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Evolution of the Wuxia Movie: The Hero

In November of this year, The Hero will hit theatres nationwide, giving Americans a chance to see what heights the wuxia martial arts genre can reach with an award-winning director and a star-studded cast. It has already been released in Asia to much acclaim, and is already widely available in Chinatown video stores, specialty shops and DVD web vendors for those who cannot wait to see it.

Directed by Zhang Yi Mou-- whose credits include famous films such as Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1989), Raise the Red Lantern (1992), To Live (1995), and the Road Home (2001)-- The Hero follows the story of a loyal soldier who defends the King of Qin from three relentless assassins. It stars martial arts sensation Jet Li (The One, Cradle 2 The Grave) in the title role; famous choreographer Donny Yen (Iron Monkey, Shanghai Knights), and Hong Kong superstars Maggie Cheung (In The Mood for Love) and Tony Leung (Chunking Express, Happy Together) as would-be assassins. Rising star Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Road Home) also makes a minor but memorable appearance.

Unlike many wuxia movies, The Hero stands as a completely original story. It is unique in contrast to The Emperor and the Assassin (Chen Kaige, 1999), which follows actual historical accounts of the King of Qin after he has become the first Emperor of China; and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), which comes from a three-part novel by Wang Du-Lu. Without these literary and historical contexts, Zhang has a lot of artistic flexibility to weave a complex and adventurous tale.

The result: an intriguing story, stunning cinematography, brilliant martial arts choreography, and creative audiovisual effects. Settings range from the specially designed and constructed Qin capital to the panoramic steppes of Dunhuang, and from the mirror-like surface of a lake in Jiuzai Gap to a battleground lined by yellow-leaved trees. All of these sets, splashed with striking use of vibrant colors, provide breathtaking backdrops for displays of martial prowess and dramatic dialogue. The instrumental score by Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) completes a wonderful integration of sights and sounds.

One scene epitomizes the overall nature of The Hero: the epic duel under the rain between Jet Li and Donny Yen in the courtyard of a chess house. The second time these two talented martial artists have fought on the big screen, this scene stands out due to its clever use of water, music, and choreography. The duel makes use of black and white interspersed with color segments, along with interchanging unpretentious slow motion and believable sped-up sequences. And while this particular scene is the least vibrant from the perspective of color use, it stands out visually because of the overall composition.

The Hero has shown that the excellent acting, direction, cinematography, and action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were not a fluke in the development of wuxia movies. These two movies represent the most recent evolution of the genre, which gained prominence with the acrobatic swordplay of the Shaw Brothers in the 60s and flourished in the 80s and 90s with Golden Harvest productions. The Hero improves upon these predecessors not only with seamless choreography and a plot that moves beyond the stereotypical martial arts flick, but also with quality acting and overall visual and audio presentation. Perhaps it belongs to a new genre altogether, the artistic swordplay movie. Regardless of how we categorize it, The Hero, much like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be judged not as a martial arts movie, or even a foreign movie, but as a film of epic proportions.