Yimou Zhang is a Chinese filmmaker of such high caliber that some have compared him to Japan's Akira Kurosawa. His sense of the scope, the complexity, and just the overall artistry of cinema is on a plane so high that there are only a handful of living and working directors anywhere in the world who can share the plateau with him. Zhang's movies are inimitable; they can be recognized almost from the first frame. His bold color management is the envy of all filmmakers, a point which I'd venture to say even Kurosawa would agree, if the master were alive today. Some might argue that, unlike Kurosawa's old-fashioned filmmaking, "Hero" got help from computer graphics, but due credit must be given to Zhang who is the undisputed designer of the look of all his movies.
As someone who is sympathetic to Tibet and Taiwan independence movements, I resisted seeing this 2002 movie because I had heard about the so-called "hidden" theme of "Hero" which, as some have interpreted, implies that tyranny has a "positive" side, namely, it does serve to unite a vast kingdom, thereby creating a "stable" nation. Now, after having seen this movie, I might say a thing or two in defense of Yimou Zhang, the artist, not Yimou Zhang, the "propagandist for Communist China" as he has been accused of by his detractors who are mostly from the outside of the film community.
The story of "Hero" is so complex that even I, a native speaker of Mandarin, had to pause the DVD more than a few times to get it right. Simplistically put, "Hero" is about an assassin who has prepared all his life to kill a tyrant only to find himself unable to pull the trigger, so to speak. I suspect Yimou Zhang was smart enough to predict that the loaded political "sub-message" might irk some people and therefore set out to play mind games with his audience. Mr. Zhang grew up in a system where draconian censorship is the norm, so it is likely he has learned to say things in many ways to cover himself, and in this movie, I think he meant to express, among other points, that the assassination of a tyrant is not necessarily the best way to end a tyranny. In the boisterous post-Iraq-war debate, some pundits have argued that this whole Iraq debacle could have been avoided by a well-trained assassin strategically placed ten feet away from Saddam Hussein. Yimou Zhang, the movie director, puts forth another theorem: "An even worse catastrophe could happen after the tyrant is done with." He could be right; although one hypothesis is no better than another, because none will be proven.