Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
A long time ago, say... umm... long damn time ago, there was no China. There were instead a bunch of smaller kingdoms. The king of one, Qin, decided to unify the smaller lands into one whole. This didn't sit terribly well with the residents of the second-largest country in the neighborhood (I think it was Zhao). Some people there decided that king had to go.
"Hero" is a high budget, high-concept Kung-Fu movie. The film is "presented", presumably to the West, by "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown" director Quentin Tarantino. Other than this curlicue this is very much a Chinese movie. The principals are mostly known to only to Kung Fu movie fans and devotees of Chinese cinema. The "Hero" of the title, he's credited as "Nameless", is played by Jet Li who has been in a few Hollywood productions but is mostly known to Kung Fu movie fans. The three assassins he pursues for the king of Qin are Maggie Cheung as Flying Snow, Kung Fu movie titan Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Broken Sword and Donnie Yen as Sky. "Crouching Tiger's" Ziyi Zhang plays Broken Sword's apprentice Moon. The movie is directed by Yimou Zhang who is better known for more "serious" Chinese cinema.
This is very much a Chinese movie. There are zero concessions to the US/Western market, starting with the language. When you start the movie make sure your DVD player has the sub-title functionality activated (unless you speak whichever flavor of Chinese this is). The film is set in a mythical, lyrical fairy tale proto-China where martial arts experts fly through the air with ease and fight each other with great elegance and style. This is in no way a "Holy Grail" style "gritty" look at the past. Every scene, indeed every shot of "Hero" has been composed with exquisite care. Particular care has been lavished on colors.
This movie is rather similar in structure to Kurosawa's "Rashomon". The story is told three times with different points of view. Each time the point of view changes so does the color scheme. The technology that computer-driven color correction allows is fully exploited here (unless I miss my guess). The colors in the critical scenes are lush and evocative. The scene where Falling Snow and Moon fight in a flurry of golden leaves is especially noteworthy as is another fight scene set in a chess house early in the movie between Nameless and Sky. The fight work is also excellent, even if the "Matrix" style wire work and CG gimmickry is rather past its sell-by date these days. The effects and stunt work is also excellent.
You shouldn't think that "Hero" is a Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan style high-energy/low-brow fight-fest. The story is thoughtful, poignant and suspenseful. The acting is excellent even filtered through the language barrier. One could (and I probably will) carp about some details but direction and camera work is strong throughout.
OK, I'll carp now, if you insist. Sometimes this movie is a bit on the stagy side, the big fight in the chess house, cool as it clearly is, sometimes looks for all the world like a live action rendition of "Mortal Combat". The convoluted method of telling the story can confuse the viewer. The lack of historical and cultural context which most American viewers will approach "Hero" with will also lead to confusion. One more thing. How does one put this without sounding like the classic Ugly American...? I... had a hard time sometimes telling Maggie Cheung and Ziyi Zhang apart. This isn't one of those horrid "all you Chinamen look alike" things. Cheung and Zhang do look alike, similar height, almost identical hair style and color and similar facial bone structure. They are also generally wearing functionally identical costumes. This was probably the most confusing aspect of "Hero" for me.
The DVD version comes with two extra features features. The first is a decent "making-of" feature and the second is an MTV-style, ADD-riddled interview of Jet Li by Tarantino. Some Storyboards too. Parents and others with sensitive dispositions should be aware that this is a Kung Fu movie and therefore contains a fair bit of violence. This is violence of the bloodless sort, though. There is also one tame sex scene.
For all of that "Hero" is an excellent film. Viewers who don't have a problem with sub-titled movies will enjoy it. There is plenty of action to keep Kung Fu movie fans happy and enough of the other stuff to keep the rest of you interested and intrigued.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12