In turn of the century China, Ying-Hung Hua (Ekin Cheng) - whose name translates as "Hero Hua" from Cantonese - is entrusted with a sacred family heirloom: the mystical Red Sword. A soothsayer also informs the prodigious, young martial arts master he was "born under the Star of Death" and "destined to be alone" throughout his life. Shortly thereafter, his parents (including kung fu icon Cheng Pei-Pei in a cameo) are murdered by foreign gangsters after his father writes an article exposing the opium trade. Ying-Hung takes revenge, but is forced to abandon his pregnant sweetheart Jade (Kristy Yeung) and faithful friend Sheng (Lam Hiu-Fung) and flee to America as a migrant worker.
Sixteen years later, Sheng accompanies Ying-Hung's son Sword (Nicholas Tse) as they arrive in New York City, in search of his by now legendary father. The trail leads them to China House, an immigrant shelter run by the steadfast Boss (Yuen Biao), then on to Ying-Hung's enigmatic masked friend Shadow (Lam Dik-On, voiced by Jordan Chan) and his streetwise pickpocket "daughter" Kate (Grace Yip), and a downtrodden monk named Luohan (Ken Lo). Each has a story to tell about how Ying-Hung Hua fought racism, crime and poverty to hell make a life for the Chinese in America. Now faced with the threat of the power-crazed Japanese warrior Invincible (Francis Ng), will Ying-Hung return and risk endangering his family?
A Man Called Hero was the second mega-budget comic book fantasy produced by the team of director/cinematographer Andrew Lau and writer/producer Wong Jing, following their international hit Storm Riders (1998). As before it is based on a manhua by artist Ma Wing-shing, one that predates Storm Riders and remains one of the most popular and influential comics in Hong Kong. Wing-shing's painterly artwork went on to influence a great deal of Asian fantasy cinema and video games, and is well served by this incredibly slick production. Silent movie footage of Ellis Island sits alongside CG pyrotechnics, extravagant sets and grandiose fantasy set-pieces, poetically melded via Lau's almost avant-garde camerawork.
Yet what makes this superior to Storm Riders is that instead of some otherworldly fantasyland, the action unfolds against a fascinating historical backdrop and the Chinese immigrant story. In his long struggle to build a life, Ying-Hung Hua endures a perilous sea voyage, poverty, starvation, and exploitation at the hands of ruthless triads (including Elvis Tsui). At one moment he's blasting enemies with energy beams, at another he's being de-loused, prodded and "treated like an animal" at the immigration centre on Ellis Island. Fragmented storytelling builds an impressive aura of mystery around Ying-Hung Hua. Pinup idol Ekin Cheng was much criticised by western fans, with some justification, but for once his reticence actually ennobles the stoic, yet tragic hero. A man who goes out of his way to distance himself from loved ones, as illustrated in his poignant encounter with Sword.
A host of top Hong Kong stars were assembled to lend support. The film marked a mainstream comeback for Yuen Biao, following his lean years appearing in zero-budget Filipino movies, while Taiwanese sex bomb Shu Qi appears as a lovesick ninja girl who follows Ying-Hung everywhere after he saves her life. As in Storm Riders, a miscast Anthony Wong shows up as a sagely martial arts master, does a little CG-enhanced schtick, then shuffles off this mortal coil.
The film is undoubtedly episodic and not every narrative thread is tied up satisfactorily. The identity of Ying-Hung's twin daughter remains a mystery, although there are hints she is Kate, which does not bode well for her growing attraction to Sword. With a number of villains to face instead any dominant one, the story grows increasingly fragmented, yet successfully develops destiny into Ying-Hung's major adversary. The ongoing question being whether he accepts it or continues to resist. Most of the story concerns with tragic romance and heart-wrenching drama, yet remains involving enough most viewers won't mind the fantasy action elements are relegated to the background.
When they do come, they are spectacular: a face-off between martial arts masters where rainwater becomes a CG weapon; superheroes leaping from building to building; a spectacular escape from a slave labour camp with Yuen Biao cracking skulls and Ying-Hung displaying the apocalyptic scope of his superpowers; and most memorably, an amazing battle atop the Statue of Liberty - one year before X-Men (2000). Although a box office smash, the film came out at a turbulent time for Hong Kong cinema and consequently no sequel was made. Following its show-stopping finale, A Man Called Hero concludes fittingly as Ying-Hung disappears into the anonymous crowd, just another face in a sea of immigrants.
Hong Kong director and cinematographer responsible for some of the biggest hits in recent HK cinema. Born Wai Keung Lau, he photographed classics such as City on Fire, Curry and Pepper and Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. As a director, Lau brought a flashy, commercial style to films like Naked Killer 2, Modern Romance and To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui, all produced by the prolific Wong Jing.