For ten years, the life of ancient China's most powerful leader Qin (Daoming Chen) has been threatened by a trio of assassins – Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and his lover Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). When word reaches Qin that all three have been killed by an unknown, nameless swordsman (Jet Li), the swordsman is summoned to the king's palace to explain how he managed to defeat such powerful warriors.
It's very easy to make the comparison between Zhang Yimou's Hero and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: both big budget martial arts films tackled by art-house directors better known for character-driven drama, and both starring one of Hong Kong's biggest stars (Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat respectively) and the luminous Ziyi Zhang. But while Crouching Tiger was a fast-paced crossover hit, Hero – for all its thrillingly shot fight-sequences – remains an elusive, dreamlike film, far less interested in hitting crowd-pleasing buttons.
The film is told almost entirely in flash-back as Jet Li's Nameless sits before Qin, recounting how he overcame the king's would-be assassins. We hear (and see) a variety of different versions, as Qin slowly deduces that Nameless himself is here to kill him, and that Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow were in league with him. Yimou chooses to represent each version of the tale with a different colour – sumptuous red, icy blue, shimmering white, pastoral green – the clothes, walls, even the colours of the trees and sky shifting depending on how close to truth we are getting. This is an amazing-looking film; Christopher Doyle yet again shows why he's one of the best cinematographers in the business, and Yimou is equally at home with epic, widescreen shots of Qin's massed armies as he is with more tender, reflective moments.
Yimou's cast is a mix of established martial arts stars (Li, Yen) and quality character actors (Chen, Leung, Cheung), but all prove adept at both the drama and the physical stuff. Li exudes the same calm, determined air he did in the Once Upon a Time in China films, while Leung and Cheung are convincing doomed lovers, having been there before in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. Ziyi Zhang, playing Broken Sword's mistress Moon, unfortunately gets somewhat lost amongst such heavy-weight talent, and apart from one fight scene with Cheung, has little to do but look weepy whenever Leung is about to get his ass kicked.
The fights themselves are fast and exciting, but heavy on the wire-work; as in Crouching Tiger, these characters leap huge distances and glide smoothly through the air while in combat. There are some jaw-dropping moments – a torrent of arrows thundering down upon a caligraphy school, the walls of a library spectacularly collapsing as Nameless reveals how he plans to kill the king, or Broken Sword and Flying Snow fighting their way through hundreds of Qin's soldiers on their way to him.
Hero is a frequently astonishing, sometimes baffling film that is both hugely satisfying and strangely incomplete. It's often difficult to follow which version of Nameless's tale we are in, and the motivation of some characters – Broken Sword in particular – seems rather unclear. The film also has a controversial, confusing political dimension, as Yimou attempts to understand – indeed slightly sympathise with – Qin's tyrannical ways. But the director's concerns aren't with the narrative, and on other levels Hero proves to be an impressive achievement. See it on the biggest screen you can.
Chinese director responsible for some of the country's best known international hits. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Yimou made his debut in 1987 with Red Sorghum, which like much of his later work combined a small-scale drama with stunning visuals. His breakthrough film was the beautiful Raise the Red Lantern, the first of four films he made with then-partner Gong Li. The Story of Qui Ju, To Live, Shanghai Triad and Not One Less were among the films Yimou made throughout the 90s. The Chaplin-esque comedy Happy Times was a bit of a misfire, but 2002's Oscar-nominated martial arts spectacle Hero was a massive hit, critically and commercially. Another martial arts film, House of Flying Daggers, followed in 2004, as did Curse of the Golden Flower and later the internationally-flavoured fantasy The Great Wall and acclaimed, stylish Shadow.