Let me preface things by confessing that I am a sucker for visual magnificence and artistic ambition. I'm even forgiving, sometimes, when these elements threaten to overtake cohesion in story. Now, "Hero" is a film of spellbinding imagination told through the poetic choreography of martial arts and ancient Chinese tradition. It is also the most expensive film in Chinese history made under the scrupulous direction of Yimou Zhang.
Like many ancient folk legends the story unfolds like Kurosawa's classic "Rashomon" through a series of flashbacks told by Nameless (Jet Li) who comes to the feared King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming), an emperor that aspires to bring all the warring kingdoms of China under one imperial rule through "soaking his plans in the blood of his enemies." Nameless has earned a rare personal visit with the king because he has been successful in killing three assassins that have sworn to murder the king for his tyranny. These assassins are Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen). You have to understand that Nameless is the fastest swordsman ever and these assassins in their supernatural abilities are still defeated – at least that's the story Nameless has for the king who begins to suspect – as much as we do – that there may be more that Nameless is not letting on to. Are his intentions only to collect his reward? Are the three assassins really dead? Is the king a madman drinking his cup of power with no morality or is he really a dictator compassionate to the common man but forced to make tough decisions for the higher good? As always, I'll let the film answer these and many other questions for you.
Truth be told, I was very impressed with the beauty of director Zhang's visual realisation. "Hero" is an accomplishment in production, technique and sound. It also possesses deep intelligence told through visual metaphors like the scene where Nameless and Broken Sword do battle over a lake, their actions mirroring their emotions and the camera panning over and underneath the watery mirror. I'm going to use the word breathtaking again. But for all its grandeur, I found the structure of the story to be disorienting – the fractured flashback-within-flashback approach sucked some of the emotional resonance a linear story would have provided. There have been films that have worked with this structure (not to make comparisons because they form different genres: "Usual Suspects," "Jackie Brown" and "Frailty") but "Hero" almost crumbles under the weight of conflicting storylines intertwined to make for several conclusions. With the complement of more time, I am sure the film would have received a higher rating from me. I am told there is a director's cut out there; without doubt, it would be worth our time to seek it out. - Adnan Khan