Both films are directed and co-written by Chinese filmmaker Ziang Yimou. Wow, and both are fantastic. Hero is the most beautifully filmed movie I've seen since I saw another epic directed by fellow East Asian Ang Lee, who won the Oscar for best director for Brokeback Mountain. Hero is so much more than a martial arts action flick; Ziang deals with large themes of love, loyalty and violence versus pacifism. In fact, Hero creates the most convincing argument for spiritual awakening and peace that I've seen in any film.
The visuals, colors and symmetry of the film are shockingly good and communicate the director's vision for the story. The story itself is cut down to its bones, which results in a narrative arc that is not pulse-pounding -- the film is philosophically unmanipulative, which reminds me of Last Days, the Kurt Cobain story retold visually by Gus Van Sant.
All in all, the film's call is for spiritual awakening regarding violence. As is said in the film, "the principles of martial arts and calligraphy are the same." The telos of mastery in any art form is to accept the world as it is.
So I'm now a fan of Chinese martial arts film. The other one I watched was House of Flying Daggers. I don't know if I'm assuming something that isn't there regarding Chinese film, but again, with this film I like how the storytelling does the work instead of the storytelling manipulating the viewer. Flying Daggers is not as symmetrical or poetically colorful and obviously had a much smaller budget than Hero, yet its thematic force is just as ambitious -- it's more of a character piece with less stylized fight scenes. In both films, one of the most interesting thing is how characterization is so simplified that it really opens up the characters. It's all believable.
Flying Daggers, like Hero, has a love triangle plot. The snowy final scene, which communicates clearly the concept that real love can happen in moments instead of years, is also beautifully shot. Flying Daggers is an excellent tragedy. Its story does, however, lack the simple arc of Hero, although the counterintuitive story indirection is shared with the other film.
Both films give me an amazing sense of humanity's possibility for dignity. We live in a country where others die for someone else's whim; it's good to be reminded that human beings can have cathartic spirit, if we only dream without confusion.