Hero is a visually stunning film. It’s understandable why some people dislike it; citing the film’s slow pace, very sparse plot, and complete lack of reality, but if you can accept these and watch it on its own terms, then you’re in for something special. The term poetic gets thrown around far too often, however I really feel justified using it when describing Hero. As assassins glide through the air and skim over lakes, you’re forced to slow down and dwell on the beauty depicted on the screen; its colours, its stylised focus on movement. This is a martial arts film that doesn’t have short, sharply cut fight sequences, but rather one that allows each and every fight the time to breathe – whether this winds up as being to your personal taste or not, I thoroughly recommend Hero, even if you’re not normally a fan of the genre. Unfortunately were held at a slight distance from a lot of the emotion turmoil on screen, all of the performances given are great and so it’s hard to judge exactly how some of the potential impact is lost – but this distancing is only minor, and also contributes towards the position of moral observer that the film places us in, as opposed to participator.
Many large themes such as sacrifice, honour, duty, betrayal, love, good vs. evil, morality and heroism are convincingly covered and well handled here – never really feeling artificial or unimportant. The political aspect of the film gives voices to both totalitarianism, and its opposing bid for freedom, and it’s never truly judgemental even after decisions are made and the credits roll. The film’s very concerned with the idea that there are heroes on both sides of a war, and we are often pulled back from the action by the conflicting takes on politics and ethical conduct. I don’t mean to describe this film as overly serious and thematically suffocating, its primary focus is on the visual and the performances, but these issues have an undeniably strong presence within the film.
Its unusual structure and slow pace will put off some, but for those who remain Hero is an interesting and often beautiful film that’s as concerned with human relationships, as it is martial arts. A great cast of Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, Chen Dao Ming and Tony Leung all bring some great performances and help make the film’s memorability lie not entirely with its visuals, and even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of martial arts films, I would still say that this one is worth a shot. It’s brave, and it’s beautiful, and I recommend it very highly.
As a side note: Unless you find them particularly distracting, I thoroughly recommend watching the film with subtitles as opposed to its significantly poorer English dubbing.