The story of the first Emperor of China was tackled by Chen Kaige in 1999 as The Emperor And The Assassin, an epic film and a morality tale with almost Shakespearean complexity of political intrigue, family betrayal and the corruption of power. Fellow countryman and another of the most esteemed of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers, Zhang Yimou therefore had quite a challenge to put a new slant on the most famous of stories in the history of China when he took on the task of making Hero.
Zhang has stripped the story down to its basics, removing almost all human interest and political intrigue, reducing the story down to the basic element of a King under threat of assassination. The King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) is at war with his neighbouring states, but he has a grand ambition in the name of a greater good – an united nation under the rule of one Emperor. A nameless warrior (Jet Li) appears before the King presenting him with the trophies that prove that he has killed the king’s most lethal enemies, the assassins Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky (Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen). Such an achievement gains him an audience that puts him within ten paces of the King, closer than any other person is allowed. He tells the story of how he defeated the three deadliest assassins in the kingdom.
Some of the CGI effects might be a little unconvincing and some of the wire work not quite so smooth, but there are certainly some innovative and exciting techniques on display in Hero. The film makes good use of the vast palatial estate built especially for Chen Kaige's The Emperor And The Assassin, while Christopher Doyle’s beautifully composed cinematography pushes fighting scenes to new heights. The first battle between Jet Li and Donnie Yen is one of the most exciting and convincing fights I have ever seen. In other sequences the characters glide through the air with capes billowing in slow motion as the characters flow through the blaze of colour and swirling waves of a leaf storm. The computer enhanced technology is well used, rain drops and water effects being particularly well rendered.
Storywise, the plot lacks complexity, but at the same time the various Rashomon-like versions of reality could be confusing for some, not to mention the mental fights where great battles are fought without a single physical sword being swung by the combatants. The acting is superb, as it should be with the outstanding cast that has been gathered here. Li’s character, as an exceptionally skilled swordsman but with limitations to his abilities, is effectively portrayed, but he has strong backing from both cast and crew that means he isn’t asked to carry the weight of the whole film on his own. Fortunately, neither is Zhang Ziyi asked to carry the film as I am still unconvinced by her acting abilities. Her fighting scenes and wire work, as already demonstrated in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, are excellent however. Tony Leung as the calligraphic martial artist and assassin, Broken Sword and his lover Maggie Cheung as the assassin Flying Snow, bring their In The Mood For Love chemistry to the film, Cheung’s character particularly carrying a melancholic coolness and dignity that lends the film the extra poignancy that the emotional impact of the film’s climax relies on.
Talk of mixing swordplay with arthouse sensibilities can be forgotten about. There is no depth or meaning to the film beyond the surface artiness of the photography. But what photography! Beautiful colour schematics are used brilliantly and dazzlingly, but only it appears to differentiate between the different versions of the story. There doesn’t appear to be any other purpose to the colour-coding than this. There is nothing meaningful beyond the surface imagery and there doesn’t need to be. This is not Ran, nor is it The Emperor And The Assassin. It is not even an Ashes of Time (where Doyle’s cinematography was arguably more adventurous and innovative in the martial arts genre than here). In its constant re-invention of stories though, it examines the impossibility of grasping an absolute truth and reality. Each of the assassins is prepared to sacrifice their lives for the sake of a greater good, against an Emperor they regard as a cruel dictator. However the Emperor - unaware of his ruthless ambition or perhaps deluded about his true intentions - nevertheless believes that uniting the warring states of China is better for the greater good of all the people. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is impossible to know who was right and Zhang Yimou doesn't overly concern himself with the motivations of characters whose actions are lost to history and legend. This is first and foremost an action film, a martial arts film – a beautifully photographed, well-acted and well-directed one. It should be enjoyed for that and nothing more.
There are a number of editions of Hero around at the moment, but I don’t think we have seen a definitive edition yet. The disc reviewed here is the most basic edition, a Chinese region 0, single-disc, single-layer DVD-5 with anamorphic picture and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. There is also a Chinese DVD-9, dual-layer edition available. Each of the Chinese editions are incredibly cheap. A Hong Kong Region 3 two disc edition, anamorphic, single layer with additional (unsubtitled) extras and a DTS soundtrack can be purchased from CD-Wow or YesAsia, using the links on the left of the page. There has been some controversy over the running time of the film. All the editions mentioned above carry the 97 minute theatrical release of the film. The film was however cut before its release from a 116 minute running time by Zhang on the direction of Miramax (unaffectionately known as MiramAxe for their crimes against foreign cinema). A full cut of the film is expected on Region 3 DVD in April. Whether the additional scenes improve the film or slow down a film that already moves along pretty well remains to be seen.
The picture on the Chinese Region 0 DVD-5 release is actually pretty good. There is some grain visible and some flickering light that I am sure will disappear on a better transfer – but by and large, the colours are bright, vivid and bold and the image clear and sharp. Contrast and skin tones are good, colours sometimes appearing a little over saturated, particularly with the predominance of red colour schemes. There is also some minor discolouration which can be noticed in freeze-frame (you might be able to detect this in Zhang Ziyi’s face in the screenshot below). Overall though and considering the limits of the single layer disc and the lower NTSC resolution, this is still quite an impressive picture.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound makes full use of the surrounds and the soundtrack has a powerful dynamic presence. It is somewhat overactive and busy in certain action scenes, but this would be in keeping with the nature of what is on the screen. The majestic and epic score by Tan Dun is well presented. This soundtrack will give your speaker system a vigorous testing.
Subtitles are pretty good. It appears well translated and there are no grammatical or spelling errors. The short text prologue and epilogue are not translated, but their content should be evident from how the story progresses.
Hero Defined (24 mins)
Presented in 1.85:1 and letterboxed, this is a standard ‘Making of’, featuring interviews with the director, cast, crew and technicians. I’m not sure what language it was originally made in, but everyone has been dubbed into Mandarin and there are fixed Chinese subtitles. There are no English subtitles on this feature.
Coming from the director who has most recently made several low-key films about simple peasant folk in China (Not One Less, The Road Home, and Happy Times), this is quite a change of direction, but a challenge that, with the assistance of an incredible technical team and accomplished cast of actors, he has met with more than modest success. I doubt that the full director’s cut will improve significantly on this theatrical version, but I look forward to seeing a full and proper DVD release for this film in the near future.