Man Called Hero, A
Hong Kong 1999
Directed by Andrew Lau.

It's the 1930's and Ekin Cheng stars as a swordsman fleeing the law who finds refuge in a famous hotel in New York's Chinatown.

Andrew Lau has made his career as a director bringing comic books to the big screen. Young & Dangerous, The Storm Riders, Legend of Speed, and A Man Called Hero all began as manga before making the transition to movie. All of them star Ekin Cheng, too, an actor who specializes in playing leading comic book characters. Which suits him perfectly, since his acting talent is not quite strong enough to make him appear like a real human being.

Pity poor Nic Tse, then, who had to start his acting career playing a young Ekin in Young & Dangerous - The Prequel, and now follows that up here as Ekin's son. In the shadow of Ekin Cheng -- is it any wonder Tse always covers his face with his hair?

A Man Called Hero is jam packed with stars. Ekin Cheng and Nic Tse are just the tip of the iceberg -- there's also Shu Qi, Kristy Yang, Mark Cheng, Sam Lee, Yuen Biao, Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Cheng's a who's who of Hong Kong cinema. But the man who really takes center stage is not one of the "A" list stars. He is everyone's favorite bald, veral, Category III sex-maniac -- Tsui Kam-Kong. His character is the pivot on which the story turns. He is an oft-neglected and stereotyped actor, and it is always a pleasure to see him in a good role.

When A Man Called Hero begins, our hero, named Hero Hua (Ekin Cheng) is given his family's sword and is accepted as a disciple of Master Pride (Anthony Wong). He seems to be happy, content to be with his girlfriend Jade (Kristy Yang) and their very own pathetic toady, Sheng (Jerry Lamb). But it is snowing in June -- a bad omen (Snow in June recalls the Chinese Opera, and the wrongful murder of a woman, who promises her body will be buried by the heavens to prove she is innocent. She dies, and snow falls, covering her body, though it is June). Sure enough, when Hero returns to his home, he finds his family has been cruelly murdered because of some criticism his father had written in the newspaper about the opium trade. His mother (Cheng Pei-Pei) lives long enough to tell him it was the white devil "Mr. Peter" (played, if I'm not mistaken, by film critic Paul Fonoroff), that ordered the deed. Hero wastes no time to avenge his family's murder.


"The reason I'm so successful is because I use Chinese to control Chinese. They're lapdogs!"


It is here that Hero first meets Bigot (Tsui Kam-Kong). Bigot is sitting with Mr. Peter, laughing over their deeds. Bigot steps out for a moment, and so stays alive when Hero extracts his revenge. Immediately afterwards, he must flee China, and hops on one of many coolie-smuggling ships heading to America, after saying goodbye to his girl and toady one last time.

This point also marks the last time in the film that the story is told from Hero Hua's point of view until the end. Although he is the hero of the film, the middle portion of the story is told from other points of view, so that we are put at a distance from Hero himself and he becomes more of a legendary figure than an actual one. A Man Called Hero is about Hero Hua, but it is more about the people whose lives are affected and change as a result of his actions.

Sixteen years later, Sheng brings Sword Hua, Hero's son, to America to try and find his father. They immediately go to China Hotel, in New York City's Chinatown. China Hotel has gone through a couple owners, all of whom honor the spirit of the hotel. It is a place of safety for Chinese immigrants, a welcoming place. They look after each other at China Hotel, and no one needs speak English for anything. Here at last we see another version of Chinatown, one from an immigrant perspective -- it is a place of safety and security and protection from the inhospitable outside world, which immediately intrudes on the safety of China Hotel in the form of a group of Caucasian guards, led by Bull (Jude Poyer). Bull demands that the hotel Boss (Yuen Biao) give up a monk who has retreated there for safety. But Boss would rather fight him than give up the monk. Everyone looks out for each other.

Once safely at the hotel, the story of Hero Hua unfolds as one by one different characters come forward to tell what they know. First there is Monk Luohon (Ken Lo), who arrived with Hero from China, and went to the same mine with him to work. Then Sheng tells of when he and Jade came to New York to find him, when she was with child. And finally the enigmatic Shadow (Deon Lam, but with Jordan Chan's voice), who never removes his mask, tells of how Hero helped him defeat a band of ninja who came to challenge their master Pride.

Throughout the stories, the China Hotel stands as a safe haven, a place where the Chinese help each other. But going against the Hotel is Bigot. After surviving Hero's original murdering of his white boss, Bigot goes to America on the same boat that Hero does, only he is selling the coolies, not stuck in the hold with them. On their arrival in New York, Hero and the Monk are sent on trucks to work in mines (it was quite common for Tongs to organize everything about an immigrants trip, from their shipping to their housing and employment, in advance). Bigot worked as an overseer at the mine, and punished shirkers with death. Later, when the ninja arrive, it is Bigot who tells them where Hero is, for a small fee, of course. "Use Chinese to control Chinese," the Japanese boast, must as the opium dealer boasted at the beginning. He is the ultimate collaborator, and audiences cannot help but recall those who helped the Japanese during the occupation. When Hero finally confronts him, he delivers the message most viewers most wanted to give, an explosive response to the type of traitor that Bigot so perfectly embodies.


"For this duel, I have blinded myself, I have killed my wife and children, so that I will be without distractions."


When Hero at last reappears in the present, it is as a sort of coda to the story as a whole. He must face a Japanese swordsman (Francis Ng), his master's enemy and leader of the ninja. They fight atop the Statue of Liberty in a CGI effects blow-out. The Statue is symbolic of our hero's quest in America, of Western "liberty," which he, like so many other immigrants, was not granted, and of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. The Japanese swordsman has killed everyone he loved and blinded himself to avoid distraction, to be the best fighter in the world. Hero, on the other hand, fights for his family and his friends. The Goddess embodies love and compassion. There is never any question who will triumph and who will be defeated.

A Man Called Hero is an epic, based on a complex comic series. Characters come and go and it is obvious to the casual viewer that many have a back story that is not revealed here. Many threads are open at the end, though it is doubtful a sequel will ever be made. And anyway, it is self contained enough to be a satisfying film without one.

Those looking for exact historical accuracy might do better to look elsewhere. But all in all, the film acquits itself exceptionally well. Taking place mostly in 1914 (Hero's arrival in America) and 1930 (Sword's arrival), both time periods pretty much looking the same. Hairstyles aside, I can't say I noticed any glaring anachronisms. Sure, if you want to split hairs, you may point out that the "I Want You!" Uncle Sam recruitment poster that Hero fights against the ninja under in or around 1914 wouldn't have been printed until 1917. But then, the Statue of Liberty wasn't cut apart by sword wielding martial artists, either, so what's the big deal? It's based on a comic book, after all. More important than trying to capture period details, A Man Called Hero tries to chart the forging of a nationalist identity among Chinese immigrants. Everything else is secondary.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 28, 2004.

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