I recently bought Hero or, to use its Mandarin name, Ying xiong on DVD. I had seen the movie in the theatre and was suitably impressed. Seeing it on DVD, I am still very impressed. If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was not enough, Hero should prove once and for all to Western audiences that not all swordfight/martial arts movies are simply a bunch of action sequences strung together.
Indeed, Hero is a very hard movie to describe. It is set in ancient China, when that empire was still made up of separate, warring kingdoms. The film makes use of a framing device in which a warrior approaches the king of Qin, the most powerful kingdom, with news that he has killed three deadly assassins who wanted to kill the king. Through this framing device,varying accounts much in the style of Rashomon are told of how the man called Nameless defeated the assassins. I must insert a word of warning that the summary I have just given does not do the movie justice to the movie. Hero is not simply a variation on Rashoman and there is a lot more going on than varying tales of how one man killed three of ancient China's deadliest assassins. Indeed, on first viewing I can safely say that most everyone will not know what Hero is about until the very end of the film.
Perhaps the film's strongest point is its cinematorgraphy. Chris Doyle does a marvelous job of capturing on film many places in China that had never been seen on film before. Indeed, the landscapes are incredible to see. He also does a great job of shooting the scenes involving vast numbers of extras (those involving the army of Qin and the king's guard), something a bit trickier than many people believe (just contrast Troy's cinematography with this movie).
The direction of Zhang Yimou is also impressive. He treats each story as its own little mini-movie, each one with its own colour scheme and textures. He imbues Hero with a psychological depth rarely seen in any film.
Hero also features some of the most incredible action scenes ever captured on film. Like most martial arts movies, the action scenes are stylised rather than realistic, yet at the same time they are like nothing one has ever seen before on film. Among the most impressive fight scenes is Maggie Cheung (Flying Snow) and Zhang Ziyi's (Moon) battle within a golden forrest (shot in Mongolia). Similarly impressive is the scene in which Tony Leung Chiu Wai ( Broken Sword) and Maggie Cheung storm the King of Qin's palace.
The film also benefits from some solid performances. As Nameless, Jet Li proves once and for all that he is not just a martial arts wizard, but that he can actually act. Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung are even more impressive in the more demanding roles of assassins Broken Sword and Flying Snow. Indeed, given that the personalities of Broken Sword and Flying Snow change from story to story, both would be difficult roles to perform.
If Hero has one weakness, it is its framing story. While I enjoyed it myself, I can see how others might find it a bit talky, even stodgy. Part of this is largely due to how these scenes are shot, almost with the point/counterpoint method of American Sunday morning news commentary shows. If a viewer enjoys intersting conversations regardless of how they are shot, then he or she probably will not mind the framing story. If not, he might find the framing story very dull.
At any rate, I do recommend Hero. If one has a high tolerance for the framing story, then he or she probably will enjoy the film. This is no ordinary martial arts movie, but a film with a good deal of depth and intelligence to it