Jet Li plays a nameless prefect who claims the bounty on three assassins who have previously tried to kill the king of Qin. By turning over the weapons of these famed warriors, Nameless receives rewards and is permitted to sit progressively closer to the king. Dubious that an unknown minor official could defeat the assassins who nearly took his life, the king demands that Nameless tell him the story of each battle.
The first pits Nameless against the spear-wielding Sky, played by Donnie Yen. Wuxia fans had long desired a rematch between the two actors, who fought a famous duel in Once Upon a Time in China 2. While that fight scene is great, Hero tops it with a spear vs. sword contest set in a rainy chess court. The music, action, and choreography set the bar so high that it’s hard to imagine the film exceeding its first set piece … and yet it proceeds to do just that.
To defeat the lovers Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), Nameless incites a jealous quarrel by requesting a scroll from the famous calligraphy school where they reside. As the Qin army attacks with clouds of arrows, Flying Snow and Nameless defend Broken Sword’s work in a display of epic-level deflecting of incoming missiles. After watching this scene, no Pathfinder player will ever again feel satisfied knocking aside a single arrow.
After the love triangle reaches its tragic climax, Flying Snow faces Moon (Zhang Ziyi) in a duel surrounded by falling autumn leaves. The flying and wind-mastery of this fight take the wirework to a new level, yet the grace of the performers (and SFX artists) will win over those averse to the idea of swordswomen soaring like superheroes—which is important for a following scene in which the combatants literally fly above a lake.
Later scenes show off different combinations of foes, each dominated by a different primary color, and finally revealing the true purpose that brought Nameless to face the king. The final twist of the story became controversial: The word “Tianxia” was initially translated into English as “All Under Heaven,” while later iterations changed it to “Our Land” to avoid the suggestion that the movie’s message was one of global unity by Chinese conquest. (“Tian Xia” is also the name of the setting of Master of Devils.) Regardless of the political fuss, critics and audiences loved Hero, and despite its art-house sensibilities, the film drew thousands more North American fans into the world of wuxia films.
The strongest influence of Hero on Master of Devils comes from its splendid fight choreography. Readers who’ve seen this film and Yimou’s other wuxia pictures (House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower) might also notice an echo of character names and a blend of heroic and tragic destiny.