Hero finally arrives in the States two years after its original release, and it's worth the wait. A gorgeous epic that manages to take care of business in less than two hours, Hero is every bit as beautiful as you've heard, and if you've seen the arrows flying through the air in the previews, the full version of those arrows is even better than you hope.
The plot seemed a bit confusing to us at first, and as we left the theatre, everyone in turn said "very pretty, not sure what it was about." Everyone, that is, except Robin, who broke down the themes in a succinct fashion. Once she stated it so plainly, I realized I, too, had understood what the movie was trying to say, but I resisted the message because I liked how it looked. To explain without too many spoilers, Hero takes place when China is split into several warring provinces. A brutal king of one province attempts to achieve his goal of uniting all of China under a common banner, no matter the cost. To the extent he succeeds, and to the extent the film shares his vision, Hero is a model of fascist ideology: the individual matters less than the community, efficiency is paramount, a strong leader is needed to mold the people into a cohesive whole.
The fine Salon critic Charles Taylor complains that "the anti-'Hero' arguments don't take into account that the film ends not in a surge of patriotic feeling but on a pronounced mournful note of contingency and skepticism. And they ignore how the movie forces the King to live up to the ideology he so glibly spouts about sacrificing the happiness of the individual for the good of all. In our final glimpse of the King, the man has been dwarfed by the trappings of his power." All of which may be true, but none of which deflects the possibility that the movie is ultimately on the side of nationalistic ideology. And when Taylor notes that the "real shame of the political quibbling that has taken part in some quarters over 'Hero' is that those arguments have nothing to do with how enjoyable the film is," he is correct to foreground the beauty of the movie, but, I think, wrong in claiming that it has nothing to do with our enjoyment of the film. Or rather, the film is extremely enjoyable UNTIL we think about the ideology, at which point some of that enjoyment may take a back seat to other concerns.
And I don't suppose they should, because Hero really is a feast. The cast is a dream for HK fans: Jet Li, always better when he's not trying to speak English; Donnie Yen, who has a small part but who allows Li to engage in one extended fight sequence that is astounding; the incomparable Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung; and Zhang Ziyi, who for my money hasn't quite moved beyond adorable yet but who is getting there. And, honest, those damn arrows are really something. Hero may not be the best movie these stars have made (those would include Hard-Boiled for Leung, In the Mood for Love with Leung and Cheung, Iron Monkey for Yen, Crouching Tiger for Ziyi)), but it's close enough to count.