Simply stunning fantasy kung-fu, somehow managing to surpass Crouching Tiger in sheer beauty.

Released in 2002, certified HK-CAT2A. Reviewed on 01 Apr 2003 by Scott Morris
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You may remember Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a kung-fu fantasy flick from a few years ago which did a remarkable thing in creating a substantial cross-over audience. Hero should appeal to the same audience, relying more on grace and spectacle than brutal beatings. It's every bit as beautiful a CTHD, and would have been a strong contender for the cinematography Oscar had Miramax not screwed the pooch with its release dates. As such, it's one nomination for best foreign film criminally underrates this gorgeous film.

There are many kung-fu films, but they can be broadly categorised into a few types. There's the brutal, nasty ass-kickings of the type Bruce Lee would dole out in his heyday, aped by most western attempts like the Van Damme efforts. Arguably it's mere semantics, but I'd separate off the more lighthearted movies that generally play for laughs and use all manner of random items as weapons such as the Jackie Chan films. This is in no way belittling the skill involved, much of Chan's early work is simply stunning to behold. The final category would be the wire-fight heavy fantasy action wushu films, such as the Fong Sai Yuk and Chinese Ghost Story series, CTHD and now Hero.

Hero is one of the rare films where the plot takes a back seat to allow the action and stunning images to unfold without really seeming to do so. It's a capsule reviewers dream, as the plot initially at least reduces to there being three assassins out to kill the warlord King of the Qin state (Daoming Chen). The legendary assassins Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) are stopped by a junior but incredibly skilled official Nameless (Jet Li), who is rewarded with an audience with the king. After a previous aborted assassination attempt by Broken Sword and Flying Snow, the King allows no-one outside of his trusted chorus of advisors within 100 yards of him, so it is a great honour indeed to be allowed within 10 yards of him. This position was earned as a reward for doing what no others had been able to in dispatching the assassins. Nameless relates the story of his adventures to the King over a nice cup of tea, describing the fights and his tactics.

There is a twist a mere 40 minutes into the film that I'm reluctant to divulge, although it's not a spoiler as such. I'll be vague and say that the King believes things may not be as they seem and proposes his own sequence of events from some canny observations and deductions, and so the story is retold more accurately.

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In both versions the main force in the story isn't the battles at all, but rather a love story between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, again drawing CTHD comparisons. The two previously being lovers, yet now estranged causes most of the developments in a story where despite top billing Jet Li can't really be called the main character. Very much an ensemble effort from some of the most talented actors in Asian cinema, everyone from Ziyi Zhang's character Moon, Broken Sword's young apprentice jealous of Flying Snow, to the grace and dignity shown by Leung, Cheung and Yen as the assassins living by a code of honour is nailed to perfection.

The major differential from CTHD is embodied by the King of Qin, whose deeds prompt a consideration on the nature of war and considerations of what is best for the people both under his rule and those he plans to subjugate. The composite states of China having been at war for around 180 years, history records the King of Qin conquering the other states over a seen year campaign, declaring himself First Emperor of China and bringing much needed stability.

The film shows some of the massive armies used in these battles, armies that make Helm's Deep look like a minor skirmish. Figures of upwards of half a million per army were not uncommon in these wars, and through the miracle of CGI we can see some of these battalions. While on a few occasions they provide a jaw-dropping spectacle, provoking thoughts of 'Crimeny, that's a lot of people', we only see them used in anger once. A vast squad of archers fire barrage after barrage of arrows down to a village where Flying Snow, Broken Sword and Nameless are ensconced in a school. Flying Snow and Nameless live up to their reputations by fending off the arrows directed to the school using their own brands of fantasy swordplay in a stunning scene.

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Yet stunning scenes abound in this movie. A desperate and hopeless fight between Moon and the far superior skills of Flying Snow in a lush autumnal forest, the leaves turning to blood red on Moon's defeat. The film's first battle between Sky and Nameless showing an elegant and beautiful battle. A battle taking place in the minds of Nameless and Broken Sword, skipping over treetops and water as they thrust and parry each other. The assassination attempt of Broken Sword and Flying Snow on the King, cutting through guards as though they weren't there and a fight amongst the many plain green banners of the King's throne room. A fearsome amount of work has gone into the cinematography. Every scene is immaculately framed, with strong vibrant colours throughout. Clearly a fantastic retelling of a fantastic tale, don't go hankering for realism here. Just allow the sheer wonder of it to saturate your eyeballs and be happy there is a place in the world for such things.

Even the most beautiful of things can have flaws. Having said the plot is of little significance, it does seem a touch overlight which may nag away at the back of your mind. Apparently Miramax exerted pressure to have the film chopped down to it's 90-ish minute running time from 120 minutes, which may have had some impact on this. Rumours abound of a forthcoming director's cut that may restore some of this.

Obviously the fight scenes are important, and the film will to an extent live or die by them. Here they are terribly impressive, although I've seen (slightly) better. If all that matters to you is thumping high impact bonecrunching beatings this probably isn't the film for you, but those having been raised on The Legend Of Fong Sai Yuk and the like will have a field day.

It can't be all things to all people, and I feel I've cheapened it with the continual CTHD comparisons, but it's the closest point of reference. Certainly worth seeing to see Jet Li resplendent in his element in a way none of his Hollywood roles have been able to capture. Calm, dignified, controlled, graceful and with an aura of confidence and almost invincibility that fluffy (yet enjoyable, in my humble opinion) popcorn fodder like The One will never be able to capture.

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Highly recommended to anyone who likes well-choreographed battles against some of the most gorgeous backdrops ever seen. The soundtrack has the bombast necessary to carry the action as well as the delicacy to create a convincing atmosphere. Gobsmacking in scope and vision, jaw-dropping in execution - your mouth won't know what hit it. I'm frustrated that I simply don't have the words to describe the majesty of it all. Hopefully the screenshots help, but take my word for it, this film is simply lovely.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 5/5 TippyMarks.

Yimou Zhang
Cast list:
Jet Li (Nameless)
Tony Leung (Broken Sword)
Maggie Cheung (Flying Snow)
Donnie Yen (Sky)
Daoming Chen (King of Qin)
Ziyi Zhang (Moon)