I just watched Hero on DVD. Although it was first released in 2002, was in competition at the Berlin Film Festival in 2003 (I was on the ecumenical jury there, and this is the one film that I missed because of scheduling), Hero only made it to US theaters in 2004.
The story is not difficult to follow. In ancient times, before China was united, an assassin, No Name (Jet Li) appears before the King of Qin (please check www.imdb.org for the names of the actors). We think at first that No Name is going to kill him; instead, No Name must explain how he got rid of the “competition” to assassinate the King, who is trying to unite the warring provinces of what would become China.
Through a series of flash backs No Name reveals his relationship with other assassins. The tale is told through encounters between them, centered on a calligraphy school. The relationships of the assassins are presented through encounters which are lush, choreographed ballets of martial arts.
What I liked best was the philosophy of the film. While it seems that it is all about fighting, it is really about peace. The King says at one point:
“It just dawned on me! This scroll of Broken Sword's isn't about sword technique but about swordsmanship's ultimate ideal. Swordsmanship's first achievement is the unity of man and sword. Once this unity is attained, even a blade of grass can be a weapon. The second achievement is when the sword exists in one's heart when absent from one's hand. One can strike an enemy at 100 paces, even with bare hands. Swordsmanship's ultimate achievement is the absence of the sword in both hand and heart. The swordsman is at peace with the rest of the world. He vows not to kill and to bring peace to mankind.”
The film’s truth is that the pen is mightier than the sword. But even beyond this idea is that communication is the path to peace and non-violent ways of resolving differences. The sword must dissolve into the calligraphy instument, that is, the heart, for there to be peace - not the other way around.
I thought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon handled the “flying” sequences better, or more smoothly, but Hero’s cinematography is stunning and it takes place in the light.