Hero (2004)

dir. Zhang Yimou
(7 out of 10)

Should You See This Film?
I would recommend this film if you’re into beautiful visuals, cool fight sequences and a thoughtful, almost mythical type of film. I think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an approrpriate comparison, although the themes in Hero are much broader. Both films are more than just martial arts film. Therefore, I would cautiously recommend this to fans of martial arts films, however. Indeed, I would recommend watching this film more as a drama than a martial arts films.

Personal Comments
I think I had the wrong expectatations when I watched this film. I know Kevin warned that the film is more than martial arts, and I reminded myself of that, but when the film started with the premise of one man who perfected an unbeatable sword technique going against three great assassins, this got me thinking I was going to see a more conventional martial arts film. Plus, the premise excited me.

The flashback narrative–especially with the modification of flashbacks in a similar way to Rashomon–made it hard for me to digest the film. (I have to think back on what those changes in flashbacks mean. At the same time, I can’t remember each version very clearly. Let me try and write down what I can remember, and hopefully you guys will correct any of the errors I have:

The first flashback/version has the Nameless One killing Sky and tricking Broken Sword and Flying Snow. I’m not sure what this means except that this is set-up for a twist in the plot, namely it didn’t happen and the king discovers this.

The second flashback/version has Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow sacrificing themselves in order to get the Nameless One close enough to kill the king.

The last flashback/version has another twist with Broken Sword swearing to stop anyone from killing the king. In this version, Flying Snow and the Nameless One turn wound Broken Sword so that the Nameless One can kill the king.

We also find out in this version Broken Sword’s reason for not killingthe king. He believes that the the king can unite China and thus stop the wars and bring peace. I like the scene where the Nameless One reveals this to the king and the king is moved.

I also like the speech the king gives about the progression of a swords man. It starts with a person gaining skill in the sword, to the heart and the sword becoming one and then finally not needing the sword. Does anyone remember the progression?

One thing I liked was the way in which the film starts off like a typical martial-arts–specifically gloryfying violence and killing–and then turns into a film that repudiates killing and glorifyies allowing one’s self to be killed. And it’s not just allowing one’s self to be killed, but putting the greater good above one’s personal pain (in this case the loss of a family member) and desire for revenge. That’s a major difference from most martial arts films, and I find that refreshing.

Yet, I’m not sure why I’m not more enthusiatic about this film. Maybe it’s because I didn’t realize this while I was watching the film. Maybe if I watch the film again, I will like it more. The film has some really cool elements, and I feel like I should like this more.

I don’t know why the tragedy between Falling Snow and Broken Sword wasn’t more poignant for me. Perhaps, I didn’t think they didn’t have chemistry. They definitely didn’t have the chemistry and Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh had in Crouching, at least for me.

There are some other minor issues. I didn’t mind the “flying” scenes as much because the characters seemed mythical, like demi-gods. Their names really help create that impression.

Here are some questions I had about the film:

  1. Kevin and Marc mentioned that this film was appropriate for world events now, and I’m interested in hearing their thoughts about this. The film seemed to advocate for a world unification by a super-power. The idea is that one power can unite the country and therefore bring peace.
  2. What do you think the film was about? The film seemed to be against to some extent, but that seems to simple. Clearly the king would have to kill a lot of people to bring peace. What was the film saying about and peace?
  3. Why did Broken Sword let Flying Snow kill him? He says to her that he did it to prove himself, or something to that effect. I have some ideas about what he meant, but I think it would be worth discussing.
  4. What does the Nameless One say to the king when he jumps up to him? I can’t remember. Is there a significance to the name, “Nameless One.”

8 Responses to “Hero (2004)”

  1. Marc

    I was purposefully vague when I made my quick post on the other thread. I actually had a feeling that Reid would see the movie soon and start something up… glad to see it happen.

    I actually have mixed feelings toward this movie, and I tried to convey neutrality before. I think Reid hit most of the themes on the head with his synopsis, so I’ll simply add my own personal comments for now and maybe answer some of the questions he raised.

    The action sequences were secondary, but I almost feel like they didn’t take full advantage of Jet Li. In the inevitable comparison with “Crouching Tiger” I thought that “Hero”‘s action sequences were weaker even though I got the sense that most of the actors were more action oriented. Jet Li vs Chow Yun Fat? Come on.

    In another inevitable comparison, I thought Michelle Yeoh was great in “Crouching Tiger,” and that nobody was as good in “Hero.”

    The general theme of the assasins giving up their lives for greater peace and good resonated with me. It get’s a little more complex when evaluating the three assassins individually. I liked Nameless giving up vengeance as his primary motive. Broken Sword seemed a little less noble since his primary motivation for assassination seemed to be trying to please Falling Snow. Falling Snow never seemed to come around. First, she was always angry at Broken Sword. Second, she gave her soul-mate a mortal blow and then got mad at him for not blocking her. Then she killed herself too. She was certainly the least noble of the assassins, but likewise was the most human. At least to me.

    The theme of the King trying to create peace by conquering his enemies did not resonate with me. It just didn’t seem consistent with the brutality of his armies. I didn’t really see anything in the King to convince me that he had honorable intentions by conquering the surrounding kingdoms. Beyond that, keeping everyone 100 paces away seems to reflect paranoid fear more than wisdom, and then he went ahead and let the assasin within ten paces anyway.

    Now the big question for me is this: Do I agree with the premise of conquering those who are weaker than you in order to unify the people and create peace? On the one hand, the message of Jesus and the cross would seem to indicate otherwise. On the other hand, there will be an ultimate victory of some sort where evil loses. If the king had seemed to personify something other than the enemy in the movie, maybe I would have been swayed. For now, I disagree.

    Given that I didn’t really buy the King’s assertion that he was trying to create a peaceful, united kingdom through overwhelming force, I had a hard time with Nameless sacrificing himself. As a viewer, I did not see in the King what he and Broken Sword saw.

    To be completely honest, I’m tired of big epic movies where everybody dies at the end, especially the guys that you were cheering for.

    The Broken Sword/ Falling Snow tragedy didn’t ring with me either. It seemed like a waste. I wonder if something was lost in translation.

    When he jumped up to the King, I remember Nameless saying something about how many people would die because of the choice that he was making, then asking the King to respect the request of a dead man. I assume Nameless was referring to himself as the dead man.

    I also liked the King’s interpretation of Broken Sword’s calligraphy.

    In summary, I thought the movie was beautifully made but I didn’t agree with the premise. I wonder how it played to Chinese audiences.

  2. Reid

    It’s going to respond to all the things I want to in both posts, but let me first say that I love the two responses you guys gave. Man, this is the kind of thoughtful writing I want to see!

    I’m going to just touch on two points:

    1. I sense that both Kevin and Marc are trying to skirt away from the implications of violence and nationalism. Kevin hints at this by saying that he thinks the transformation of Nameless and Broken have more to do with a warrior enlightenment than going for a political vision.

    Perhaps, that’s true for Nameless, but I don’t think you can say the same for Broken Sword. Remember he says that he will prevent anyone from killing the King as long as he lives (or something to that effect). In doing so, he rends the heart of the love of his love, gives up the dream of going back to her home. Let’s also not forget the two words he writes: “our land.” This is a huge political statement, and it’s also what partly convinces Nameless, I believe. Doesn’t Broken Sword (or was it Nameless) that says that you have to put your own personal concerns aside? In effect that’s what both warriors do (and what Flying Snow is unable to do): they give up their own personal desires for some higher good, namely the unification of China and peace to the country.

    Just a comment about peace through unification. If one King unites the different regions, the fighting between provinces will stop. This will bring peace and unification of their people.

    It’s a very nationalistic message. Even at the end Zhang emphasizes this in the closing narration.

    Some comments about the King. I think he wasn’t a despicable character. The director doesn’t show killing people (particularly Nameless and Flying Snow’s family members). He is truly touched when he hears that Broken Sword understands his cause. Btw, at that point, the King’s nobile intentions is revealed. He wants fights to unify the country and bring peace. He points to the irony of an assassin realizing this when his closest aides do not. I see no reason why he would be disingenuous in saying this.

    Furthermore, I see no reason that his realization of the meaning of the “kanji” was insincere as well. However, that doesn’t mean that he is not going to fight to unify the country. He must. What may be uncomfortable to me and you guys is that this film is not repudiating violence–at least not when it comes to something like uniting the country.

    That’s why I asked about your thoughts on the political implications to current events. The theme of the film seems to fit with the Republican (particuarly the Neo-Cons) geopolitical stance.

    2. I wanted to address the issues about Flying Snow’s motives that Marc raised. Well, actually Marc, you said it: She was the most human. She couldn’t overcome her desire for vengence–she couldn’t see beyond her desire for vengence for some greater good. And because of that her life and the life of her soul-mate ends in tragedy. It didn’t hit me as much because I didn’t wasn’t convinced about their love for each other, not in the same way I was between Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh.

    One last thing. I could see Chinese auidences loving this. It’s highly nationalistic, and that makes me a bit uncomfortable to tell you the truth.

    Great posts, you two. Let’s keep doing this!

  3. Marc

    Well, I’m not sure that I’m shying away from violence and nationalism as much as I’m saying that I don’t really agree with it as presented by this movie.

    Although the first flashback was later found to be false, I have the image of the king’s army shooting thousands of arrows into a calligraphy school whose main response is to keep writing while the arrows fall among them and kill. The king objected to Nameless’ version of the deaths, not to the attack on the school Maybe I can’t shake that, but it colors my view of the king profoundly.

    I’ll give Broken Sword more credit than I initially did for giving up his chance to kill the king. I’m just not sure that his initial motives were all that noble – join Falling Snow to kill the king because she wants vengeance.

    How would you view the movie if the last three paragraph narrative weren’t added? Or what if the narrative said that the king failed and that war went on for another five hundred years, or that peace was achieved instead through negotiation. To me, that changes things. I have no real doubt that the king really believes what he’s saying, but is this true revelation or delusion?

    I talked about this some with Jon Abe. He really liked the idea of the warriors laying down their own personal motives for the greater good of unity and peace. I agree entirely. My problem is that I just don’t buy the underlying premise of how this is to be achieved – the ideas of violent nationalism if you will. Frankly, the movie didn’t present to me strongly enough that the king was worthy of such a sacrifice by these two noble characters.

    YOu might be right about how the Chinese view the movie.

  4. Reid

    Marc said,

    How would you view the movie if the last three paragraph narrative weren’t added? Or what if the narrative said that the king failed and that war went on for another five hundred years, or that peace was achieved instead through negotiation. To me, that changes things. I have no real doubt that the king really believes what he’s saying, but is this true revelation or delusion?

    I’m not sure what you mean by the paragraph above. What were the last three paragraphs? Do you mean the unification of China?

    As for the King’s revelation, the King understands the meaning of Broken Sword’s calligraphy and the stages of a swordsman. Why do you think that may be a delusion?

    I think you’re reading too much into the fact that the King will bring peace and unity strictly by . Zhang doesn’t paint him out to be a -thirsty person. Yes, his army attacks the calligraphy school, but his attack could be seen as reasonable and appropriate. Remember Broken Sword and Flying Snow attacked his castle, killed hundreds of his men, and could have killed him. Two people. If you were a King facing that type of threat, attacking a calligraphy school may not be so reprehensible if you knew that both enemies were at the school. (And if the first version proves true, two people actually successfully defended themselves against this huge army.)

    There are other scenes where Zhang portrays the king to be a wise and benevolent ruler. He is genuinely moved when he hears Broken Sword’s reason for sparing his life and then eventually wanting to defend it. He also seems noble when he resigns himself to after he realizes the meaning of the calligraphy. These are not a ruse, nor is there anything else to suggest that he is a cruel tyrant.

    There may or may not be in the the unification of China. That’s not the point. The point is that the king is a person who wants unity and peace. Broken and Nameless give up their lives because they believe the King is the best person to bring this about.

  5. Chris

    I’m dying to see this . . . I’ve read a phrase here and there in all of this. My sister, her husband, and their two kids are visiting now (btw, their son’s middle name is Reid, largely due to one of own idiots) and we haven’t had a chance to see it yet . . .

  6. Reid

    I was honored that your sister did that. Say hello to them for me, Chris. I look forward to reading your comments on this.

  7. Marc

    In honor of Reid I plan to name my first child Gem…

    it’s a long story… sorry if you don’t understand the reference.

  8. kevin

    (Spoiler alert.) I don’t really have it figured out, so anyone else who’s seen the film… feel free to challenge / fill in the blanks.

    I began to generally assimilate the skill of swordsmanship with the use of power. It seems to run parallel to a lot of martial arts training, in that mantra of the greatest display of strength is not having to use it. In the end, I saw the moment of Broken Sword and Nameless’ transformation as being less about a conversion to an alternate political vision of 1 kingdom united by force, than an internal personal transformation of realizing vengence and death being counter to the essence of an evolved swordsman. This paradox resonates heavily for me, in the way I related it to the irony of the Jews’ perception of Christ riding into Nazareth to liberate them by force & power from Rome, but instead he offers to powerfully free them from within by dying to self.

    I don’t see the colors in proceeding in ascending order of character development, or competing realities; the only way I can make sense of it is that they could be a sequence of components of the same reality, like prismatic spectrum separations of the same ray of light. Of course, they do have some symbolic weight, the red recalling passion, but also of blood and eventually, death to all the characters in the first flashback. (while watching the “red” boudoir scene w/ Tony Leung & Zhang Ziyi, I whispered to my companion, “his Sword doesn’t seem so Broken to me.”)

    “Cheater” footnote:
    I can vaguely remember reading an article last month about how the Australian cinematographer commented on the color themes. From what little I retained in particular, he remarked:
    1. He disagreed w/ Bergman’s cinematographer in that green was not the color of __ ( i forget, but it wasn’t greed or envy) but the color of knowledge. (which may not be the origin, but nicely supports the Wachowski’s predominant use of green in Matrix.)
    2. They weren’t able to film the desert scenes w/ Broken Sword & Flying Snow to be in midday Pakistan (or one of the “stan”s) for more stark whiteness b/c of the intolerable heat, so they filmed it early /late day, which diffused the color theme to more brown/less white. Knowing this affects how I see Flying Snow & Broken Sword’s last scene together in the desert. I defer to someone else’s unpacking of their relationship.

    I didn’t catch the whispering either. Is the ruler really transformed, or just that he momentarily sees the light, and an instant later, is coerced back into violence by his advisors? He almost reminds me of Pilate in that scene. Is Zhang being fatalistic about the inevitable sacrifice of purity to violence, as in Gandhi? Or perhaps, in Homer Simpson’s words, “I guess people quickly change, and then quickly change back again.” It certainly is consistent w/ Zhang’s earlier fatalistic film endings.

    I think the warring provinces & ruler’s “power grab” are manifest in any number of dichotomies Christian/Islamic, Hutu/Tutsi, Israeli/Palestinian, Democrat/Republican. In essence, the only escape from a constant “eye for an eye” deadlock is the self-sacrifice of one’s own inclination & interest for a larger good. I thought about this while participating in the RNC protests the following day; so much hatred, and so little chance of any changed minds on either side. As for the Nameless significance, I like Alex Ross’ last words, in the Classical Music article Reid & Chris posted. He says, “The hero is you.” This is the nameless one: he may well be no one, or everyone, depending on us.

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