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Ying xiong (2002)


Kono kuni wa mada, hontô no hero wo shiranai [Japan] ("This land doesnt know a real hero. Yet.)

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 99 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

Two thousand years ago, the King of Qin (Chen Daoming) campaigns to bring the other six kingdoms under his power into a new united China – but his ruthlessness has won him many enemies, including the three deadly assassins Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen). Learning that they have all been killed by a lowly, nameless sheriff (Jet Li), Qin grants this mysterious man a rare audience within ten paces of the royal throne to hear the story of how he managed to defeat such bold warriors. The sheriff duly tells his tale of swordsmanship and stratagem, only to find the king placing a different complexion on events, and from this confrontation of crossed words and crossed swords emerges a more complex definition of what it is to be a hero.nnIt will be impossible for ‘Hero’ to escape comparison with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially as both films feature richly aestheticised action sequences, sweeping epic grandeur, a doomed romance (in ‘Hero’, as in Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’, between Cheung and Tony Leung), a cast including Cheung and Zhang Ziyi (here as Broken Sword’s servant, Moon) and a soundtrack by Tan Dun. This is no accident, for after years of making exquisite arthouse films and garnering awards in every serious international festival, Zhang Yimou has clearly set his sights on the American mainstream with ‘Hero’ – hence the presence in it of martial artists Jet Li and Donnie Yen, both of whom have already successfully made the transition to Hollywood, paving the way for this film’s acceptance.

Yet Zhimou has abandoned none of his high artistic standards for this piece. As the different perspectives on the story unfold ‘Rashomon’-style, each is presented in its own colour scheme – red, blue, white and green – so that the film has a painterly, stylised look all its own, stunningly realised by arguably the world’s finest living cinematographer, Chris Doyle (‘2046’, Infernal Affairs, ‘In the Mood for Love’). What Zhimou has perhaps abandoned, however, is his long-held status as an opponent of Chinese state oppression. For in an unexpected departure from Zhimou’s usual political position, ‘Hero’ is amongst other things a barely concealed apology for the brutal excesses of Chinese leadership, suggesting that they are excusable, and even necessary, when in the interests of national unity – even if it is the king’s sacrificial pawns, rather than the king himself, whom the film ultimately celebrates as heroes. Calculated sacrifice is of course a guiding principle not only in the film itself, but also in chess, a game whose object is, appropriately enough, to kill your opponent’s king while defending your own – so it is hardly a coincidence that the sheriff’s first tale begins with Sky playing a game of chess, effectively laying down the rules, tactics and complex gameplans for the rest of the film. nnBeautiful, dense and moving, with breathtakingly choreographed combat and provocative discourse on the nature of power, ‘Hero’ easily outmanœuvres its competition, even at only ten paces. And thanks to its ridiculously late US/UK release, some two years after it was completed, perhaps we shall not have to wait long for Yimou’s next film, ‘The House of Flying Daggers’, which is already doing the festival circuit.

It's Got: Beautiful stylisation, complex narrative, breathstealing swordplay, autumn leaves, colour-coding and some very powerful calligraphy.

It Needs: Wide distribution.


Stunningly stylised period actioner in which the pen really is mightier than the sword.