From a resurgent Chinese cinema comes a ‘Hero’

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

“Our Land”
United States Release Aug. 27, 2004
Directed by Zang Yimou

The culture of foreign countries may seem unknowable to many Americans, but often the best first steps we can take to understanding is through art. China’s role in the world is often in the discourse without much context for those of us without foreign policy or economic degrees, but we can gather insight thru the lens of the Chinese film industry and one of its most successful exports, Zang Yimou’s “Hero,” released in the United States in 2004.

Set more than 2,000 years ago, the film is about a nameless warrior (Jet Li), three master assassins and the aggressive warlord King of Qin (Chen Daoming) who is trying to conquer the six lands of China. The nameless warrior conceives of a plan to get close to the king by eliminating the other assassins, gaining the trust of the king. The warrior tells the king how he overcame these other masters throughout the film as we see the various narratives play out through flashbacks.

Besides the nameless warrior, we are drawn into the background behind two of the assassins, Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), intertwined in a temperamental romance. The assassins and the nameless warrior are peers, but martial art masters to all others, as their abilities and feats lean more toward the supernatural. The action of “Hero” defies the laws of science, but this is a film that sacrifices reality for mythology, speaking in broad strokes and visuals in hopes that the audience can find beauty in the enlightenment of the climax.

Originally released in China in 2002, “Hero” is a wuxia martial arts film where the combatants don’t just kick and strike but glide through the air with gravity-defying moves. Popularized for American audiences by Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000, wuxia films amplify the mythology of Chinese heroes as today’s superheroes do for many others. What’s interesting about “Hero” is that it’s about historical figures from China’s past. Watching these people transform into warriors completing fantastic feats lies in contrast to the current trend to ground notable figures from America’s past in realism. How would audiences react to George Washington simply gliding across the Potomac by foot? But then again, what is the musical “Hamilton” but an attempt to explain history through another reality?

More important to the wuxia genre than weightless warriors are the honor, reverence, and skill of its martial art protagonists, which is evident in “Hero.” The three assassins are not actively plotting against the king, but rather living in contemplative spaces elevating themselves to achieve true martial arts mastery and enlightenment. These warriors are now beyond the traditional aspects of fighting, to the point where a duel can involve two participants standing still while they spar against one another in their minds. Broken Sword seems detached from even that kind of engagement, and his motivations remain a mystery throughout the film. They all respect each other even in opposition, and when their skills are so equal to their peers, the differences can be measured in a raindrop. The only weakness they may have is found in emotional and passion, and for some, that will be their undoing.

“Hero” dramatizes the story of how China unified to become a country before the birth of Christ. Modern-day China exists under Communist rule, and its film industry is heavily controlled and regulated by the government. To put it another way, there is no film shown in China that was not directly approved by the government. Those restrictions can color the context of a film like “Hero” where the themes can strike some as nationalism, and others as propaganda.

And yet, art can develop and flourish in times of oppressive and repressive rule. Yimou has become one of the country’s most successful and acclaimed filmmakers, as his work includes 1991’s “Raise the Red Lantern” and 2005’s “The House of Flying Daggers.” Likewise, Leung has a notable history as a leading man, starring in 1994’s “Chungking Express,” 1997’s “Happy Together” and 2000’s “In the Mood for Love,” the latter with “Hero” co-star Cheung. In many of these films, repression is turned into a strength, with characters grappling with feelings they cannot express fully.

While the characters of “Hero” repress their emotions, the same cannot be said for their clothing, as they’ll often dress in bright primary colors that match the seasons of the film. Whatever feeling they cannot express can be worn, as they battle and spar in bright red, green, blue and white robes. And even when they attempt to hide their true thoughts and motives behind stoic faces, the talented cast here can convey the complexity of these characters. While Leung and Cheung carry the bulk of the emotional weight of the movie, Li and martial arts stars Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi enhance the action.

“Hero” was released in the states two years after its debut in traditionally one of the weakest box office periods of the year. Conventional wisdom says that audiences are trying to soak in their last moments of the summer, but “Hero” was well-positioned as counter-programming. With the film gaining two years of critical acclaim (including winning the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 2003) and director Quentin Tarantino offering his official endorsement, “Hero” had the best opening of any film that debuted that weekend. It also became the most widely distributed Asian film released in the United States, surpassing “Crouching Tiger” from four years earlier. “Hero” performed well for the next month, succeeding with quality and positive reviews when its competition was less than stellar. It became the most successful film of Yimou’s career and Li’s best foreign release.

While Chinese films in the United States may have a marginal impact, American films in China are making an enormous impact on the worldwide industry. China only allows a certain number of foreign films to be distributed in their country. With the restrictions in place but large box office potential due to its large movie-going population, Hollywood has invested in more franchise and animated films for easier cultural crossover that’s approved by the government. In this environment, it seems unlikely that a stylized historical epic about America’s origins would be supported by a Hollywood studio, much less become a hit in China as “Hero” did over here.

Even with the limitations of the current film distribution industry, Americans are fortunate to have access to a wide range of cultural films made with passion, intelligence, and beauty such as “Hero.” While there may be more action-packed martial art films, few are filmed with as much grace. Like the best films, it opens a window into a different world, and gives us an understanding of the enlightenment and ethos of martial arts mastery.

The Legacy: Yimou followed up “Hero” with another wuxia film, “The House of Flying Daggers” that saw a release in the United States in 2005, and continues to make films, with his last American release “The Great Wall” with Matt Damon in 2016. The stars of “Hero” split time between Chinese and American productions, with Li participating in The Expendables franchise, Yen in the IP Man series and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and Leung set to appear in the forthcoming Marvel Studios film “Shang-Chi.”

The Weekend: Some gems were released on the last weekend of August, including “The Prophecy” in 1995, “The Transporter 2” and “The Constant Gardner” in 2005, and “Don’t Breathe” in 2016.

Next Week: “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”

Originally published at on August 29, 2019.

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