Hong Kong and I are at odds at the moment. While I can appreciate the cinematic quality of such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the portrayals at violence turn me off to the action. I personally just don’t like the choreography of the fights. It’s too out there, breaking the very fabrics of reality and making scenes that rarely have any context in reality. Therefore, when the film tries to craft a human drama I find it hard to reconcile that to the fantastical violence I witnessed moments ago. So going into Hero I had a list of issues I was expecting and found a few more before the credits rolled.
Set in the years before China is unified Qin emerges as the strongest kingdom of 5 smaller kingdoms. The king has attracted the attention of three deadly assassins: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leunge) and Flying Moon (Maggie Cheung). One day an unknown hero called Nameless (Jet Li) arrives at the king’s court with the three blades of the fallen assassins and the tale of how they died at his blade.
The story is framed around the Rashomon technique of storytelling. For those unfamiliar this comes from the Japanese film Rashomon wherein four different accounts of the same event are told. Hero takes this approach and applies it to Nameless’ fights against the three deadly assassins. The structure proves as a commentary on what a hero is as each perspective comes to a different conclusion. It’s easily one of the better handlings of this technique.
Watching even the shortest bit of this film the one thing that stands out is the vibrant visual style. Every frame is brimming with color and style. Even the scenes shot in the deserts and wastelands are filled with rich hues of earth. Every scene is a perfect balance of composition, color and creativity. It’s one of those pieces of cinema where you could take any frame, blow it up and hang it on your wall. From the breathtaking vistas to the extreme close-ups the film creates a magnificent tapestry upon which these events will play out.
The fights are shot with a lot of slow motion, perhaps an excess as the film lingers upon the finesse and speed of its fighters. I suppose this is used to create a poetic quality to the fights, but half the film I found myself pestered by the liberal usage of wirework. The players move in ways that defy the laws of nature as they run on water, stand sideways to the ground and leap through the air as if they might never land on earth again. This over the top action has its appeals, but often times the fights are seem more about showing off the abilities of the stuntmen than creating tense action.
But the problems with the fighting sequences go further than that. The film heavily romanticizes the violence. Not only is it often associated with warm hues, but also it shoots it in such a way to create an aesthetic appeal to the violence on screen. The problem is that as the film progresses the film questions the usage of violence to resolve the issues facing these kingdoms. By the end the narrative takes an entirely different take on the violence than the ones the image dictates, creating a dissonance between image and plot.
This divergence begins in the third act as undermines everything that came before. The tone, the narrative, even the characters totally shift. What you have is an entire short film contained within the whole. The third act is probably the best part of the film, or at least it proves to tell the most interesting story with the most interesting forms of these characters. Yet the groundwork of the first two thirds of the film makes the third act seem implausible.
Hero creates a divide between the action and the message of its film. The problem goes further entertaining us with the very thing it condemns. The film lingers on the violence, holding it up as artistic expression. It glorifies the violence and then asks us to despise it. Even the plot presents the violence in widely romanticize strokes. It takes the artistic sweeps of the violence beyond the mind of the film’s hero and places it on the screen as an objective art form. Then it asks us to question the violence the film has just spent an hour and thirty minutes exalting. At least in the case of Hero you can’t have your sword fight and hate it.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing