Hero is collectivist, nationalistic eye candy.
If I had seen it before Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (or perhaps even just one small 15 minute section of it) this review would have been much more of an acclamation. Instead there were times last night when I thought I was watching some sort of over-the-top, politically-suspect spoof of Ang Lee's captivating film!
Compare for instance Zatoichi. Even at its most serious it was dead-pan drôle, and importantly, you knew that you were allowed to laugh, especially during the post-climactic jamborie. Takeshi's version of po-faced is implictly more animated than Jet Li's.
Hero in comparison has much of the style and sensibility of Italian opera, minus the jolly tunes. Revealingly, Zhang Yimou once directed Tosca with a cast of thousands in the Forbidden City. Here The army of Qin functions as a kind of chorus. Anyway, the result is that you're just not sure how seriously it wants to be taken. (Yet when Broken Sword gets skewered for the umpteenth time, I just couldn't stifle a snigger.)
It reminded me also of the floor shows I used to see in my youth in the Monte Carlo Sporting Club. No matter how many lithe, topless bodies paraded in front of you, the production designer never let you forget whose talent you were really paying to gawp at.
Part of the problem is that Zhang Yimou is less adept than Ang Lee at hiding the trickery of wires and computer animation. The balletic action sequences effectively peak in the chess house and thereafter become a bit of a chore. The first of the coloured love-triangle sequences (the red one) is also the most powerful. There really needed to be more of a build up.
The landscapes are relentlessly eye-catching, but as with much of the movie, someone has forgotten to apply the principle of less is more. (Again, Lee was comparatively sparing in his use of the poetry of location.) Less leaves, less arrows, less soldiers etc.
An ultimately rather disquieting feature of the film is that there are no real people; none of the bustling street scenes you nearly always witness in the historical martial arts genre. If you're not a name here, you're barely even a number -there's more than a hint of safety-in-vast-numbers Chinese nationalism in the sub-text.
Of course, with films like this subtitles give only the illusion of translation. The silent arias of this opera are sung to us in a mythological and symbolic lingo that most Westerners will at best only get the general gyst of. Yet for all the reservations expressed above, this makes for an experience that is predominantly fresh and invigorating. (Just imagine an all-American hero doing all the stuff Jet Li gets up to!)
The nested and colour-coded alternative plot strands could almost be a little art-house homage to Kieslowski and Kurosawa. (Luckily though this technique wasn't used much in Romantic Opera! Imagine sitting through four different versions of the Liebestod! The impact of tragedy is significantly blunted by the mere suggestion of alternative universes.)
Beautiful but somewhat inconsequential has been the critical consensus and although in the early sequences I was thinking to myself that they must have all been rather jaded at the time, by the end of the film I couldn't find that many reasons to disagree.