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From Under A Rock: Hero

April 28, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
Hero - Jet Li - 2002
9.3
The 411 Rating
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From Under A Rock: Hero  

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Sometimes a movie just speaks to you on an aesthetic level and sticks in your brain as a one-of-a-kind experience. This week’s pic isn’t exactly a complex story, but it is a beautiful film that’s worth seeing just to look at it and soak it in.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael chose Battlefield Earth. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him Hero.

Hero
Released: October 24th, 2002 (China)
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Written by: Feng Li, Bin Wang, & Zhang Yimou
Starring:
Jet Li as Nameless
Tony Leung as Broken Sword
Maggie Cheung as Flying Snow
Chen Daoming as The King of Qin
Donnie Yen as Long Sky
Zhang Ziyi as Moon

Aaron Hubbard: Hero is a movie that I saw in 2004; martial arts films are a personal favorite of my uncle and he passed some of it on to me and my brothers. Parts of this movie are truly unforgettable; I could never watch it again and some of the visuals will still stick with me. And while not perfect, it’s a movie that I’ve enjoyed seeing every time I see it. It’s epic in scope and masterful in execution.

Michael Ornelas: I didn’t expect a movie this beautiful, even though it’s what you’d told me to get me hyped about it. This is a stunning visual masterpiece draped over a truly engaging story whose narrative keeps turning in fun ways throughout its 99 minute running time.
King and Broken Sword
Four Assassins and a King
Aaron: Hero is a story about a nameless assassin who fakes the murder of three other assassins in order to get within striking distance of their mutual enemy; the King of Qin, based on the real life Emperor Qin Shi Huang who conquered and unified China in 200 BCE. The story is very loosely based on a famous assassination attempt on Qin Shi Huang, but bears little resemblance to the actual events. Jet Li as Nameless gives us one version of events, the perceptive Emperor gives his version of events when he senses his would-be killer’s intentions, and then Nameless gives us the true version of events. Each phase of this story adds new layers to the character of Broken Sword, who is the heart of the film and dealing with the moral quandary of killing a tyrant, or letting him live to unify China. That is an epic setting for a story and while it’s not quite a complex plot, the reveals work well and it’s easy to invest in the stakes.

Michael: The plot becomes more complex as a result of constantly revisiting and enriching it, and gave the film legs. It actually reminded me of The Handmaiden in its structure. The complexities also came with the morality of Nameless’ intention vs. his ultimate decision. No one in this movie is wrong or right, nor are they presented as one or the other. They all have a viewpoint and they clash, but they’re informed. And these strong stances interact with one another, almost having a sword fight of their own, and we see ideals shift in what is perhaps the (second-)most captivating part of the film (behind the cinematography, which we’ll talk about in a moment).

Aaron: My frame of reference for the multiple versions of events narrative is Rashomon. I’ve come to really enjoy the characters of the King and Broken Sword a lot over this viewing. I don’t typically think of this movie as a great example of acting, but they are both very good at breaking their stoicism at the right times.
Fight
The Art of Combat
Michael: This movie has some of the most breathtaking backdrops to combat that I’ve ever seen. As some fights are revisited several times in the film (as the narrative twists and the truths come out), we see embellished versions of the fights as well as the “true” events that occurred. That means artistically, these fights could be filmed different ways. Some of my favorite fights never actually occurred, such as the fight between Flying Snow and Moon in the autumn leaves. Stunning visually, and on par with Flying Moon fending off an almost-literal storm of arrows with Nameless outside the calligraphy school. Even watching the arrows bombard the school before they went out there to protect the academy was stunning. The master of the class sitting and writing as arrows flew all over the wall behind him was an amazing moment. And then there’s the green silk-laden pursuit of the King by Broken Sword in a maze that wowed me. There’s so much that is still replaying in my mind…Aaron, what was your favorite fight scene, cinematically speaking?

Aaron: I’m still partial to the Long Sky vs. Nameless’ imagined fight. Part of it is because the spear is such a unique weapon to see someone be a master of, partially because of the mood. The music and the grey clothes fitting the rain. Fun stuff. I also really enjoy how many cool shots they mine out of the palace setting. Nameless descending the steps surrounded by the guard is really cool to me.

Michael: It’s hard to argue with anyone’s favorite fight scene or backdrop for this film. It really is that beautifully constructed.
Our Land
“Our Land” or “All Under Heaven”?
Aaron: Something that is sort of mistranslated for the sake of American audiences is the key phrase “Our Land”, Broken Sword’s message to Nameless about what is in his heart and why he must not kill the King. It’s not an incorrect translation per se, but a better one would be “All Under Heaven”; which of course means “More than China” and thus plays a little differently. Some people feel the movie advocates the right of might; Qin Shi Huang had the ability to take over the various cultures of China and unify them, so why not do it? It makes everything stronger, right? That’s a scary thing to justify, since the unification is soaked in the blood of his own people, and Qin certainly didn’t want to stop there when it came to expanding. I’m not sure if the film advocates this view wholeheartedly, but it does generate an interesting talking point that feels relevant not just to China, but to any country with a history of conquest and imperialism.

Michael: I think both translations of the phrase push Nameless to reach the decision he does, one that I personally don’t know if I agree with. I think overthrowing a tyrant is important and the film almost plays as propaganda to always trust the leader as there is more than tyranny beneath the surface. I’m not accusing the movie of that, but the argument could be made. It didn’t hinder my enjoyment as this sort of complex moral dilemma is even more relevant to discuss when Nameless chooses not to kill the king.

Aaron: It does have an element of propaganda to it, but the movie doesn’t shy away from the King’s crimes or the pain he causes people. It’s just different sets of ethics at play; Broken Sword is a utilitarian who believes a unified China is ultimately worth the cost, and Nameless comes around to this as well. But it doesn’t make out Snow to be wrong. The film also touches on the consequences of conquest; the King is baffled at there being 19 ways to write “Sword” and wants to simplify it to ease communication. In the process, he would kill languages and entire cultures. The weight of events and ethical questions adds a meaningful backdrop to the movie.

Ratings:
Michael: I really adored the look of this movie, and the story gripped me. I didn’t agree with the conclusion per se, but I don’t have to in order to appreciate a movie to the fullest. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close.

A

Aaron: Hero is an aesthetic masterpiece of a film. It’s never quite reached a perfect rating for me, but I’ve always regarded it highly. It’s a rare movie where almost every frame could be hung on the wall.

A

Michael: I will be rewatching that from time to time. Glad I got the blu-ray for that.

Aaron: It’s a movie that almost makes me consider breaking my bank for an HD experience.

Based purely on aesthetic, what is your favorite movie to watch?

Next week:

Michael: Next week we’ll be watching the movie that was the subject of the final edition of the podcast that is the origin story to the premise of this column. Yay prepositional phrases!
High Plains
Aaron: That’s an interesting bit of trivia. Also, wait? We are watching a western and you picked it?

Michael: It’s 2018! Everything is unpredictable!

What’s your favorite Clint Eastwood movie?

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Check out our past reviews!
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9.3
The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Hero is a stunning visual masterpiece, but also a very good epic story. High stakes, interesting characters, and moral dilemmas add substance to the impressive fight scenes, exquisite sets, meticulous color palettes and memorable score. We loved the experience of watching this movie.
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