising Flying Snow, Long Sky, and Broken Sword (Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, and Tony Leung, respectively). When he meets with Nameless, who claims that he has since killed all three, clutching their weapons to back up his claims, the king is at a paranoiac high. He will not let anyone see him, and, if he does decide to let someone into the room, a guest must remain at least 100 steps away from him and his throne. Come any closer and an organ will get punctured like a balloon by a guard.

 

It's a good thing that Hero's relatively simple plot is presented so elaborately, since, if to unroll conventionally, it could be regurgitated in the scope of a brief phone call. It involves Nameless recounting how exactly he killed every member of the trio — resulting in some expectedly rousing, stylish, and physics-damning fights via flashback — with fully realized revisions coming later in the movie to reveal if he’s telling the full truth. (Even the hypotheticals of the king, who at one moment in the movie clarifies that he doesn’t believe Nameless all that much, are actualized.) Whether Nameless lives up to the titular moniker or if air-quotes must come with the billing becomes a film-length exercise in speculation. All will end, a smidge cornily, on a nationalistic note that’s for once excusable.

 

I couldn’t care less about the supposed-to-be-emotional interpersonal relationships, which, while given some time to develop (Flying Snow and Broken Sword are lovers, and their relationship is made rocky particularly by the presence of the latter’s feisty, Zhang Ziyi-portrayed protégé Moon), read as cold and cryptic, discordant with the in-your-face splendor of everything else. But the scratch doesn’t fuck the luster of this jewel of a movie. When you’re experiencing the best of the best action choreography, you don’t want most of the 98 minutes to be taken up by story. Unusually for the action film, a genre in which action over plot is more often a detriment than it isn’t, state-of-the-art, visually imposing melees move us most. “Is the sword the only answer?” Broken Sword asks. For Hero, the answer is a confident “yes.” A-