Big production epic films with fantastical treatment of production design such as Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of The Rings’ series (2001-2003) or James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ (2009) will be remembered for its visuals. But those films will never reach the grand scale of Zhang Yimou’s ‘Hero’ (2002) despite its lower budget compared to the former. It opens with the protagonist Nameless (Jet Li) being brought back to Qin palace to meet the king of Qin (Chen Daoming). Just through those sequences of Nameless escorted by thousand soldiers and walking alone through the castle stairs, it’s a visual that pierce through the eyes and will stay forever in one’s head.
Putting visuals aside first, ‘Hero’ is a film that I never really expected to be. It’s a film that draws an invisible line between a play that could be adapted on stage, putting only two men, a servant and a king (with some extras) in one location. While having a celebration through drinking face-to-face with the king, it became clear that their conversation is a battle of wits of how Nameless could defeat the king’s most fearful enemies full of twists and turns to engage you.
As their conversation translated into a visual cue, it served what all the audience should have expected from a wuxia film: the sword fight. Similar to Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000), ‘Hero’ doesn’t offer a realistic, brutal fight scene yet a poetic choreographed fight that pushes the boundaries into an art form. Perhaps this is due to the visionary artistic visuals of Zhang Yimou combined with the masterful cinematography of Christopher Doyle (seriously, they combine 5 color palettes while still maintaining the consistency of its visuals) that made the fight scene so much pleasing to look at. But it would never work without the cast masterful in martial arts (Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi all had performed in a martial arts film before).
Amidst its unpredictable story, eye-pleasing visual and beautiful fight scene, what makes ‘Hero’ close to a masterpiece is the heart and philosophy delivered within the 99-minutes running time. Being a wuxia film, melodrama elements are inevitable to grip your emotions and shattered into pieces. But ‘Hero’ lets everything flow and when the time comes, it hits the right note and it hits hard on its emotion with Yimou’s well-written character and motivation. In the end, ‘Hero’ is an almost flawless tale of Chinese court drama all thanks to Yimou’s direction and screenplay.