It’s not an exaggeration to liken wuxia-style martial arts to poetry in motion. The characters levitate, their robes billow in slow motion, and their bodies, even in death, appear tranquil.
In the opening scenes of Marvel’s Shang-Chi, audiences caught a brief glimpse of the Chinese genre’s captivating potential through a fierce yet flirtatious battle between Shang-Chi’s parents, choreographed with dance-like fluidity. Despite this dutiful nod to wuxia, most of the film’s action sequences are tediously brute and laden with special effects. The protagonist cycles through scene after scene of unrelenting hand-to-hand combat, leaving little room for character development. Shang-Chi is, after all, an American movie, geared toward viewers more familiar with Jackie Chan-style kung fu than the lethal grace of wuxia’s long-haired heroes.
In contrast, Yimou Zhang’s 2002 martial-arts epic Hero, which is available to stream on HBO Max, is the perfect wuxia film. In fact, Quentin Tarantino was so taken by Hero that he convinced Miramax to release it in theaters two years after it screened in China.
Shang-Chi viewers will delight in seeing again the ever-emotive Tony Leung, this time as a formidable swordsman. Clocking in at about an hour and 40 minutes, it’s a short, well-paced movie that balances action and expression. The story of Hero unfolds through a series of flashbacks, and the film leads with an ambiguous rumination on the nature of war and heroism: “In any war, there are heroes on both sides.”
For me, Hero served as a cinematic palate cleanser from Marvel’s CGI-heavy climaxes and conventional hero/villain dichotomies. Set in ancient China during the Seven Warring States era, the film follows a nameless warrior (Jet Li) who receives a private audience with the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) after claiming to have slain the legendary assassins Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Broken Sword (Tony Leung). The three assassins, who hail from the rival state of Zhao, have come so close to killing the king that he stopped allowing anyone to come within 100 paces of the throne. The nameless warrior is the first to receive a private audience in 10 years.
Nameless is urged to recount his encounters with the assassins. It is through these detailed flashbacks, which are vibrantly color-coded in shades of red, blue, green, and white, that the audience, alongside the king, is able to piece together the warrior’s true intent. Hero’s narrative structure has drawn comparisons to that of the legendary Japanese film Rashomon, a mystery told from multiple perspectives. Through the film’s striking use of color and landscape, combined with its riveting action sequences, it goes beyond the chronological constraints of a typical blockbuster film. Rather, the protagonist is at the tail end of his hero’s journey, an inversion of a familiar plot structure.
The decision to divide the film into five distinct color themes was an aesthetic decision. Zhang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle emphasized it was not a symbolic choice. Yet, the use of color arguably carries more thematic resonance than if it simply existed as a stylistic flair. ‘’Part of the beauty of the film is that it is one story colored by different perceptions,” Doyle told the New York Times. ‘’I think that’s the point. Every story is colored by personal perception.”
At times, though, the film’s artistic excess veers close to campiness, which makes its action sequences all the more memorable. The first sword fight between Nameless and Sky is set to the hypnotic twang of a guqin, a stringed Chinese instrument, as rain falls around them. Nameless lunges in slow motion toward his enemy, piercing through Sky’s water shield (yes, water shield) to defeat him.
In the red chapter of the film, Flying Snow and Moon (Ziyi Zhang), Broken Sword’s apprentice, fight in a grove amid a downpour of yellow leaves. The women, in their saturated red robes, stand in stark contrast to the scenery. After Flying Snow delivers her lethal blow, the cascading leaves and surrounding trees turn from yellow to ruby red, cloaking the fallen body of Moon.
Then, there’s the iconic showdown between Nameless and Broken Sword. The men’s floating swordplay is interspersed with landscape shots of the clear blue lake that they’re dueling — and skipping — across. Some frames resemble an Impressionist painting, while others have their faces comedically superimposed against the backdrop. The fight ends in a sudden draw for Broken Sword to gently wipe off a drop of water flecked on his dead lover’s face.
For some, these scenes might feel overdone. It’s very Criterion Channel, very art house. One can argue that the entire wuxia genre is camp. See: the waist-length hair, regardless of gender; the hyena-like battle wails; the superhuman ability to fly. Ultimately, though, Hero is an earnest film that relishes in the complex motives of its characters, from assassin to ruler. They are motivated by honor, desire for peace, and love — of country, family, and lover.
There are only two narrators (Nameless and the King) recounting their interpretation of previous events. Yet, each flashback is so distinct and immersive that you can’t help but be convinced that each version carries some grain of truth. Characters are killed multiple times, and every tragedy feels so singular and final in how they are grieved. Only a few minutes later, though, it’s revealed that the character is actually alive, and the version of events told was partly false. This element of surprise is what I enjoyed most about Hero, coupled with its colorful excess.
Without spoiling too much of its ending, the greatest criticism of the movie is its thinly veiled support of Chinese autocracy. Zhang, the director, has claimed that he had no political points to make, but Hero clearly is a nationalist film. Still, given how the movie’s events are a loose, fictionalized interpretation of ancient Chinese history, it would be reductive to dismiss it as pure propaganda.
There is a real purpose to the violence in Hero and others in the wuxia genre. “What matters is not the manner of death, but the manner of dying,” the critic Robert Ebert wrote. That’s what makes Hero such an intriguing film. While its characters are god-like martial arts masters, capable of murder and violence, it can be easy to forget their humanity and mortality. They, like us, can be selfish, foolish, cruel, short-sighted, and loving. Even for an escapist folk-fantasy film like Hero, that’s a much-needed reminder.