Main cast: Jet Li (The Nameless Warrior), Maggie Cheung (Flying Snow), Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Broken Sword), Donny Yen (Sky), Cheng Daoming (The King) and Zhang Ziyi (Moon)
Director: Zhang Yimou
I have been waiting eagerly for this movie to hit the Singaporean shores ever since Hero broke all box-office records in China. At last, a wuxia to come out of China after so long! Zhang Yimou is directing, Jet Li and Maggie Cheung are starring in it, what could go wrong? Well, for a start, here’s a retitling of this movie: Crouching Bitches, Hippie Dipsticks.
Set 2,000 years ago when China was still seven states feuding for control, the king of the Qin state is the strongest of the seven kings. As a result, he has been plagued by three hired assassins, Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow for so long until one day, in walks a warrior who looks just like Jet Li (drool) and who remains nameless to the end of the movie to tell His Majesty that he has killed all three assassins. Intrigued, the King asks the nameless guy how he killed those three when three thousand of the King’s men fell like cheese under a heated knife to the three assassins.
And so we get the nameless one’s story. Ah, ah – the King tells him. His Majesty knows the nameless dude is lying. No, here is what the King believes happened. Another flashback.
Yup, this is basically another Rashomon movie. Anybody who wants to win awards always do a Rashomon.
But as the nameless one – who has a secret, albeit a transparent and easily guessable one – and the King spar and try to get the correct version of the tale out in the open, we get in the end a pretty coherent story of Flying Snow, the daughter of a late General who seeks vengeance on the King for her father, and Broken Sword, an aimless swordsman who finds direction and meaning in life through his love for Flying Snow. Alas, just when they were close to finishing off the King, Broken Sword realizes that he couldn’t do it (killing the King), thus earning Flying Snow’s enmity. The appearance of the nameless one only drives a wedge into their doomed love story.
Jet Li is quietly noble in this movie, and if you miss sweetie-pie Wong Fei Hong, his nameless guy is similar only better: Jet Li displays his chops for drama here. Tony Leung however fares less well as Broken Sword, his sole expression mainly one of befuddlement. Broken Sword is supposed to be stoic, resigned, earthy, and maybe even cynical, but Leung lacks the gravity he used so well to his advantage in Chungking Express. I can’t help wishing they’ve roped in Leslie Cheung, perfect in the otherwise horrible The Bride with White Hair movies, to play the perfect Broken Sword. But Maggie Cheung? She plays the icy, dignified, yet pitiful Flying Snow in perfect pitch. It is to her disadvantage that her role is severely underwritten. Still, what Mr Leung is unable to offer, she compensates for his inadequacy so that their final, emotional scene together resonate a little.
But substance is sacrificed for showiness in this movie. The choreography is stunning and the cinematography is breathtaking. But more often than not, the choreography is unintentionally hilarious. Flying Snow fights in her billowing kimono-style costume. It’s a visually striking sight, seeing her fight with her sashes and scarves billowing artistically around her, but who on earth fights in such a ridiculously elaborate costume that hinders movement? The whole cinema cracks up with Flying Snow does an impressive one thousand eighty degrees horizontal pirouette before she crumples to the ground, defeated. Who on earth does that in a hand-to-hand combat anyway?
There are some amusing moments, such as how the stoic nameless one’s version of the stories always have people acting in lurid melodrama or how the people’s clothes change color with each retelling from red (evil) in the first telling to white (nobility) in the final telling. The latter, by the way, is one of the many heavy-handed non-metaphorical metaphors in this movie.
As an aside, Zhang Ziyi plays Moon, Broken Snow’s apprentice who nurses a one-sided crush on her mentor. She doesn’t have much to do except to mope in her girly pouty face way. If you hate this woman, enjoy the movie.
Wuxia movies defy physics – that’s the rule. But here, the scenes of battle and mind combat are often hilarious than breathtaking or nail-bitingly exciting. Also, the movie suffers from too many heavy-handed messages beloved of the Communist Government of Motherland China such as loyalty, fidelity, and devotion to the government/ruler over self. Worse, these messages are relayed in slow-motion, clothes flying in the wind, people looking angsty and broody scenes. Hero is skirting fast and loose with pretentiousness. But if you watch closely, Zhang Yimou, the naughty liberal, has also slipped in a very transparent anti-Motherland message, heh heh heh.
Too much showy scenes, too many underwritten characters, and too many obvious and laborious pretentious pontifications make Hero a movie that tries too hard to out-Tiger you-know-what movie. Its biggest flaw is that it doesn’t seem to realize that in the end, the severe underwriting reduces Flying Snow into a frigid bitch and the two main men in this movie into pacifist hippie dipsticks. It’s all Crouching Bitches, Hippie Dipsticks, and may I add, In Slow Motion Billowing Hair and Clothes While Talking in Agonizing Long Pauses.
In another movie, Flying Snow and Broken Sword’s love story will break my heart. Hero tries too hard to pander to the “exoticness” of the wuxia genre but it is just all color and melodrama. When it comes to substance, nobody’s home.