Director: Corey Yuen
Writer: Jeff Lau, Corey Yuen
Producer: Mona Fong
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Yuen Biao, Valerie Chow, Yuen Wah, Yuen Tak, Jessica Hester, Corey Yuen
Running Time: 97 min.
By JJ Hatfield
Mainland China in the 1920‘s was a time of social upheaval, staggering poverty and petty rulers who cared more about whispered promises from high ranking individuals than the citizens who were suffering horribly. It was a period of extreme drought and poverty that drives two brothers desperate to find a better life to leave Shangtung. Their destination is Shanghai where it’s rumored many jobs are waiting. The reality sinks in as they discover the only jobs are menial labor that pay indentured slave wages. In a chance encounter the brothers meet a powerful gang leader who will influence their lives forever.
Ma Wing Jing (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Tai Cheung (Yuen Wah) are brothers who don’t always see things the same way. Tai Cheung is the oldest but he is fairly easily manipulated by Wing Jing. Wing Jing admires the gang leader (Tam See) and takes up his offer to visit one of his night clubs. He and his brother find a way into the club back entrance as they have no money to get in the front door. Wing Jing hears a lovely voice singing at the club and he is entranced.
Suddenly a fight breaks out and Wing Jing gets involved because his brother can’t fight and he must protect him. Ma does a good job of kicking gang member ass. Since Ma helped stop the blood shed and the destruction of the sumptuous surroundings of the club one of Tam See’s gang members wants to pay him for his help, not realizing he was really only trying to help his brother. Wing Jing refuses saying he will make his own name and fortune.
By coincidence Ma overhears a plan to kill Tam See that very night. He manages to come to the rescue in the nick of time and in gratitude Tam See gives Ma the nightclub he and his brother had visited. But in so doing he has earned the wrath of the gang boss Yang Schuang (Yuen Tak), Tam See’s fiercest enemy. Tam See has been with the club manager, Yam Yueng Tien (Valerie Chow) for a long time. She is furious Tam See would just leave her and expect her to accept Ma as the owner, and all the things that included. Before long Ma Wing Jing has developed a thirst for power and Yam Yueng Tien starts to encourage him to take on other gang bosses. Ma starts out as a man of the people but his goals escalate rapidly making him a target for several groups including the police. He is obsessed and will risk everything to be number one.
This is a big budget production from the Shaw Brothers studio, the first in well over a decade! And the viewers are grateful! The film does not disappoint – it is far more than just a gang dispute with a high body count. The sets are large, even huge in some scenes. Buildings and settings that fit the time were included to help complete the belief it is the 1920’s. Valerie Chow’s club is sumptuous, gorgeous, grand on a large scale and quite beautiful. Chow is also quite beautiful in her surroundings. Gorgeous but she is not controlled by anyone. She hides her emotions well as a character and is perfect for the role.
And Yuen Biao? Time doesn’t seem to have limited his martial arts/acrobatic skills. He still looks damn good! Even though Cory Yuen did a good job with the fights you could tell Biao had added a few ideas. Unfortunately Cory used too many wires in the sometimes tradition of the Shaw Brothers. Biao is fantastic on his own. A few less wires would have made one especially large ambush feel more real. Biao is a very suave gang leader, wearing the finest western style suits he enjoys the best of things. He can be quite benevolent, even kind. But just as you see him being almost gentle the next act he makes will be surprisingly coldly violent. He is completely convincing in the role. He tends to have a more Cantonese (modern for the time) lifestyle while his mortal enemy is more of the Mandarin (traditional ways) beliefs.
Takeshi Kaneshiro puts in a good performance. Watching the changes in him is disturbing. His fighting looks top notch, even if not so good in real life. He does credible fighting and is vicious with a sword. Yuen Wah doesn’t do any fighting but does have the opportunity to add some comic relief. His character is 180 degrees from his usual bad guy persona. There are bits of comedy, some that are really funny but they seem out of place as there is really nothing at all funny here.
To the best of my knowledge there are at least four versions or titles and two cuts. The International cut and the China cut. The international cut has been edited to decrease the length of fights, body count and an unusual decapitation. The other cut is longer and even it was already edited some due to the level of violence. There was concern over the treatment of horses in the film. They encounter violence of unimaginable horror just like their owners. But rest assured the ending credits state “No horses were injured or deaded.” They do not make the same claim about the stuntmen. The RT is different primarily due to the opening, PAL transfer, title credits etc.
“Hero” is a great film worthy of great praise. There are a few slow spots but that just gives you time to take a breath before the next savage, take no prisoner fight. The film does wander a bit but the performers are interesting, the fighting is top notch, violent, bloody and fierce. “Hero” is not a cheery film. There are a lot of bad things that happen to people both saint and sinner. Double crosses, triple crosses, betrayal are all accurate but there is an unspoken possibility of redemption. This is a film to have in your library.
JJ Hatfield’s Rating: 8/10