I've said it before and I'll say it again: when a film is good enough – not just garden-variety "good," but stunning, amazing, incredible – it's extremely difficult to review. Where can I get a handle on a film like Hero?
I'll start by giving the barest outline of the story. In ancient China, a nameless warrior (Jet Li) comes to the king of Qin claiming an incredible accomplishment: he has killed the assassins Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow, who have threatened the king's life for years. The king, naturally enough, is curious to know how Nameless managed to take the life of these outstanding warriors.
And thus the tale unfolds... but not the way we expect. I can't go into detail without spoiling the story, but I'll just say this: the storytelling in Hero doesn't follow a conventional structure. For one thing, recall that we start out hearing one character tell a story to another. Can we fully trust the narrator? Is what we see really what happened? The flashback sequences are so compelling that we're fully drawn in, only to be pulled back to the present moment and asked to reflect on what we've just experienced. And there are surprises in store as well...
From the very first scene of the film, it's obvious that Hero is a visually stunning film, in a way that goes beyond gorgeous landscapes, lavish sets, or elaborate costumes. (In fact, Hero's costuming and sets, while obviously of the highest quality, tend toward the minimalistic in style.) The beauty in Hero is everywhere, not just in what we see but in the way that the cinematography shows it to us. Every frame of Hero could be a painting, if taken out of the film and shown on its own. There's not an ordinary or bland shot in the entire film; every second of every scene is visually compelling.
That attention to visual style has some interesting consequences for the movie as a whole... or perhaps it's that the unconventional narrative of the film demanded an interesting presentation. In any case, Hero is a highly stylized film. While the characters are truly three-dimensional, fully realized characters, whom we come to care about even though we know very little about them, they operate in a story world that is far from ordinary or conventional. While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon embedded stylized elements in a largely realistic setting, Hero fully embraces the heightened effect that can come from an almost completely stylized treatment of the material. (The comparison with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is inevitable, but it's not one that Hero needs to shy away from: while I think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an excellent film, Hero is better on all counts.)
One result of Hero's visual and narrative style is that the fight sequences have a very different feel to them than we'd expect from a traditional "action" film. The battles are almost completely bloodless – we only see blood in certain very dramatic shots – and are more akin to ballet than any form of combat. The martial arts scenes in Hero explicitly invite us to watch them as art, the exhibition of physical skill and reflexes taken to a level where it becomes poetry in motion, a test of the mind as much as the body. The incorporation of wire-fu moves adds a level of fantasy to these scenes that matches perfectly the stylized, slightly fantastic feel of the film as a whole.
So Hero is a delight both in its narrative and in its visual style... but that's not the end of it. More than that, Hero invites us to consider some very interesting ideas, from a perspective that we (as U.S. viewers) aren't often asked to take. We're accustomed to the Hollywood system of values, in which individualism is celebrated, tyrants are always toppled, and revenge for wrongs done is both well-deserved and thoroughly satisfying. Hero seduces us into a story that seems to follow those well-worn story tracks: we have an imperialistic warlord who needs to be dispatched, and we meet impassioned, highly talented individuals who want nothing more than to get revenge on the man whose armies invaded their land and killed their families. Staple action fare, right?
Wrong... delightfully wrong. The genius of Hero is that it presents a plausible storyline, then flips everything around to confound your expectations... and then does it again. By the end of the film, we witness the characters making decisions that force us to confront our own preconceived ideas about what's right and wrong, and when a lesser evil is (or is not) necessary in the pursuit of a greater goal.
You've probably concluded (quite accurately) that I think this is a fantastic film. The only thing I don't like about this release is Quentin Tarantino's name on the packaging. Don't get me wrong: Tarantino is a talented filmmaker and I'm sure his patronage of the film will cause it to sell more copies, which is a good thing. But viewers who go by nothing more than the packaging on Hero may come into the film expecting it to be an "action" movie, and it most emphatically is not.
Got that? Hero is not an action movie. Not even close.
Hero is a movie that defies an easy genre classification, shrugging off conventional limitations about what an "action," "drama," "martial arts," or "historical" film should or shouldn't be. Does it have fight scenes? Yes, but the stylized, often slow-motion, dreamy, dance-like fight scenes in Hero have only a passing resemblance to the kind of adrenaline-boosting kung-fu action that appears in blockbusters like The Matrix. It's no accident that within the film, the characters compare swordfighting with music and calligraphy. If you come in looking for a testosterone-powered action fix, you'll miss out on what Hero really has to offer. The film unfolds smoothly and steadily, always unhurried, but at the same time it sucks you in and doesn't ever let you go.
Miramax's presentation of Hero is the original, 99-minute theatrical cut of the film; a slightly longer "director's cut" was previously released in Asia. I've seen both versions, and I'll give the nod to the theatrical version. The ten extra minutes in the director's cut just add snippets of additional material to existing scenes, with nothing that adds any particular insight or new level of meaning to the film. While I was watching the theatrical version, I didn't miss any of the extra footage in the slightest, even though the director's cut is the version I saw first. The theatrical cut is a perfect example of "less is more": it is exactly as long as it needs to be, and not so much as a frame longer.
Viewers who already own a R0 or R3 version of the film may be wondering whether it's worthwhile to replace their copy with this new R1 release. If for no other reason, I'd say it's worth upgrading to get a version of the film with the opening and closing text in English. While this narrative frame isn't absolutely required to understand the film, it does provide some context that's quite useful in appreciating the story, and it's one more thing that helps make the whole viewing experience compelling from beginning to end.
Hero is attractively packaged in a plastic keepcase, although it has a rather pointless cardboard slipcase that fits over the case. All the same information appears on both the cardboard case and the DVD case, so it's just a waste of packaging. The menus are attractive, clear, and very easy to navigate, and there's a stylish opening animation, if you like that sort of thing (but it's skippable, if you don't).
Miramax's transfer of Hero looks superb. It's presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced. The film's stylized color palette is faithfully reproduced here, with the rich red, blue, and green dominant tones presented in a visually arresting manner. Blacks are deep and dark, while still showing detail, and whites are crisp and subtly textured. The print is in pristine condition, with no flaws as far as I could see; the image is sharp and nicely detailed, with close-ups in particular looking stunning. The film is full of challenging shots with broad expanses of single colors, an environment that's unforgiving of the smallest amount of noise, so it's fantastic to see the clean, flawless picture here. The only thing between this transfer and perfection is a small amount of grain in a few of the shots, and the occasional touch of edge enhancement. Hero is a visual treat, as it should be.
The English subtitles are optional, and appear in a nicely readable yellow font at the bottom of the picture. Spanish subtitles and English closed captions are also available, and all the caption choices can be selected on the fly.
Hero's DTS 5.1 Mandarin Chinese track will blow you away. The sound design, coupled with the outstanding quality of the audio transfer, makes for a simply stunning audio experience. For one thing, the surround channels are aggressively used, with phenomenal use of directional effects as well as immersive audio effects. Whatever action is happening on-screen, we feel like we're smack in the middle of it.
The sound is also impressive in its clarity and richness. The voiceover narrator is always crisp and distinct, and the actors' voices sound perfectly natural and are well integrated into the overall soundtrack; the lovely musical score is evident enough to be appreciated, but never intrudes or interferes with any of the other elements of the soundtrack. On one occasion in the film, all action stops for a long moment of total silence, and once again we hear how perfect the soundtrack is, because the silence is truly total: there's not so much as a whisper or hiss in the background. The DTS track is not the default setting (the Chinese 5.1 is), but you can select the DTS either from the audio menu or on the fly.
The Mandarin Chinese Dolby 5.1 track is also a very nicely done track, and gets high marks for overall quality. It's not as rich and immersive as the DTS track, though, so if you have the ability to decode DTS, that track should be your choice.
Dubbed English and French 5.1 tracks are also included. The overall sound quality is the same as the Chinese 5.1, but... well, they're dubbed. While the dubbing is done adequately, the dubbed track just completely lacks the power of the original performances. Even if you aren't accustomed to watching films with subtitles, give it a try in this case: Hero really needs to be experienced in its original language. (In a nice reminder to viewers, the default audio option is the Chinese 5.1 track with English subtitles.)
While Hero isn't loaded with bonus material, it does have several very nice special features.
Of most interest is a 24-minute featurette called "Hero Defined." It's a short but information-rich making-of piece that covers the progress of the film from original idea through the filming process. A number of interview clips with director Zhang Yimou (in Chinese with English subtitles) give a very interesting insight into the overall film.
The other main special feature is a 14-minute segment called "Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li." Tarantino mostly acts as an interviewer (although he can't help but interject some comments on his own project, Kill Bill) and draws Li into talking about not just his experiences on Hero, but also his background in other martial arts films, with clips from those films interwoven into the featurette. It's not bad, especially if you are intrigued by Li's other work.
Lastly, we get a short trailer for the film's soundtrack on CD, and a nicely done storyboards section. There are storyboards for four scenes (and a "play all" feature), running about 5 minutes in total. We get a split-screen presentation, with the hand-drawn storyboard on top and the same clip from the finished movie on the bottom.
I can't just say that I like Hero: I flat-out love it. It's a film with a strong and distinctive identity of its own, woven together from an imaginative story idea and a stunning visual style. Transcending narrow definitions of genre, Hero is a film that I can honestly recommend to anyone who appreciates a great film, because it stands on its own and invites viewers to experience it on its own terms. What's more, this elegantly paced film is eminently re-watchable, offering as much delight on the second viewing as on the first. Miramax's presentation of Hero with such a fantastic video and audio experience makes this DVD an obvious choice to receive the DVDTalk Collector's Series rating. Go buy this DVD... you be glad you did.