Monday, February 22, 2010

“With no family name to live up to, I devoted myself to the sword.”

I’ve got a soft spot for epics set in ancient & medieval periods. In fact, that’s what really drew me to Asian films in general because Western period films with swords tend to follow the same kind of formula and I was curious to see how the other side of the world did them. Turns out they have their own cinematic formulas, but that’s besides the point. The stuff I just said is merely a highbrow justification for watching people with swords kick ass, and 2002’s Ying xiong (Hero to Western audiences) brings the pain.

Set in the 200s BC during a period of constantly fighting warlords, the powerful King of Qin is trying to make a push to unify the land, but he’s justifiably paranoid about several assassins that are after him, BUT, a police prefect from a small town has apparently taken them down. The King grants the prefect an audience to explain how he was able to achieve this stunning achievement. The action is then told in flashbacks.

Nameless: Jet Li is our main character, a man who’s grown up without a name or family, so everybody just calls him Nameless (which is technically a name so its really more ironic----stop it) and he devoted his entire life to swordsmanship because, well, not like he had any family ties. He is quite awesome.

King of Qin: Daoming Chen is our warlord, a man with a fierce reputation for brutality and strongarm tactics that makes sense for the man who became the first Emperor of China in 221 BC (the guy did some pretty despotic things in his lifetime). Anyway, he’s dangerous, but highly intelligent and classy, and about the only guy who can unite China and put an end to the constant fighting. And, in one of the flashbacks, he can hold his own in a fight too.

Sky: Donnie Yen is only in one scene, but it’s a badass one where Nameless fights him in a rain-soaked building. Sky’s a master of the spear, so he’s got reach on the swordsman.

Broken Sword: Tony Leung Chiu Wai is a very complicated character who’s in a bulk of the flashbacks. He’s Flying Snow’s lover, but also Moon’s mentor, which in some of the flashbacks is a love triangle. Anyway, he’s a really thoughtful swordsman who fought Qin in single combat but pulled back from killing the King. It’s a little hard to explain without spoiling the movie, but out of this assemblage of badasses, he is the biggest.

Flying Snow: Maggie Cheung is a beautiful and deadly swordswoman. She’s got a major grudge against Qin and is one of the most vocal against the King.

Moon: The always beautiful Ziyi Zhang is Broken Sword’s apprentice. More of a minor figure in the movie’s events, she does get into some trouble because of her hot blooded nature that leads to some groovy fight scenes.

Yimou Zhang is an astoundingly good director. Crouching Tiger was very artistically done, but Hero takes that visual artistry and runs it up to insane heights. Each flashback has a different color palette that dominates the costumes, mood and emotion, so you’ve got Red, Blue, Green, White that sort of thing that contrasts with the Black of the “main” action of Nameless’ audience with Qin. With each you get an action sequence that goes big on doing insanely awesome visual stunts, and only one of them (the Blue fight) gets kind of annoyingly ridiculous. Now, a huge part of what makes the visuals work is the cinematography of Christopher Doyle. And I feel pretty bad about passing over the achievements of cinematographers/directors of photography in previous installments, because they are really important to setting the visual tone a director’s going for. So here’s a resolution: I’ll try to give more credit to these often unsung heroes of filmmaking when a movie's visuals are excellently done.

Feng Li, Bin Wang & Yimou Zhang wrote the screenplay, and the structure is interesting. Like I said, its told mostly in flashbacks, but the flashbacks themselves are often conflicting. It’s a credit to the writers that everything does make sense by the end as the real story is discovered by Qin (and the audience).

Tan Dun delivers another epic Chinese Marital Arts Movie score.

Ying xiong got a lot of publicity when it came out in the States because of the “Quentin Tarantino Presents” tacked on (he was also associated that way with Iron Monkey). And while I do appreciate the enthusiastic attention Tarantino brings to foreign films like these, Yimou Zhang’s style is strong enough to be taken for its own merits. This movie is awesome.

Nice trailer, too

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