This week, Bamboo Li brought us her first film (her second won’t be for a bit, with some schedule adjustments) and as is so often the case with our “Friends With Visas”, her film came from her home nation of China – 2002’s Hero, starring Jet Li and directed by Yimou Zhang.
Our record of bringing a short has been pretty poor lately, so I made an effort to find something – anything – online that might be useful. What I came up with was “Sunshine” a film with no apparent entry in IMDB. It did win an award over at shortoftheweek.com, but maybe that was a bit generous. It’s a documentary about an ad exec making food commercials for McDonald’s in China. It wasn’t really very compelling. If you click on the video below, I am not responsible for the 15 minutes of your life you will lose.
Our feature presentation, on the other hand, was certainly worth watching.
The film opens during an era of warring states in ancient China. The Qin emperor hopes to unite the warring states into a single empire, but it’s dangerous to be an emperor – only a few years ago the Qin emperor had narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by three notorious assassins, Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. As a result of the emperor’s newfound caution, nobody is allowed to approach him within one hundred paces.
One day, a previously unknown swordsman comes before the emperor bearing three great gifts – the weapons of Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. The emperor allows this man, known as “Nameless” (and no, the emperor is not a Cyclops) to ultimately approach within ten paces, instead of the customary one hundred, in order to relate his tale.
Nameless tells the emperor that he learned of a love triangle between the three assassins, and used this information to help him defeat these otherwise nearly-invincible enemies. First he catches up with Sky at a gaming house, and after a bit of flying-wire martial arts, he quickly dispatches him.
Then, he finds Flying Snow and Broken Sword in hiding at a calligraphy school, where Broken Sword is studying the relationship between the written character and the mastery of swordfighting. Nameless befriends them, but soon reveals that he has killed Sky and intends to fight them as well. To sow dissent, he says that Sky’s final words were that the only woman he ever loved was Flying Snow, and he knew that she would revenge his death. This makes Broken Sword green with jealousy, and he reacts by sleeping with his servant Moon such that Flying Snow sees it. She in turn stabs him to death.
After she has killed her lover, Flying Snow shows up for her duel with Nameless – in front of a battalion of Qin soldiers, no less – but he is able to easily kill her because of her distraught emotional state.
After hearing the story, the emperor calls bullshit. He doesn’t particularly believe in the love triangle, and he re-tells the story to Nameless with a slightly different twist. Nameless, he says, is another assassin after his life, and he must have developed a martial arts move that cannot possibly fail within ten paces of an opponent. In order to gain access to the emperor, he conspired with the assassins, who gave up their lives willingly in order to achieve their goal in which they were previously thwarted.
Nameless, who is in fact there to assassinate the emperor, is surprised by his perspicacity. He does correct the emperor on a few points. For one, he has developed so much skill that he can deliver a seemingly-deadly blow that nevertheless misses all of the vital organs and allows the victim to easily recover. Thus, while he has conspired with the three other assassins and obtained their weapons from them, none of them are actually dead. He also tells the emperor one other interesting piece of information – Broken Sword did not need to fail at his assassination attempt the first time around. Instead, he declined to deliver the death blow because he finally realized that the only way to stop the devastating wars among the several states was to unify them under one flag, and only Qin was capable of doing this. Broken Sword told him this after the sham defeat of Flying Snow, and urged Nameless not to carry out the assassination.
The emperor, oddly emboldened by Broken Sword’s understanding of his desire to unite the Chinese states for peace, tosses his sword to Nameless, who demonstrates his unbeatable move but reverses the sword, striking the emperor with the hilt. The emperor allows Nameless to leave, but at the urging of his court, he allows his palace guards to unleash an unthinkable barrage of arrows at Nameless, who is nonetheless given a hero’s funeral.
When Flying Snow, the assassin most committed to the death of the emperor, learns not only of the failure of the assassination but also that Broken Sword urged Nameless to fail in his quest, she challenges him to a duel which he does not want to fight. Instead, he lowers his guard and allows her to kill him. She immediately experiences buyer’s remorse, and in the absence of return policies in ancient China, she resorts to impaling herself on the same sword. While it’s still coming out of his back. The ultimate fate of Sky is unknown. The end.
Interestingly enough, the plot of Hero is loosely (very loosely) based on a real event from the life of the first Qin emperor. An assassin approached a rogue general wanted by the Qin emperor, and convinced him that the best way to assassinate the emperor was to gain approach – something that could probably only be done to present the emperor with a great gift…like, for instance, the head of a rogue general. Amazingly, the rogue general agreed, and committed suicide to allow the assassin to deliver his head. However, the assassin failed in his attempt to stab the emperor with a concealed knife (not through some ideological remorse as in the film here) and was finally captured and killed by the Qin guards. So, as I said, really loosely based.
There’s a valid complaint about Hero – it would probably be about a 25-minute film if it weren’t for the slow-motion fighting scenes, which get a bit carried away…again…and again…and again… That said, the cinematography is pretty much amazing. Zhang has an eye for the color palette in a way that I haven’t seen since perhaps The Fall (though, admittedly, Hero is not on that level). The emperor’s palace is gorgeous, both with and without the huge green curtains, and there are several stunning outdoor sites, mostly in the deserts of China. It’s quite a movie to look at, and while the triple-telling of the story isn’t quite Rashomon, it does keep the narrative shifting around and the audience guessing without feeling like too much of a gimmick.