Hero is a 2002 martial arts film directed by Zhang Yimo. It stars Jet Li as "Nameless", and tells the story of how he manages to conquer three assassins who had attempted to end the life of the King of Qin. To give a rough time period, the film is set before the Great Wall of China is constructed. At the time of production, Hero was the most expensive Chinese film to ever be produced, and that large budget was most definitely worth it. What they got out of it was a beautifully told story with a powerful message.
The majority of the film is told with the memories of Nameless and the beliefs and suspicions of the King of Qin. For the longest time, the two of them sit in the King's palace and talk with one another. The first story is told from Nameless' perspective, showing how he defeated each one of the three assassins. At this point, I was pondering how they would manage to stretch this out into a full length picture, and why we should be bothered to care. We know who won, and at this point in the film, Nameless continues to receive rewards for slaying the assassins. There seems to be very little conflict, and no danger to any of the important characters.
Wonderfully choreographed fight scenes
At this point, the film gets turned on its head with the King figuring out Nameless' true motives. He then proceeds in re-telling part of the story the way he imagined that it actually happened. This swapping happens a couple times, with each time getting closer to the truth and revealing more about each character's past. This ends up being a very effective form of storytelling, managing to keep the audience guessing, yet still very entertained.
As you can expect from a martial arts film, there are many fight scenes throughout. These scenes are highly involving, and for the most part manage to stay fresh. Jet Li is in the vast majority of them, and as per usual, he does an amazing job. The real problem I have with them is although they all do look amazing, the gravity defying nature of them all breaks the immersion factor. You get people jumping through the air for what seems like minutes, bouncing off of and running on water, and even sticking to the roof of a ceiling like a bat. The water fight was especially guilty of this, as none of that fight could be pulled off in real life. And yet, maybe it does make sense, considering that they are all told through memories and suspicions. Maybe they are shown in unbelievable ways because the characters want to give themselves more credit than they deserve. As entirely possible as this is, it still hinders the film's otherwise incredibly beautiful sequences.
What makes the film very enjoyable to watch is how tranquil and serene the entire experience is. This is especially true when there are swords clashing with each other. The fight scenes are shot in such a way that despite the heavy action on screen, your heart never starts racing. It is peaceful even when it shouldn't be. Each fight is done in an artistic manner that is almost mesmerizing to watch. Even when the characters pull off impossible feats, the background visuals and music continue to make you feel at peace with the world.
This is helped even more by the character development. Despite the fact that the story could be summarized in a paragraph, the script and acting performances help you bond with each character, despite them going through slight, but important changes in each iteration of the story. Even though reading the subtitles does make you less able to focus on the acting, the amazing performances shine through. Each of the main characters makes you feel for what they are going through. You never want to see a character die, especially after the first telling of the story is over. Their emotions, conflicts and sorrows are all brought out on screen in such a way that will leave you emotionally drained by film's end.
Hero is a visual masterpiece. It is peaceful and calming while still being able to bring the same type of action that is expected from a martial arts film. The characters have real depth, the acting is well done, and the style it was filmed in truly is beautiful. The way it manages to portray its message is effective, allowing the viewer to look back at the end of the film and reflect on what has happened. Although the plot leaves something to be desired and the fight scenes are a tad bit unrealistic to be made believable, but overall it is still a film with a broad appeal that should definitely be watched.