Since "Hero" bears certain similarities to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," I couldn't help comparing my own reaction to the two movies. I enjoyed "Crouching Tiger," but I personally found "Hero" to be much more engaging, both emotionally and intellectually.
There are martial arts sequences in "Hero," but its overarching sensibility is the visual poetry of director Zhang Yimou. He is perhaps best known to cinema buffs for his exquisite 1991 movie "Raise the Red Lantern," which I found absorbing. I also think it's interesting that Zhang's accomplishments include directing an acclaimed production of Puccini's opera "Turandot" at the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The stars of "Hero" are Chinese actors who have become familiar to many Westerners over the last several years. The title character is portrayed by Jet Li, and Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play major roles. Appearing in supporting parts are Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi. I particularly liked the performances of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung as a longtime devoted couple whose relationship eventually comes up against irreconcilable political differences.
The film takes place during the turbulent Warring States Period when China was ruled by regional warlords. More specifically, the movie is set in the third century B.C. when the state of Qin has become the most powerful of the regional governments, and the ruthless king of Qin has designs on ruling all of China. The film's plot centers around assassins from the state of Zhao who are out to kill the king of Qin.
I believe the nonlinear narrative structure of "Hero" is one of the main reasons the movie is so enthralling. We are first shown a tale by the protagonist (Jet Li) as he tells the king of Qin how he slew three assassins (Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yee) from Zhao. But the king accuses the protagonist of lying about important details, and we are shown the king's best guess as to what might have happened. However, the king's speculations are not entirely correct either. Then finally, we are shown what actually took place, and at last we fully grasp what is really going on. It seems to me that in terms of narrative, "Hero" can be described as a political thriller.
The movie contains a number of martial-arts sequences, and none of them seemed overly long to me, as has been the case in other films I've seen. The action sequences are well integrated into the story, and they are not overly violent, justifying the movie's rating of PG-13.
The use of color in "Hero" is stunning, and I was very impressed with the sets and costumes. There are also some glorious locations, including a desert, a forest and a lake near mountains. I liked the music as well, which features the Japanese drumming group Kodo and Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman.
The grand theme of the film is, I think, the heroism of individuals who willingly sacrifice themselves for a cause. In the movie that cause is the transformation some 2200 years ago of a bunch of separate states into a unified China. But I have to wonder: is the film intended to have modern-day implications for Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan?The DVD contains a few extras, and my favorite is the 14-minute "Inside the Action: A Conversation With Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li." This is a 2004 made-for-TV English-language featurette in which Tarantino asks Li a few questions. There are also several clips from Jet Li films.
Another extra on the DVD is "Hero Defined," a 24-minute making-of documentary made in 2002. This is a fairly standard making-of that includes interviews with the "Hero" cast and crew. Despite the off-putting Announcer Man voice-over narration, I found this documentary worth watching.
Below I've listed all the details for the "Hero" DVD.
Release Date: November 30, 2004
Widescreen (2.35:1), Color
Feature Film Run Time: 1 Hour 39 Minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Stylized Martial Arts Violence and a Scene of Sensuality
Mandarin DTS 5.1
Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
English Captions for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Hero Defined (24 min.)
Storyboards (5 min. 24 sec.)
Conversation With Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li (14 min.)
Soundtrack Spot (40 sec.)