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Ying xiong (2002)
Hero is the absolute wuxia masterpiece!
It's strange to consult a thesaurus for words that mean "beautiful" while I'm writing a review of a martial arts epic. But that's what Hero does to its audience. The gravity-defying duels between swordsmen are some of the most spectacular you'll ever see.
As the film opens, the king honors a warrior called Nameless, who has slain three famous assassins that threatened the throne during the conquest. The reward: a private meeting with the king. This hero, played perfectly by international martial arts legend Jet Li, grants the king's wish; he relates the stories of how he outwitted these legendary killers-Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Sky (Donnie Yen).
In the style of Rashomon, Nameless's stories are offered to us in multiple, contradictory flashbacks. Each story he relates raises the king's suspicion and requires a revision. Thus, Nameless and his targets are portrayed in a variety of relationships, sometimes meeting different fates. Each enthralling flashback is portrayed in a distinct array of colors.
In one, Nameless and Sky meet in a spectacular duel that's as much a match between their minds as it is between their blades. In another, Nameless helps Broken Sword and Flying Snow defend a calligraphy school from the oncoming forces of the king's warriors. This involves deflecting relentless torrents of arrows that are launched in a siege that resembles the ferocity of The Two Towers' Battle of Helm's Deep. Nameless opposes this siege in order to gain the killers' trust, to learn their weakness, and to defeat them using their own passions for one another. Zhang Ziyi, sporting the same youthful ego and impertinence that she portrayed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, plays a key role here as Broken Sword's servant, Moon. Two more astonishing clashes-one a breathtaking ballet in a storm of falling yellow leaves, the other a battle on the surface of a magnificent lake-are each worth the price of admission; it's unlikely you'll see anything so memorable all year. But the most important clash is the one between the hero's narratives and the king's questioning. Nameless is clearly superior to those whose weapons he has claimed and set down before the king. But what has made him such an unparalleled warrior? And what will he ask of the king now that he has performed this feat as a volunteer? To say more about the plot would be to spoil the story's most interesting twist. And besides, there is much to say in honor of the cast and crew.
Nameless is a perfect role for Jet Li. The part asks little of his acting talents (fortunately) and much from his athletic abilities. Similarly, Donnie Yen (Blade II, Shanghai Knights) turns Sky into a man who gets right down to business, letting his sword do the talking.
Hero also burns with immediacy and relevance. As China struggles with the division between Beijing and Taiwan, Zhang Yimou poses a heartfelt challenge. He acknowledges the value of unification and peace. He knows that militant resistance of the empire's progress can lead only to more violence and loss. But he reminds the viewer that the peculiarity of unique, diverse cultures produces valuable, irreplaceable rewards ... and people. It is as if the storyteller cannot find a satisfactory conclusion to his own epic. Thus, American viewers may be unsettled by the conclusion, as there seems to be no room for democracy in Hero's paradigm. In a worldview that reveres the will of a conqueror over the will of a benevolent God, "peace" comes at a cost that will give no one true peace. That is why, in the end, Hero remains a conflicted, colorfully turbulent film. By the time the climactic challenge occurs, few will find themselves unmoved by the king's good intentions; but after his bloody campaigns, he is not the man who earns the title "hero."
Seen in this light, Hero's distinct, aerobatic duels come to represent the power of art to communicate ideas across borders and languages, from common people to kings, emperors, and presidents. The story's emphasis on the art of calligraphy is connected to its exhibitions of swordsmanship-in developing an artful style of writing, Broken Sword and Flying Snow prove that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword. This metaphor, along with the film's explorations of conscience, fidelity, trust, and responsibility, make Hero ultimately an insightful and rewarding achievement.