Martial arts films have experienced somewhat of a rebirth lately, with films like Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” series leading the way. For this formerly cult-status genre to reach a mainstream audience, however, a compelling story must match with dazzling visuals.
It’s time to add another film to that rapidly growing list. Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “To Live”) released the epic Chinese-language drama “Hero” two years ago to huge box office and acclaim in China, and this weekend it has vaulted unexpectedly to the top of the U.S. box office, deservedly so. Jet Li, the star of “Hero,” hasn’t ever had top billing on a movie that’s made more than $20 million. “Hero” almost reached that amount in one weekend alone!
“Hero” is unlike every other American-made Jet Li movie in that it carries all the qualities of a great film even without all the martial arts. Obviously, audiences didn’t show up to see a “Jet Li movie.” They showed up to see something more breathtaking and beautiful.
The public is sending a clear message to the studios: Don’t insult our intelligence.
We want our martial arts films to have engaging stories, not consequence-less fighting scenes. We want to care about the characters. And we want some imagination. Don’t rely on a small, devoted fan base that can technically analyze every little move like John Madden with his annoying picture pen. And, especially in the case of foreign films, we don’t mind reading subtitles. We will not put up with any more badly dubbed Jackie Chan movies like “The Legend of Drunken Master” or “Mr. Nice Guy.”
“Hero” is set during a period in China’s history where there seven warring factions, all fighting for control of the country. The feared King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming), whose rule has been marked by countless bloody battles, is front and center to unite these warring kingdoms. A warrior called Nameless (Jet Li) has been invited to hold court with the King. He is permitted to come within 100 paces of his Highness because he claims to have killed the three most dangerous assassins in the land, all sworn enemies of Qin.
The story takes place in flashback, as Nameless recounts that he bested Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow, (Maggie Cheung) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen) more with his wit than with his sword. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we will be treated to a series of boring mind games. With the help of famous action director Ching Siu Tung (“Shaolin Soccer”), Yimou stages some of the most over-the-top fight sequences ever put on film. These are not to be compared with the blood-spurting shots in “Kill Bill.” Instead, “Hero” prefers the majestic slow motion beauty of bodies flying through the air, and bright primary colors.
The movie is a marvel of coordinated special effects, martial artistry, costume design and set design. The effect is so overwhelming that each flashback somehow manages to outdo the preceding one, and pretty soon it is clear that realism has been forgotten and fantasy has taken over. It also sometimes produces an unintentional numbing effect.
Like Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects,” Nameless’ tale winds around the King’s version to include differing accounts of what may or may not have happened. As the King questions Nameless’ story, the mythology of the assassins develops. With such reverence being paid to the impressionistic visuals and structure, though, Yimou struggles to delve into the assassins’ private lives. We learn, for example, that Broken Sword and Flying Sword were lovers, but their relationship isn’t quite as intriguing as the one at the heart of “Crouching Tiger.”
Still, the film wrestles with the notion of what makes a hero, and challenges the very audience who has come to see these outrageously beautiful fight scenes to accept a new aesthetic. As much as the beauty of the fight is pleasing to the eye, it may be that the true hero is the one who lays down his sword.