A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 409 – Hero (2002)

Hero (2002) – April 13th, 2011

After last night’s bizarre entry in our collection, with its lack of understandable dialogue (in any language) and plodding plot, we decided to go for something very much the opposite tonight. Not in English, no, but far from unintelligible. The plot isn’t fast paced but it certainly isn’t plodding. It’s a slow and beautiful dance and it was a joy to watch from beginning to end. To be honest, even two hours after finishing it I’m not sure I’ve sorted out my feelings on it.

This is part of the problem with this project. Much as I enjoy it most of the time, the review aspect can be a little difficult. It’s not like we get a lot of time to write these. They’re done in the hour or two or maybe three if we’re lucky after we finish the movie. Often we don’t quite finish the reviews until after midnight even if the movie is long over. And some movies are easy. Something we’ve seen many times before and know how we’ll review even before we put it in for the day? Yes. No problem. Something vapid and fun or something thoroughly rage inducing? I can plunk a review like that down in no time. But something like this makes me think and I don’t have enough time to do that in enough depth. Some day I’m going to have to revisit some of these reviews because they simply don’t do some movies justice.

This is going to be one of those nights. This movie was achingly lovely and bittersweet and conflicted and just plain difficult in places, but not in a negative way. And it’s so rooted in Chinese history and culture, I don’t feel well equipped to really dig into it in the way I believe it deserves. Because there are certainly things being said under the surface of the movie. While the director and cinematographer have said that the saturated dominant colors used in each section of the movie were for aesthetic purposes, not symbolism, one can’t help but look at them a bit (and here is a simply fantastic graphic to assist if you want to do just that: Colours in Cultures ). There are threads tied to politics and cultural history that I only know the surface of. I feel like there’s so much I’m missing but the fault lies in my own knowledge, not the movie. Because the movie is fantastic.

I mentioned the colors in each section. They’re impressive, to say the least. We meet our protagonist, Nameless, and learn that he has studied the art of the sword his whole life after being orphaned and never named. He approaches the king of the state of Qin, who has been hunted by three famed assassins. Nameless tells him he has defeated all three and brings their weapons as proof. The dominant color here is black. Lots of black. But it gets splashes of color here and there. The king invites Nameless to tell him how he bested the assassins and Nameless settles in to tell his story. First we hear about his encounter with Sky, who fought with a spear and was bested at a chess house. Were I going to go into this academically, I’d probably be poking at game theory and the black and white of the pieces shown and the black worn by Nameless and the white worn later on by other characters. I’m not going into this as an academic though, so go ahead and do that on your own.

Now, after we hear about Sky we move to the next section, which takes place at a calligraphy school where the other two, Snow and Broken Sword have been living. They are lovers who haven’t spoken in some time and Nameless explains how he studied them while asking Broken Sword to write him a huge scroll with the character for sword on it. As he tells the story we see it unfold in vibrant reds and scarlets, billowing silk and splashes of ink. He claims to have ignited a jealous fury between the two and used it to make them turn on each other. And when he is done, the king nods and tells him he’s totally full of it.

Not in so many words, of course. The king knows more than Nameless realized. So we get his vision of how things really went, with the saturated reds replaced by ice cold blues and cyans. It felt like the screen had been doused in ice water. When the two versions have been told we see yet more. Things as they really went, with everyone in white and the starkness of it all laid bare. Flashbacks from within the story are told in greens and still the king’s palace and all his soldiers and Nameless are in black. The visuals of this movie are so incredibly stunning you could watch it with no sound and still be blown away by them. The fight sequences are gorgeous and the wire work is fantastic but the cinematography and bold colors make this movie so visually arresting that it took my breath away. It sets such fascinating moods and underscores the various emotional moments and I am incredibly impressed by it all.

What I truly loved about this movie is that even though on the surface it is a story of a man on a mission and how he accomplished that mission. Or didn’t. It’s a story about a king on a mission as well, and whether that mission is for good or ill is, I believe, not entirely settled by the movie. It leans distinctly in one direction, but without giving it away I believe an argument could be made for there being some hesitation there still. A window looking out on the other side, as it were. But despite that surface, it is, on another level, the story of Snow and Broken Sword, who, as we learn, are truly and deeply in love but conflicted over their views of the world around them. It isn’t the full focus of the movie and yet it is so important to its core. Without their relationship and their conflict, much of the movie wouldn’t happen as it does and in the various scenes we see them in we see Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai give performances that made me ache for them. They were phenomenal. People in the US may recognize Jet Li as Nameless and Ziyi Zhang as Broken Sword’s apprentice, Moon, before they recognize any of the rest of the cast. But good as they were, Snow and Broken Sword were the heart of the movie to me, largely due to the performances.

I wish I could comment on the messages this movie probably carries for people with more in-depth and personal knowledge of the history of China, both ancient and recent. I can’t and I feel like I should be and that makes me so sad. Regardless, though, I thought it was a beautiful movie. Well worth putting on again if only to have something so gorgeous playing in the background but more likely because I’ll want to see the whole thing again, even knowing that it will make me cry.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hero (2002)

April 13, 2011

Hero (2002)

I’m finding this movie difficult to review. It’s an amazing, gorgeous, poetic masterpiece of a film, and that right there could be everything I have to say about it, but it’s a bigger film than that. Not just larger in its epic scale with its cast of tens of thousands or its great wide gorgeous vistas, either. This is a movie with a grand, impressive central message that overshadows the action and drives the motivation for some of the main characters. It’s a message that I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with, and as a result I’m vaguely uncomfortable with the entire film, though I cannot deny its greatness.

This film takes place in ancient China, before it was even a single country when it was a collection of smaller warring nations. Jet Li is a nameless warrior who has, at the start of this film, somehow vanquished three deadly assassins who have been plaguing the lord of the Qin. How could this single unknown have bested Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow, each of them masters of the martial arts who have defeated hundreds of Qin soldiers? The movie is told in flashback as Nameless relates his tale, and as he is questioned by the Qin lord it is slowly revealed that he is not what he at first appears to be. Ultimately Nameless has a fateful choice to make – one which will shape the very course of history.

This was the first of several spectacular and artistic wire-fu action films directed by Yimou Zhang, and probably the most ambitious. The stories that Nameless tells are full of grand emotions and epic swordplay. Within the context of this film it makes sense that these larger-than-life figures are able to defy gravity and the laws of physics. They are more than simple mortals – these almost mythical figures, and these stories being told are like tall tales about vanquishing titans of yore. Beyond that there’s the way the story unfolds. Nameless and the Qin lord take turns telling different versions of events, and so we get to see several key scenes replayed in different ways, which adds to the story-book mythical feel of the movie.

It has a strong episodic feel to it. Each distinct fight scene has its own aesthetic (something I recognise as a Yimou Zhang trademark) and the various re-tellings of events each have a different color palette, which helps keep them distinct but also heightens the unreality of the film. As we circle closer and closer in to the truth of the past and what has actually happened that led us to the point we are at now it becomes clear that this movie has a deeper message. I would almost say that it has an agenda.

I appreciate the message that there are greater forces in the world than personal gratification or individual vendetta. This movie has at its core conflicted characters having to deal with choices that will alter the course of entire nations. The English version even starts out with a block of text that sets the stage by asking us to think about those beliefs that people are willing to die for or kill for. What I can’t wrap my head around, and what ultimately makes me uncomfortable about the movie is that it promotes the notion of achieving peace through conquest. At least that’s my ultimate interpretation and that leaves me feeling slightly uneasy about the entire film.

I won’t deny that it is mesmerizing and gorgeous. Magical and mythical. It involves some fantastic visual story-telling and awe inspiring scenes with unprecedented scale. It is an epic movie and a gorgeous one. It involves many, many fantastically choreographed and filmed fight scenes. It has great acting and daring costume design. I just happen to disagree on a fundamental level with its core premise, which makes me a little sad. Because I’d really like to simply love this movie on every possible level instead of simply respecting it for its art and its composition.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment