I can imagine Zhang frothing at the mouth after seeing Crouching Tiger: "Dammit, I'm gonna show that Ang Lee tosser he's not the only arthouse dude who can make a chop-socky flick!" Er, well, perhaps not, but the echoes are definitely there - literally, since Zhang used Tan Dun to write his score too. So CTHD definitely wins for originality; time for them to go head-to-head elsewhere:
Plot: Hero gets the edge. Nameless (Li - yes, that's what he's called) has killed the three assassins who've been making the king's life a misery. Or has he? The film rotates through multiple, endlessly fascinating versions of "the truth", and I also wonder if there's interesting political allegory here too.
Characters: Score one for CTHD. It's never explained why the assassins are after the king, and Li falls well short of Chow Yun-Fat's dramatic ability and presence, which helped make its predecessor such an all-round engaging experience. It's also very hard to say who is the hero, although this may be the point.
Photography: Christopher Doyle makes Hero one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. The colours, landscapes and framing are stunning, if occasionally somewhat distracting - I missed one major plot point entirely, and suspect I was suffering from the cinematographic version of "shock and awe".
Action: Call it a tie. When a film has Zhang Zi-Yi and Donnie Yen in supporting roles, you know it'll be fine. However, as in CTHD, the pacing is off; here, the best comes first, reprising OUaTiC2's duel between Li and Yen. The attack of a billion arrows is also great, but there's nothing quite as cool as the Yeoh/Zhang battle.
Hero is up for Best Foreign Film Oscar tonight; its chances likely hinge on the memory spans of Academy members (CTHD having won in 2001). Overall, your preference may be for whichever you saw first; for most, including us, that'd be Dragon, and we have to give it the nod. Even on its own terms though, Hero still demands to be seen on the big screen - something currently scheduled in the United States for November 2003. The queue starts here.