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Film: Hero

This is about the 2002 Chinese movie. For the 1992 movie released in America as Hero, see Accidental Hero. For other uses of "hero", see Hero.

Hero is a Wuxia film directed by Zhang Yimou and released in 2002. Starring Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung and Donnie Yen, it is set in the troubled transitional period between the Warring Kingdoms and the Qin Dynasty, when the ruthlessly despotic King of Qin was in the process of annexing the other kingdoms of China and incorporating them wholesale into his own.

Jet Li plays Wu Ming ("Nameless"), ostensibly a minor official who claims to have vanquished three assassins out to kill the King (Broken Sword, Long Sky and Flying Snow) before he has a chance to declare himself Emperor. As he tells his story to the terminally paranoid King, things turn out not to be as they seem.

The movie generated political controversy, as the ending was interpreted by some as a justification of despotic rule, and as such an endorsement of the current Chinese authoritarian regime.

Contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Flying Snow and Fading Moon.
  • Anachronism Stew: In the North American promotional poster, the sword held by Nameless was replaced by a Japanese katana. Katanas were invented around 1600 years after the period in which this film is set.
  • Antagonist in Mourning: The King of Qin realizes that, despite their differences, Nameless actually understands him better than anyone else ever did. After his soldiers execute Nameless, he gives him an honorable burial in recognition of his respect for him.
  • Armor Is Useless: None of the assassins wear any armor. The shields carried by the royal guard are apparently made of styrofoam judging by their resistance to the swordstrokes of Flying Snow and Broken Sword. The King wears armor to protect himself from assassins, but is still aware that Broken Sword and Nameless are capable of killing him at will.
  • Arrow Cam
  • Arrow Catch: When an arrow breaks the rod he was using to practice his calligraphic skills in sand, Broken Sword just grabs the next arrow and uses it to resume his writing.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: While the King is not as good as the four assassins, he gives Broken Sword more of a fight than his entire army. However, Nameless averts this: while he is the second-strongest swordsman in the film (only surpassed by Broken Sword), he is only a lowly prefect.
  • Bad Ass: Everyone.
  • Battle Couple: Flying Snow and Broken Sword.
  • Battle in the Center of the Mind: Nameless versus Sky, according to one version of the story.
  • The Blade Always Lands Pointy End In: Happens with the King's sword, and done deliberately at that.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Many people throughout the film are stabbed, chopped, or shot with arrows. Yet not a single drop a blood is ever seen.
  • Bodyguarding a Badass: Two assassins assault the imperial palace, cutting through a small army to do so. When they reach the King, the weaker of the two stays behind to hold off the whole army alone, while the other goes in to duel the King in single combat. "The Imperial Guard are not worthy of mention", indeed.
  • Broken Bird: Flying Snow. Fading Moon becomes one.
  • Central Theme: "One person's pain is nothing, when compared to the suffering of all." In other words, uniting a collection of warring kingdoms does far more good than getting revenge on your homeland's enemy. Sometimes, submitting to a hated foe is ultimately for the best.
  • Chastity Couple: Snow and Sword, in the blue flashback.
  • Close-Call Haircut: Fading Moon severs a lock of Flying Snow's hair at the beginning of their battle in the red flashback.
  • Color Motif: The various retellings of the story come in color codes:
    • Black: Mystery
    • Red: Deceit
    • Blue: Romance
    • Green: Memory
    • White: Truth
  • Color Wash: The entire film, in obvious fashion.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: During the green flashback, Flying Snow and Broken Sword storm the castle of the King of Qin. They carve right past three thousand imperial guard, but the King fighting alone poses more of a challenge.
  • Cool Old Guy: The master of the Zhao calligraphy school. With arrows raining down on the school and students fleeing in panic, he announces that today they will learn the true spirit of their art, sits down at the front of the room, and calmly begins practicing calligraphy. He's so badass that the students hurry to return to their seats and follow his example.
  • Cut-and-Paste Translation: There are several throughout the film, including:
    • There has been some criticism of the Miramax release of the film for its mistranslation of one of the central ideas in the film, "tian xia" (天下), which literally means "all under heaven". During the period in which this film is set, the ancient Chinese people believed that they were at the very center of the universe; the Mandarin term for China is "zhong guo" (中国), meaning "central realm", as many believed the region to be between heaven and hell (much like the Germanic Midgard). With that in mind, Broken Sword begs Nameless that the King of Qin be allowed to succeed, because the peace he will bring will benefit not just China, but everyone around them (metaphorically) — "all under heaven" (literally). In this case, the term should be interpreted metaphorically. But as the average American viewer is probably unaware of China's self-conception, mistranslating "tian xia" as "our land" is a simple way to avoid having to explain it.
    • During his fight with Long Sky, Nameless addresses the old blind musician as "sir" in the Miramax translation, while on the import DVDs, Nameless calls him "old man". Actually, Nameless said "lao xiansheng" (老先生), which means something along the lines of "old gentleman". "Lao" means old, and "xiansheng" is a polite way of addressing men, similar to "sir" or "mister" in English.
    • Broken Sword and Flying Snow use the aliases Highcliff and Springbrook, respectively, while hiding in the calligraphy school. However, there is no mention of this in the english dub or Miramax english subtitles.
    • During the famous scene in which the Qin army barrage the calligraphy school with arrows, the soldiers' cries were changed from "hail" to "storm" in the Miramax release to avoid a Nazi connotation.
    • In the english versions of the film, once it was revealed that Nameless can non-fatally stab people so that they look like they are slain, we never go back and find out what happened to Long Sky, who isn't dead and has recovered from his wounds. In the original Chinese version, the closing sequence reveals that Sky decided to abandon martial arts in honor of the way Nameless and Broken Sword gave their lives.
  • Death Seeker: Nameless. Broken Sword already convinced him not to kill the King, but he knows that he can't live with himself if he doesn't confront him just once. In the end, he willingly submits to the King and lets his soldiers kill him without fighting back.
    • Perhaps subverted, as Nameless was clearly shown at the beginning to still have a strong desire to kill the King, which the King's candles managed to detect. Later, the candles detected that Nameless was now uncertain about his decision to kill the King. Finally, Nameless decided to abandon the assassination, as he decided that the unity of China does far more good than revenge.
  • Delayed Causality: During the demonstration of "death within ten paces", Nameless cuts up all the bookshelves in a single move. Naturally, the bookshelves don't actually fall apart until a few seconds after he's returned to the center of the room.
  • Dual Wielding: Fading Moon
  • The Emperor: The King of Qin.
  • The Empire: Qin, pronounced "chin", a.k.a. the future Chin-anote .
  • Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting
  • Evil Overlord: Subverted. The King of Qin is initially presented as an evil overlord, but Broken Sword argues that in unifying China, the King has actually done a great service to the people. Still, the King needs a lesson in humanity to earn his subject's loyalty. The film was criticized in some circles for being overly kind to the King.
  • Flynning: Typical for an Eastern martial arts film, the swordfights in the film are characterized by combatants doing acrobatics and clashing their weapons, producing the trademark "tink-tink-tink" sound.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Nameless tells the King about his visit to Broken Sword's calligraphy school, he mentions that there are a surprising number of variations of the calligraphic character for "sword". The King comments that this variation in language causes far too much confusion, and that it would be much better if the kingdoms of China shared a common language. In the end, Nameless submits to the King specifically because he knows that his efforts will ultimately unify China and bring peace between the kingdoms. Indeed, standardizing the written Chinese language is one of the key achievements by Qin Shi Huang that is specifically referenced at the end of the movie.
    • During the green "memory" scenes: "The truth of calligraphy has to be intuitively grasped. It is the same with swordsmanship. Both seek to return to a state of simplicity. Gradually, I began to understand."
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus:
    • When arrows are raining down on the calligraphy school, one student took an arrow to the head and died instantly.
    • You can briefly see pieces of styrofoam fly about when Broken Sword and Flying Snow chop through the shields of the imperial guard, showing that the props are made of styrofoam to allow the actors to chop them apart easily.
  • Grey and Gray Morality
    "In any war there are heroes on both sides..."
  • A Handful for an Eye: Snow to Moon during their battle. Snow also stabs Broken Sword from behind her sleeve in the blue section.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Nameless and Broken Sword.
  • Highly Visible Assassin: Broken Sword and Flying Snow are so powerful that they simply carve though the King's entire royal guard and walk right into his throne room, rather than make any pretense of secrecy, as one would normally expect from an assassin.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • The King. Even the most idealistic interpretation of the movie cannot drag him entirely free of the gravitational pull of the Moral Event Horizon that he crossed in real life. Nor does it especially try too.
    • Nameless. The actual assassin that Nameless is based on merely used deception to get into the throne room, then drew a hidden, poisoned dagger and chased the King around the throne room until the King was able to draw his sword and stab him.
  • Hobbes Was Right
  • Honor Before Reason: Just about every character except the King. Except at the end, when even he is willing to die and actually gives Nameless his sword, despite claiming earlier that he wasn't so noble as to die for idealism, because he discovered Broken Sword understood what he was trying to do.
  • How We Got Here: The King and Nameless have differing explanations.
  • I Know You Know I Know: The King deduces Nameless's plot after listening to his story.
  • Implausible Fencing Powers: As any wuxia film, the abilities of the warriors are supernatural. At various points, they deflect storms of arrows without getting nicked, chop arrows in half in midair, swordfight on water, and chop through shields effortlessly.
  • Importation Expansion: The opening and closing sequences of the American version was changed. Changes for the opening sequence include the addition of a map of ancient China and a different description; the line "In any war there are heroes on both sides..." is not present on the original Chinese version. Also, the closing sequence have a different description; in the original Chinese version, it was not outright stated that Nameless was executed as an assassin but buried as a hero. That line was presumably added to make it easier for viewers to understand that Nameless was given a hero's funeral.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Flying Snow and Fading Moon. Flying Snow is able to deflect storms of arrows with only her very long sleeves, while in the extended cut, Fading Moon protects Broken Sword from the arrows barraging the calligraphy school using only a piece of stick.
  • Interface Spoiler: The english subtitles sort of lessen the visual shock of the fact that Nameless spared the King since his whole sentence appears subbed all at once, while ignoring the pause that he put into his sentence that sets up the big reveal.
  • Kill 'em All: All three protagonists are dead at the end.
  • Killing Intent: The candle flames in front of the King. He's Dangerously Genre Savvy enough to figure things out from there.
  • Knife Outline: The imperial archers shoot so many arrows at a character that the ones that don't hit form a "shadow" of arrows on the wall behind him.
  • Lie Detector: The King's candles react to the dishonesty in Nameless's first story.
  • Lonely at the Top: The King of Qin refers to himself as gua ren (寡人), literally meaning "lonely person."
  • Magical Realism: The whole film.
  • Manly Tears: Shed by the King for Broken Sword and Nameless.
  • Messy Hair: During the red flashback, for both Flying Snow and Broken Sword.
  • More Hero Than Thou
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Calligraphy, which is linked to both bravery and swordsmanship. At the calligraphy school, the head teacher insists that the students make a last stand practicing calligraphy as arrows rain down on them. Broken Sword's swordsmanship is directly linked to his skill at calligraphy. During the battle at the school, Broken Sword casually practices calligraphy amidst the downpour of arrows, and later majestically paints a banner.
  • No Name Given: Nameless was orphaned at a young age and was never given a name. As a result, people just call him Nameless.
  • Not So Different: The King and Broken Sword. Demonstrated when the King can interpret Broken Sword's calligraphy while Nameless cannot.
  • Obi-Wan Moment: Nameless.
  • One-Man Army: Nameless and Flying Snow have the ability to block and deflect storms of arrows fired from a massive army utilizing nothing but a sword and some very long sleeves, respectively. Also, three years ago, Broken Sword and Flying Snow cut through thousands of palace guards as if they were cardboard all on their own in an effort to kill the King.
  • Properly Paranoid: The King states that everyone is out to get him. And he's right.
  • Rain of Arrows: Twice.
  • Rashomon Plot: The whole movie. Different versions of the story are displayed in the form of different-colored flashbacks.
  • The Reveal: Midway through the film, we learn that Nameless was lying about his entire story, and that he's in league with the assassins. The King then narrates what he think happened, and then Nameless proceeds to describe what actually happened.
  • Rousseau Was Right: There are no truly "evil" characters in this film; all of them are trying to make the world a peaceful and happy place, the only way they know how.
  • Rule of Cool: Good grief.
  • Scenery Porn: The movie's just plain gorgeous.
    • Of note is a sword fight taking place on (yes, on) a lake that is perfectly still and gives reflections like mirrors. This is a real lake in China, but its surface is only that placid about three hours a day. Combine this with the set-ups required for Wire Fu and they could get maybe two shots done during those three hours.
    • There's also the fight between Broken Sword and the King, where the King realizes Broken Sword is lurking in the banners in the court, and cuts them down, and they all fall to the ground in the most majestic way possible.
  • Scheherezade Gambit: Nameless is given a rare audience with the King to tell him his story about how he defeated Zhao's three most powerful assassins. The story is only an excuse to be given an audience with the King so Nameless could assassinate him.
  • Scry vs. Scry: Nameless and Sky's duel plays out entirely in their minds, save for the final blow.
  • Sherlock Scan: The King keeps his throne room filled with candles so that he can determine his guests' trustworthiness by studying the candle flames; if they're breathing hard enough to visibly move the flames, it's a sign that they're up to no good.
  • Shown Their Work: When the King learns that there are 19 different ways to write the word "sword", he comments that this is bothersome and he should do something about it. Which he did.
  • Single Tear: The King of Qin sheds one tear when he realizes the only man who understands him is his enemy.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Disputed. The film can be seen as a treatise on having faith in fundamental human decency, which is quite idealistic. It can also be seen as urging submission to government authority because peace is worth more than liberty, which is quite cynical.
  • Supernatural Martial Arts: Stopping entire volleys of arrows, walking on water, etc...
  • Storming the Castle: See "Conservation of Ninjutsu" above.
  • Thanatos Gambit: Nameless and Broken Sword both contrive to use their own deaths to further their goals.
  • Together in Death: Broken Sword and Flying Snow.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: The three assassins; especially in the Red flashback.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Broken Sword's argument is that a peaceful, united China is worth the bloodshed and conquest that brings it together.
  • Warrior Poet: Broken Sword, with calligraphy. Long Sky, with weiqi.
  • Whole Episode Flashback
  • Wire Fu: Plenty of it.
  • World of Badass: Just about everyone in the film is a supreme badass.
  • Worthy Opponent: The King of Qin recognizes Nameless as this when his assassination attempt fails. Sky to the marshals attempting to arrest him; they are willing to let him walk off after he defeats them and spares their lives.
  • You Killed My Father: Flying Snow's Disappeared Dad was a Zhao general and fell in battle against the King. Hence why Snow is so embittered.

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