Corey Yuen has action-directed countless films, but also directed quite a few, generally falling into two categories : chick-action flicks (Yes Madam!, So Close, Dead or Alive…) or Jet Li vehicles (The Enforcer, The Defender, the Fong Sai Yuk films…). Most of these film are enjoyable fluff, but not much else. But ironically, his very best film, one that stands in a league of its own compared to the others, is also his least famous. Released in 1997, Hero gave Takeshi Kaneshiro his first leading role in a big action film, and saved Yuen Biao from his Philippines-set career degeneration. Kaneshiro plays Ma Wing Jing, a young man who comes to Shanghai with his brother Tai Cheung (Yuen Wah) to escape the poverty of his village. He finds that life is no less hard in the city, working as coolie and being paid almost nothing. After saving the life of benevolent mobster Tam See in an ambush by his rival Yang Shuang (Yuen Tak), Ma Wing Jing is catapulted to the head of one of Tam’s nightclubs, where he falls in love with Kim (Jessica Hester Hsuan), a singer. But Yang Shuang is scheming with the local corrupt authorities to take full control on the town, and he may be getting help from the conniving Yam (Valerie Chow), Tam See’s former girlfriend.
Hero manages to be a heart-breaking melodrama and an impressive action film with comical interludes that don’t jar, and that’s something only the cream of the Hong Kong filmic crop manages to do. Corey Yuen shows that he has a real flair for the epic, with beautiful images of early-nineteenth century Shanghai, a very clear handling of Jeffrey Lau’s potentially confusing but powerful script, and some very enjoyable comic-book undertones. The action scenes are superb, which is hardly surprising from a film that features four members of the Yuen clan. Not only in the choreography impressive, but some of the wider action shots Corey Yuen works into his set pieces are actually visually gorgeous. From a jaw-dropping alleyway hatchett fight where Yuen Biao fights off dozens of adversaries, to a jaw-dropping final shootout that ends in a dementedly bloody face off between Yuen Biao and Yuen Tak, Hero contains some of the very best action to come out of Hong Kong, and that’s saying a lot.
But beyond the dazzling spectacle, there’s a very moving melodrama involving betrayals, repressed love, brotherly feuds, loyalty put to the test, the works. It is indeed overblown and nothing new, but it is carried out with such assurance and gusto that it is made fresh again. The cast is instrumental in the emotional pull of the film, with Takeshi Kaneshiro already at the time a worthy, charismatic star, and here he manages to make us care for the character even when he is acting like an arrogant prick. But the real star here is the eternally underrated Yuen Biao. Here he is simply electric a the mob boss with a heart of gold, in addition to displaying his usual impressive martial arts skills. His doomed love story with Valerie Chow’s character may be the most affecting part of the story, though not the most dwelt-upon, unfortunately. Chow is also a stand-out in the cast, superbly rendering a character that is all shades of gray, and a bonafide tragic figure. Then there’s Yuen Wah, another hugely underrated performer, here in a martial arts-free role, providing touching comic relief (along with Corey Yuen himself in a small role) without ever being annoying. The comical touch he adds to the film never jars, which is in a way the icing on the cake.
Long Story Short : Corey Yuen’s best film, and one of those hidden gems that should have raked some awards but didn’t. A combination of powerful melodrama, jaw-dropping action and welcome levity, with a superb cast headed by an impressive Yuen Biao, Hero is a fine demonstration of what makes Hong Kong cinema so special. ****1/2