Hero was a hell of a movie. Shame the name was so inapt. I'm told that the original Chinese title was Broken Sword, after the character who in many ways is the moral centre of the film. I can't imagine why the American importers thought Hero was a better idea. For one thing, it's a terribly generic title. I swear I've seen a van Damme film of the same name - well, not seen, but noticed in passing on one of the lesser cable channels. For another, the term "hero" doesn't really cover any of the personages or actions in the film.
"Hero" means a lot of different things. There's the original Greek meaning, literally, a demi-god - a person who becomes divine by intervention of the gods or by his own extreme exertion. Hercules was an exemplar of this type of "hero". No children of gods in this film, although the various great warriors are near-godlike in their gravity-defying prowess. Call it an "eh".
Another meaning of hero covers the military angle - the soldier or warrior who performs great feats in battle. Well, OK, this is close to a description of the various assassins in this movie, but really, people rarely use "hero" to describe assassins.
A third meaning of hero is a rough synonym of "champion" - a protector of a land, or an ideal, or a group of innocents. The various warriors of Hero/Broken Sword are hunted assassins. There is one scene where they defend a calligraphy school from a storm of arrows, but they brought the attack down on the school by hiding there, drawing the threat themselves. The warriors are determined to avenge, not defend. This definition suits the movie least of all.
A fourth meaning of hero is an exemplar of courage, someone who is willing to sacrifice themselves for their ideals. This is probably the closest the movie comes to the proper textbook notion of heroism. In the end, the protagonist sacrifices himself for a new-learned principle. This is explicitly noted in the movie's postscript, although I don't know if that's something added by the American producers, or an original element of the film.
These days, I see all art in the prism of politics, or perhaps I should say, these days I find art to be the prism in which I see the day's politics. Hero/Broken Sword is clearly a work of Chinese nationalism. It built around the nation-founding legend of the First Emperor, and specifically the bloody, heart-rending conflicts before the founding. The First Emperor is a deeply ambivalent figure in Chinese myth. For every nationalistic happy-talk myth of probity and unity, there is another of cowardice, savagery, and iron-willed slaughterous tyranny. The First Emperor was a figure much like Alexander the Great - a megalomaniac and a genocide, but also a great leader and a nation-builder.
Where Alexander died early of dissipation and possibly poison, the First Emperor lived a long, determined life by protecting that life from accident and assassination. There are plenty of stories of his well-founded paranoia which provide the basis for Hero/Broken Sword's plot - that of a king locked securely behind walls, officials, thousands of guards, and a black-pillared, vast, empty hall, under constant threat from assassins and would-be regicides.
The assassins have good reason for their emities. The king has destroyed their country, and is in the process of subjugating the rest of China. For subjugation, read slaughter, destruction, and organized annihilation. The only glimpse the movie gives us of this merciless process is the assault against the calligraphy school, but it is an impressive scene. Tens of thousands of black-armored soldiers in regimented, endless lines assemble before the school on an empty, windswept desert plain, and mass bowmen, crossbowmen, and siege machines in a vast array of mechanized death. As a single entity, the army flings great swarms of black arrows into the sky, which rains down on the school like Hamlet's "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". This single, extended scene has more gravity, tension, and terror in it than in the entirety of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The structure of the film is roughly like that of Rashomon - repeated flashbacks to action from a single scene in the film present. The recounted events are tinted by color-schemes denoting the different threads - red for lies, blue for hypothetical suppositions, green for doubled flashbacks, and black or white for the undyed truth. The movie is at the same time less lyrical than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and more aesthetically oriented. It's impossible to not compare the two movies, for they are achievements of similar scale and ambition. While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a Daoist movie of individualism and spirituality, Hero/Broken Sword is a nationalist movie of idealism and political morality. Both take a dream-like view of action and violence, but where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a fantastical dream-ballet , Hero/Broken Sword is a swirling, animate painting in primary colors and imagery.
This is a movie which has to be seen. It demands attention.