In 2000, Ang Lee revitalized a genre with his beautifully composed film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Though films like Once Upon a Time in China had kept the sect of historical martial arts epics alive through the '90s, it was the renown that Lee's film received that brought the spotlight back on its majesty. Two years later (four years for us in the United States), we're given Zhang Yimou's Hero (Yīng Xióng), a film that's exciting and beautiful in equal measures. It's in the film's composition as a piece of art in motion that has transformed it into an enduring piece of work, taking its potency away from the drama that fueled both Ang Lee's film and Zhang Yimou's later pictures (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower) and filling it with direct artistry. The result is breathtaking, transforming Hero into a simple yet effective story of heroism crammed full of beautiful choreography and dazzling visual delights.
Images from Miramax's 2004 DVD
Set during the period directly before the Qin Dynasty where states were at war for dominance, the plot revolves around a nameless prefect (Jet Li) who has arrived to garner an audience with the King of Qin (Daoming Chen), a warrior leader known for his violent conquests in an effort to unite China. The king stays in his battle armor and sleeps in the main hall of his stronghold in fear of assassination, all following an attempt on his life. With the weapons of three known threats to the king in tow -- the spear of Sky (Donnie Yen) and the blades of Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) -- Nameless arrives in his hall and tells the king the stories behind the defeats of three highly-skilled assassins.
As he tells these stories of deceit and plotting, we're treated to bold colors slowly beginning to ink into the picture by way of Christopher Doyle's mesmeric cinematography. Zhang Yimou uses multiple palettes to shift and alter the mood as he deems fit, drenching scenes in red to evoke passion, green to reflect freshness, and white to dial into truth. His narrative mirrors that of a color-infused spin on Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, navigating through several renderings of the same story being told with different voices -- voices of zeal, romance, skepticism, and bleakness, all of which carry their own truths and fallacies. And they're all a sight to see as they reveal bits and pieces about the characters through each yarn spun, all performed excellently by a smorgasbord of perfectly-pitched talent -- from Jet Li's stoic projection as Nameless to Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung's great chemistry as Broken Sword and Flying Snow.
Though director Zhang handles these palettes in bold, oftentimes blunt fashion with crisp blues and glaring shades of ivory white approaching absurd levels of emotive communication, they all tie into the filmic tapestry in a way that makes the sledgehammer-worthy imagery enchanting to behold. Incredibly beautiful images fall into our vision, like two red-draped warriors fighting amid a sea of yellowing leaves and the sight of green drapery falling from a ceiling. Whether he wanted each movement to mean something or not becomes inconsequential, as the meaningfulness behind Hero becomes growingly more organic for each viewer. Colors and imagery can either be a focal observation, or merely a striking kaleidoscope to fill the background during an enthralling martial arts epic.
Zhang Yimou ties Tony Ching Siu-Tun's exhilarating choreography within each of these handsomely-drawn stories, which persistently, yet gracefully, grapple onto the purpose behind the film. Frivolous fights aren't cooked up just so icons Donnie Yen and Jet Li can square off, or for the purpose of witnessing stars Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung from In the Mood for Love cross swords -- which, amusingly, they carry a similar distance between them here to that of their star-crossed married types in Wong Kar-wai's film. Instead, this martial arts choreography streams together with Hero's valor-fueled story to an expressively moving degree, letting raw feeling fluidly control their battles. It even manages to capture wuxia (wire fighting) in a way that feels both whimsical and welcome, a difficult blend to hit. Among the five central stars -- including Zhang Ziyi in an impressive turn as Moon, Broken Sword's disciple -- almost every actor matches with one another, and none of it feels artificial or tacked on.
One recurring theme flows through Hero that I absolutely love: the universality of artistry. Though we're taken through a story of tyrannical pain and the benefits of his removal from his throne, a stream of skillful imagination persistently stays with the picture that latches onto a respect for intelligence and the arts. We see the connections between swordplay and calligraphy, weiqi (the Othello-style game referred to as "chess" in the film, also known as Go), and even the respect to musical rhythm. It humanizes the characters and, amazingly, creates a bridge between the king and his enemies through his respect for the arts.
That's one thing that you'll slowly begin to see about Hero: though it's largely about struggles between good and evil, it's also about the state of mankind in ancient China attempting to obtain harmony in drastically dissimilar ways. Though it's best to look at it through a poet's pair of glasses and soak it in as a piece of emotion-driven physical art, like a combination between a ballet and a painting being brushed before our eyes, there's also a purposeful aside about diligence in the eyes of oppression. Zhang Yimou's film thrives as a lyrical tragedy because of it, becoming gorgeous and entrancing on top and rather stirring underneath. As both an entertainment and as a visual symbol chock full of magnificence, it stands among the very best that martial arts can offer.
Hero comes presented from Miramax in a two-disc presentation, sporting artwork on the outside that mirrors that of the 2004 Special Edition with an embossed / matte slipcover covering the case. The discart has a similar appearance to that of other Miramax Blu-ray discs, while the inlay artwork showcases production stills from the film -- which looks very classy. Disc Two is a gold-topped Digital Copy disc, with a passcode printed on an insert included with the package. Note that this is the 99-minute Theatrical Cut, considered the "superior" version of the film rather than the Extended Cut available in some multi-region import circles.
Video and Audio:
Expectations for this Blu-ray release of Hero should be dimmed a bit, as it's not going to offer the mind-blowing experience in the fashion that you'd probably like. Presented from Miramax in a 2.35:1 AVC encode, the beauty of Christopher Doyle's cinematography and Zhang Yimou's cinematic artistry are both preserved brilliantly -- but not quite to the pinnacle of high-definition excellence. Naturally, shots composed from the same eye that capture Wong Kar-wai's body of work will be beautiful, which echoes through in Hero. Blasts of color, heavily frequent in this film, offer an array of solid, crisp tones, while the full range of palatable shades, from fiery reds and cold blues to fresh, innocent greens, maintain their mood exceptionally well. The coloring is handled with robust mindfulness for natural shades, though some of the coloring seem overzealous and a bit on the rich side when compared to production photos and the previous DVD.
However, problems with fine detail, contrast elements, and a level of fairly heavy grain take the transfer down a few pegs, though only causing a slight tumble in quality. Some of the light-drenched elements bloom more than they should, while minor details get lost in darker shades against clothing. That's not to say some of the detail isn't striking, which it certainly is; many of the close-ups on Jet Li's face during his conversation with the emperor are impressive, along with several other densely detailed sequences -- each of the scroll room scenes, no matter the color, the sublime autumn leaf battle, and the red-drenched brush painting class to name a few -- that showcase a significant leap in detail. In other instances, the transfer feels a little on the flat, static side, like during the non-closeup color elements in the battle between Nameless and Sky. Now, those are nit-picky criticisms, and it should be taken into account that the beauty of Hero's visual poetry is splendidly retained. It's just not as strong as hoped.
Along the same lines, some excitement over the audio presentation for this title will need to be muted a bit. Though Miramax's Blu-ray does carry a DTS HD Master Audio track, this option is only for the English DUB. In the film's native Mandarin language, we've only got a 640 kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 legacy track. Since Miramax's DVD presentation offers a rather exemplary DTS track, this move is quite a shame and could, in effect, be considered a sound "downgrade". In a side-by-side comparison, the DTS track exhibited a level of crispness in aural elements -- namely the flow of arrows, water drops, and the swiping of fabric -- that bests the Dolby Digital sound option. The previous track nails down a level of gracefulness that oversteps this one, though only by a margin. Why they neglected even this standard DTS Track in the original language is nothing short of strange, since they could've just blown the dust off the original and tossed it onto the disc.
With that said, it's worth noting that Hero's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is no slouch. Though "superiority" can be discerned between it and the DTS option, both are very potent with crisp high-level effects, robust lower-frequency points, and very pleasantly rendered vocal levels. A few points show off a little high-level distortion, such as the scene featuring Flying Snow and Nameless' defense of the arrow attack on the calligraphy school, but they mostly hold a distortion-free and classy level of clarity. Sound persistently comes from each of the channels, filling the rear with the swiping of blades, echoing of voices in the emperor's hall, and the flying of arrows. However, when compared to (non-voiced) elements in the English Master Audio track, it's clear that you can hear what could've been in similar scenes -- a noticeable step above the standard-definition disc's DTS track. Yes, it's a real shame that a lossless option wasn't slapped onto this disc in the original Mandarin language, as we've heard on Zhang's House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower in uncompressed PCM, but you won't be left in the cold with this standard Dolby function. Audio and subtitle options are also available in French and Spanish, along with an English Descriptive track.
In regards to the subtitles, they appear to be the same translation as made available on Miramax's previous DVD. If you own that disc, you'll remember the gaudy yellow text that accompanied the track. That has been rectified, as a crisp, white font has taken its place on the bottom of the film's image (just above the black bar, completely in the negative). Any grievances over the translation will not be rectified with this new set of subtitles, though they're grammatically strong and, thankfully, steer away from the DUB's script.
Close-Up of a Fight Scene (9:19, SD MPEG-2):
As the only new special feature in this Special Edition package (not in high-definition), this featurette covers the assembly of several of the fights in the film (Chess Court / Autumn Leafs / Lake Battle). It showcases the fans' desire to see Donnie Yen and Jet Li work together again, about the extension of weapons as a part of your body (Jimi Hendrix, anyone?), and about focusing on how acting ability comes into play during these match-ups. Some really cool anecdotes come out of this featurette, like Zhang's daily monitoring of leaves to see them change a certain color for shooting. All the actors involved are interviewed (Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai) while behind-the-scenes footage shows some of the raw footage. And yes, Tarantino gets in the mix quite often.
Hero Defined (24:02, SD MPEG-2):
Acting as a generic assembly feature, Hero Defined does a fine job of covering all basis. It features interviews with director Zhang Yimou that discuss his passion behind constructing a martial arts film, along with a slew of interviews with the rest of the cast / crew. From scoring the film, Doyle's visual composition, and each and every other element, you'll be surprised at how nicely it covers the build of the film.
Inside the Action: Tarantino/Jet Li Interview (13:56, SD MPEG-2):
Quentin Tarantino interviews Jet Li in a very marketing-savvy piece of fluff. It's not a bad conversation as showcasing Tarantino's passion for the genre, while some full-frame footage from Fong Sai Yuk and Fist of Legend find their way into the piece -- along with commentary from both guys. Some behind-the-scenes footage from Hero also makes its way into the mix, coming across much clearer than in Hero Defined.
Also included are the collections of Storyboard comparison shots from the standard-definition DVD, presented in exactly the same fashion, as well as the Soundtrack Spot (0:39, SD MPEG-2) that also finds its way onto the disc. Also, this disc has been given the D-BOX treatment for those with chair-rumbling ability.
Hero resonates on many different levels, ranging from entrancing martial arts choreography to striking visual symbolism through distinct art design. It's in the final product -- a beautiful piece of visceral cinematic artwork -- that Zhang Yimou has created martial arts masterwork, and all of its components clash together into 100 minutes of stunning visual filmmaking. Though you're likely to find films of its type with more extensive, harder-hitting action and epic films with more tailored theatrics, it's difficult to find one that marries them together into something that brings it all together with this much overwhelming potency.
Miramax's Blu-ray comes Recommended, largely based on the quality of the film and the merely satisfactory presentation. The lack of a lossless Mandarin track is less than encouraging, while the addition of little more than ten minutes of extra material adds to the disappointment. Still, it presents a gorgeous film well enough until an import arrives with English subtitles. If just a few extra measures would have been taken towards completing the package, this would have skyrocketed up there as a personal favorite Blu-ray. Alas, the fan in me can only give a reserved recommendation, though the itch to urge someone to own a more attractive visual presentation of this film is rather strong.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site