Oscar Blindspots: Hero

It might be 20 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 2002 through the month of November

With perfect action scenes and stunning visuals, Zhang Yimou’s Hero is simultaneously one of the best Chinese action films and one of the most underrated foreign films in cinema history.

In ancient China, a nameless warrior (Jet Li) arrives at the capital city to meet with the King (Chen Daoming) following the dispatching of assassins. Nameless claims to have killed assassins Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Broken Sword (Tony Leung). This feat has allowed him unprecedented access to the king. He tells his story to the king while flashbacks show the narrative.

As the story progresses, the king doubts Nameless’ story of betrayal and honor. With varying degrees of the truth, the future of China depends on what really happened between Nameless, the assassins, and the king.

You can tell just from the stills in this piece that the film is devastatingly beautiful. No scene is superfluous and every visual matters. Yimou puts the visual language front and center for every scene. Regardless if the film was pointless in the delivery of its narrative, the gorgeous visuals would be enough to assuage viewers who care about the action. And that action is big and bold. Filled with wire fights and dynamic hand-to-hand combat, each fight scene has its own theme and memorable moment.

That doesn’t mean the fights are just for the sake of fighting. Each fight has a deeper meaning and each setting is aesthetically separate. The Rashomon-style narrative of shifting perspectives lends further mystery to the story. Complimenting each scene is a world-class costume design by Emi Wada and cinematography from Christopher Doyle.

The film is full of some of the best Asian actors of their era. It’s already fantastic that a film features the significant acting talents Yen, Cheung, Li, Leung, and Zhang Ziyi, but all the actors perform martial arts with the grace and physicality of a select group of supremely gifted individuals. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

I would be remiss if I don’t talk about Cheung and Leung. This film marks their sixth of seven collaborations, and the heat and chemistry between them is undeniable. The two actors live their love/hate relationship through quiet scenes and through giant action sequences. Leung especially does plenty of quiet brooding, but it is perfectly attuned to his character. It is a classic pairing for a reason.

Despite the world-class actors and design, this is a director’s film. It all comes together because of Yimou’s coherence. Shifting perspectives, allegiances, and political machinations all come together for a film that should be confusing, but gels perfectly. I can’t say I’m a scholar of ancient Chinese history, but the film explains enough without explaining too much to bring it all home.

With first-class stunt work and a cavalcade of the best Chinese actors, Hero has somehow been lost in the history of great foreign films. Despite a long and storied career, this might be Zhang Yimou’s best film.

Next week: One of the most acclaimed anime films in history gets fresh eyes in Spirited Away

2002 Oscar Blindspots
Review: Prey

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