VOD film review: Hero (2002)
Ivan Radford | On 04, Sep 2021
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang
Where to watch Hero online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
“Martial arts and music share the same principles. Both wrestle with complex chords and rare melodies.” Those are the words of Nameless (Jet Li) in Hero, the 2002 Chinese thriller. It’s more than just a statement of worldview, as Zhang Yimou’s artistic approach mixes martial arts and political theory to its own rhythms that are at once thoughtful and visceral.
The film is a beautiful puzzle-box, at once straightforward and complex. It sees the Nameless warrior present himself to the King of Qin (Daoming Chen), where he presents the weapons of three defeated assassins, all of whom had designs to kill the king. In exchange, he is granted not only bountiful rewards but also the chance to get up close to the ruler in a rare private meeting. Then, in flashback, Nameless explains how he managed to overcome this trio of fearsome worriers: Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Moon (Ziyi Zhang) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung).
What ensues is a gorgeous tapestry of ballet as much as it is a medley of fight sequences, with each set piece astonishingly choreographed with a painterly touch. That extends from the choreography, by Wei Tung and Li Cai, which is full of graceful wire fu and character-specific (and character-driven) flourishes, to the cinematography, by Christophe Doyle, which uses colour to disarming effect. While the king’s palace is a cavernous, grey chamber, a mood that permeates the opening battle between Jet Li’s Nameless and Sky (the always brilliant Donnie Yen), the film erupts into a stream of colour – from red, which borrows the tint of a crucial ink at a calligraphy school to craft a swirling sea of arrows, love, envy and blood, to a sombre, pure white, as the story reaches its final resolution.
But each colour also signals a different interpretation of events, and as the script goes back and forth between the palace and the story being told, it becomes clear that there’s more than one truth at play, each one overlaying another to form a kaleidoscope of deceptive ambiguity. The colours also tie into the elemental tone and theme of each fight sequence, from a confrontation that hovers over water, as droplets ping between blades like an existential game of tennis, to a yellow flurry of falling leaves.
The longer it goes on, the more disordered and fragmented the backdrops become, compared to the elegant, circular simplicity of the opening. That echoes the inner tumult of each fighter, as they come to question what they’re doing, who they’re doing it to, and why. Each cast member not only commands their combat with confidence and poise, but also conveys their emotional arc through their actions, from Ziyi Zhang’s revenge-driven determination to Maggie Cheung’s passionate jealousy. It’s Tony Leung, though, who walks away with the whole show, as the actor moves from sorrow to honour with constant conviction, and ultimately ends up embodying the key message of the whole piece.
While Yimou has insisted his film isn’t political in the conventional sense, there’s a philosophical debate at play as our protagonist strives to change the world for the better – and Leung’s Broken Sword emerges as perhaps the real hero of the title, in the sense of being able to see the bigger picture of the greater good. It’s a performance rooted in compassion and peace more than history, and it adds a note to the delicately composed ensemble that resonates long after the credits have rolled. A beguiling, stylish, intelligent actioner.
Hero (2002) is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.