[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
When I was a teenager suffering from undiagnosed depression, I remember that one of my favorite story beats in films and games was when a soldier would throw their life down to protect something they cared deeply for. Be it a heroic sacrifice for their country or taking a bullet for a loved one, the idea of being a martyr to ensure others can live in peace felt somewhat inspirational. I suppose a lot of that was because of my Catholic upbringing and hearing the story of Jesus since I was a child, but it felt like an ideal way to live.
That’s kind of what Zhang Yimou’s 2002 masterpiece Hero is all about. Jet Li plays the role of a nameless assassin that concocts a plan to get close to the King of Qin and kill him. By doing so, he’ll free the land of Zhao from the king’s ruthless blade, but potentially set back the unification of China under the King’s rule. Likely from my first paragraph, you’ve already figured out what the ending of the film is.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to really spoil a 19-year-old movie, but the twist at the end is hardly the moment that makes the film. Through a combination of wuxia ideals, intense combat sequences, exquisite color usage, and excellent acting, Hero still impresses me all these years after I originally saw it in theaters.
Being this is the beginning of my second year writing this column, I wanted to wind the clock back a bit to around roughly before I was feverishly devouring Kung Fu films. Hero isn’t necessarily Kung Fu in the strictest sense, but falls firmly in the martial arts category and contains a lot of the tropes and filming techniques I’ve been praising for the past year. It’s also the first film I saw in theaters after being introduced to the idea of Kung Fu as a genre, which then sparked me to completely go all-in with imported DVDs and such.
I remember meeting some friends in high school who were avid fans of Kung Fu movies. They were into English dubs, something that I had bemoaned thanks to some Japanese games I played, but I took an interest in the films they were praising because I had taken Karate in my youth. My best friend then lent me his DVD of Master of the Flying Guillotine and I was hooked. I wanted to continue seeking out Chinese films and it just happened that Hero was releasing in a few weeks. Lucky me.
The history of this film getting its US release is complicated. When the movie originally came out in China, it was praised for being possibly the greatest film Zhang Yimou ever made, though was also met with some criticism as being pro-Government propaganda. Miramax quickly scooped up the international distribution rights and proceeded to sit on them for almost two years. With the film getting delayed on six different occasions, it took a push from director Quentin Tarantino to get the film in theaters and finally out in the west, where Hero would go on to be number one at the box-office for two weeks straight.
With the smash success of something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’d think Miramax would have acted faster on getting Hero overseas. Regardless, it’s not hard to see why moviegoers were enamored with this late-era Yimou film. While the ultimate message could be construed as “pro-Communist,” the message of unity for everyone in the land is a fairly universal message. Most people want peace for their fellow man, though that’s potentially become hard to see following a pandemic and mass racism online.
Summing up Hero with its core philosophy does a disservice to how viewers will even get to that point, though. Through the usage of the unreliable narrator trope, Yimou guides viewers through a story that has many different viewpoints, interpretations, and twists that paint a bigger picture. It’s actually quite a bit like the 1973 Shaw Brothers classic The Blood Brothers, which shows the protagonist recounting his journey to the authorities while starring down his fate.
Nameless explains how he was able to defeat three of the deadliest assassins in the land through the use of his unique sword technique. Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) all fell to his blade as he outwitted them and pitted them against each other…except that’s not really what happened. The King is quick to spot inconsistencies in the narrative and counters with the idea that Nameless actually corroborated with each assassin, making them take a fall so that he could get closer to the King.
It may take a couple of viewings to get the story straight, but there is an ingenious little detail in each moment that astute viewers will latch onto. Each variant of the story features a different color that indicates its narrator. The darker, harsher tones indicate the “truth” while something like green is “past” and blue is “future.” Surprisingly, these colors were not chosen based on color theory, but because cinematographer Christopher Doyle liked their aesthetics.
Keeping this in mind, you’re able to piece together how events transpired even if you aren’t sure if Nameless’s story is accurate. He really did fight Sky and “defeated” him, but there’s a trick there that wasn’t noticed by the guards. Hero sort of plays out like a whodunit, just without a murder to solve or some nefarious killer trying to get away with a crime.
Ultimately, the plot is that of confusion because it’s meant to confuse Nameless’s target. That the King sees through it is simply down to bad luck, though it does also speak to the intent in Nameless’s heart. In reality, Broken Sword had explained his philosophy to Nameless and convinced him to spare the King. To him, making that ultimate sacrifice for the greater good was more important than taking revenge for the razing of Zhao.
A lot of this wouldn’t mean a damn without the exceptional score by composer Tan Dun. Known previously for his work on Crouching Tiger, Hero’s cinematography and poetic battle sequences are made impactful by the powerful score backing them. Through a combination of violins and Japanese war drums, we’re given solemn tunes for quiet moments and ferocious anthems for fierce brawls. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about the film and likely the one thing that will stick in your mind after you finish the movie.
It’s too bad that the American version suffers a little here. Most of the score remains intact, but the Chinese original actually includes some vocals for songs that speak to the greater themes present in the story. There are Director’s Cut DVDs and Blu-Rays available (one of which I tried to buy for this column that still hasn’t arrived), but Miramax’s stranglehold on international rights has prevented an official release from happening overseas. You’ll need to invest in some kind of region-free Blu-Ray player to witness the definitive cut of Hero, though a lot of the cuts are more for pacing issues than anything.
None of the story gets lost, but some of the fight sequences appear choppy in the US version. The moment that sticks out the most is when Nameless faces off against Flying Snow during the King’s version of events. Jet Li and Maggie Cheung are shown from a wide-angle shot as being battle-ready, but then the close-up has them bow and draw their swords. It’s almost like the two scenes were reversed, which is probably what happened on the editing floor. Details like that aren’t present in the extended version.
Then there is the controversial change of “Under Heaven” to “Our Land.” In the original script, Broken Sword explains to Nameless that he believes China belongs to Tianxia. Tianxia is a word in Mandarin that can be interpreted as “Under Heaven” or “The World.” For whatever reason, Miramax changed this to “Our Land” and even added an ending description that removes the global theme from the story. Yimou’s official stance was that of translation being handicapped regardless of intent, but it’s not hard to see how Miramax wanted to film to have a more foreign identity instead of being that of global truth. While sad, you mostly just have to keep in mind that this was back in 2004 when Hollywood was still casting Chinese actors as Japanese characters in films. We’ve certainly come a long way since then.
But those small issues don’t hamper what is an utterly breathtaking and brilliant movie. Hero has remained a favorite of mine ever since I saw it as a teen. When revisiting it for this month’s column, I had a fear that I would have grown to dislike the movie with age. Thankfully, it seems that a lot of what I currently believe may have actually been informed by Hero’s message of unification. That and Jet Li kicks ass, so it’s hard to leave the film feeling disappointed.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.