Director Zhang Yimou (Operation Cougar, Red Sorghum) presents a story that delves into the very definition of what it is to be a hero. Hero takes place in a time when China consisted of a collection of seven warring kingdoms. The king of the western-most kingdom, Qin, is warring against the other six kingdoms, intent on uniting them as one kingdom and then making his bid for world domination. The most troublesome thorn in his side, however, is that he is under constant threat by assassins. Three, in particular, have threatened him so greatly that he can't sleep at night and never strays from a large, barren hall in the center of his palace, allowing no one to approach within three hundred feet of him.
These three assassins are known as Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk). These assassins have proven themselves to be quite capable of assassinating the King of Qin, as Broken Sword and Flying Snow actually made a successful attack on the castle, killing three thousand soldiers, besting the king, putting a small cut in his neck and escaping with their lives. It seems that Broken Sword saw something in the king and spared his life in the hope that he might fulfill his destiny and unite the warring factions as one land.
The central story in Hero follows a prefect known only as "Nameless" (Jet Li), who has eliminated the threat of these three renowned assassins, allowing the king to finally rest easy. Or, has he? The stories that are presented are different versions of the tales of the events that lead up to this pivotal meeting of prefect and king. Broken Sword and Falling Snow were widely known to be lovers, but did they have a falling out? Would they have a lovers' quarrel? Nameless was seen by the king's men besting Sky in a duel of amazing martial arts skill... but what is Nameless's greatest move? And, what possible importance could it be that a warrior who was able to best three assassins now sits within ten feet of the king, himself? That all depends on which stories you choose to believe... although the truths become revealed in time.
The story in Hero is a good one, although it can be confusing at times, with multiple, conflicting versions of the story being shown. The martial arts are very well choreographed, and are quite entertaining and the acting is well done, but the main reason to watch Hero over (and over) again is the cinematic magic of the visuals in this movie. The different stories that are told each have their own color. One scene may be all in blue, the next all in red. The colors are selected carefully and are used creatively to convey emotion, while helping to reinforce a fairytale quality that serves as a constant reminder that what is being observed is, in fact, a specific perspective on events, and as a retelling of the events is subject to inaccuracies, interpretations and, perhaps, outright deception.
In one scene, for example, two warriors are mourning the death of a woman; one was her lover, one was her killer. Neither warrior wants to hurt the other, but they are duty-bound to fight. This particular fight is a beautiful dance-like fight that takes place on the surface of (and above) a serene river with a mirror-like surface. The water is blue, the sky is blue, the warriors are dressed in blue - even the surrounding landscape has a blue tint. This is an amazingly beautiful scene and is, in fact, my favorite.
Another memorable fight takes place between two women dressed in red, among an orchard of yellow leaves and, when one woman strikes the other down, all of the yellow leaves turn blood-red.
Once scene that is quite novel is the fight between Nameless and Sky. This scene takes place in a Chess house and, much like chess masters think several moves ahead, our combatants play their entire fight out in their minds, as a blind musician plays a stringed instrument in the background. The film depicting the fight that takes place in their imaginations is in black and white - the colors of Chess pieces. This fight is actually a sort of "rematch" between Jet Li and Donnie Yen. They had fought on film before, in a movie named "Once Upon a Time in China II." Jet Li checked the forum on his website when casting was being done for Hero, and actually had the part of Sky recast as Donnie Yen to give his fans the rematch they wanted. This is revealed in an interview with Jet Li in the special features, but who the original choice had been was not mentioned.
In addition to the feature film, there are some interesting special features. Storyboards may not be for everyone and Soundtrack Spot is merely an advertisement for the soundtrack, but the Close-up of a Fight Scene and the "Hero Defined" Making-of Featurette were interesting and informative. Perhaps my favorite special feature is the interview, of sorts, between Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li. The most entertaining aspect, however, is watching just how excited Tarantino is to be speaking with Jet Li and to be involved in any fashion with a martial arts film. Perhaps it comes from being of the same generation as Tarantino, but I really enjoyed watching him geek-out in this featurette.
I would say the sheer beauty of the visuals of these scenes, alone, is worth the price of admission. The story is good, but takes a backseat, I would opine, to the stunning visuals throughout the movie. As for the aural aspect, swords clash and arrows whiz all around you in glorious surround sound. If you are looking for a movie to show off the richness of your home theater and you have a high-def setup, Hero on Blu-ray is definitely one to have standing by.