A nameless warrior (Jet Li) approaches the King of the Kingdom of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) with proof that he has succeeded in assassinating three of the the King's most dangerous enemies. Impressed, the King listens as Nameless recounts the tale of how he came to kill Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen), but as the story progresses the King becomes suspicious, finding elements of Nameless' account dubious. In a perfect example of the same events being interpreted in different ways, multiple versions of the tale are then put forward, told in a series of flashbacks that unearth an ingenious conspiracy designed to oust the King from power.
Zhang Yimou's Hero (Ying Xiong) is a brilliant piece of stylish filmmaking, a spectacle of sheer visual splendour that revels in its role as over-the-top entertainment. This simplistic tale of heroism, loyalty and subjectivity has provoked widely differing reactions, ranging from angry capitalists condemning it as Communist propaganda to others viewing it as a back-handed attack on imperialism, and everything in between. I suspect that, as is so often the case, these radically different theories are simply the result of people reading too much into what is, at the end of the day, nothing more than a simple but well-told story, but the flexibility of the narrative to accomodate such diverse readings is perhaps a testament to Hero's universal appeal. Like the best legends and fables, everyone can take home something different.
Casting-wise, a good number of talented actors and martial arts performers are on display. Jet Li, who is often so abysmal in the Hollywood schlock he insists on starring in, gives a solid if not exceptional performance as Nameless, and Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen make for extremely strong screen presences as warriors Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky respectively (even if Donnie Yen's appearance is little more than a cameo). Zhang Ziyi, who to be honest has never been that great an actor, is probably the weakest of the bunch here, but that's not to say she is bad, and certainly it doesn't help that her's is the film's most underwritten character (although this may be due to character development material being chopped out of the theatrical cut).
That said, the true star is undoubtedly Christopher Doyle's jawdropping photography. Featuring more "wow" moments than any other film released this year, every frame is a work of art and the use of colour is astounding. The decision to colour-code each different "reality" was a sound one, and far from coming across as tacky, it does a wonderful job of making the film look diverse and clearly categorizing the various stages of the narrative. From the rich reds of Nameless's account of the emnity between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, to the cold blues of the King's version of the story, to the monochromatic look of the conversations between Nameless and the King, Doyle and Yimou are able to create a fantastic world filled with fairytale images. Witness Nameless and Broken Sword's duel on the lake, the attack on Zhao with thousands of arrows flying in all directions, the battle between Flying Snow and Moon in the forest of yellow leaves, or any of the many other incredible set-pieces. This is all pure over-the-top fantasy, and it is what makes this film so special.
Another of the film's great strengths is its distinct lack of black and white values. While most films these days seem to have villains who might as well be wearing signs that say "I'm the bad guy", Hero's heroes are villainous and its villains heroic. Whether or not Nameless is the good guy or the bad guy of each of the four different versions of reality, it is hard to deny that the actions of he, his allies and his enemies are honourable, as everyone works towards what they see as the greater good. A lot is made of whether or not the life of one person is worth expending to save many more, and while this has sparked a number of heated debates, I think that, in the end, this is up to the individual viewer. The conclusion, which I will not spoil, is bound to leave some people elated and others depressed - and many a combination of both - but Yimou patently avoids preaching to his audience.
People are bound to call Hero an exercise in style over substance, and I have no problems with that interpretation. Indeed, I would wholeheartedly agree with it and argue that this is a good thing. This film, to me, represents the essence of cinema: the triumph of the image over the written word. A picture is, they say, worth a thousand words, and each frame of Hero is worth all that and more. Everything is beautiful, from the immaculate compositions to the mesmerizing fight scenes that are more like dances than acts of combat. A masterpiece of visceral thrills and fairytale make-believe, there is something here for everyone, even for novices of Eastern cinema like myself.
Hero is presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.30:1, which is slightly narrower than the original theatrical ratio of 2.39:1. There doesn't seem to be any unnatural tightness in the compositions, and indeed when watching the DVD on a display with no overscan (for example a PC monitor) occasional errors in the various CGI effects can be glimpsed (for example, the yellow leaves extending beyond the frame in a couple of shots), suggesting that in fact the image is extended horizontally wider than it should be. I can therefore only guess that the difference in aspect ratios is the result of the mattes being opened up slightly at the top and bottom of the image. Either way, the difference does not seem to be worth worrying about, as there are no problems with Christopher Doyle's striking cinematography.
The level of detail is good, especially in close-ups, without being outstanding. There is definitely some noticeable softness in a few of the wider shots, along with some mild edge enhancement. The compression is handled well for the most part, although a couple of the more complex scenes (the Yellow Leaves fight and the various shots of the army of Qin preparing to attack the Kingdom of Zhao) do lead to some digital break-up in the image. The colours and contrast are consistently excellent throughout, with the deliberately overblown palette leaping off the screen when necessary and creeping into the shadows for the more sombre scenes. Overall this is a very eye-pleasing transfer with few major shortcomings and looks to be by far the best of the currently available releases, beating out the Chinese and Hong Kong releases by virtue of being transferred from a genuine film source rather than a PAL to NTSC conversion, and showing noticeably more detail. (See the DVD Beaver comparison for more details).
Three audio tracks are included, two of them in the film's original Mandarin and the other a Japanese dub. The 1536 Kbps DTS Mandarin track is definitely the way to go, and it proves to be reference quality material, demonstrating crisp clear quality and striking use of the surrounds and subwoofer throughout. Listen to the thundering hooves as the posse of horsemen charge across the landscape in the opening scene, the rainfall that is judiciously spread across the rear channels in the scene where the Nameless One fights Sky in the chess house, or the sounds of the individual arrows whizzing from one speaker to the next during the attack on the Kingdom of Zhao: it really does feel as if you are actually a part of the action, placed within the scene rather than watching it from afar. Since I don't speak Mandarin it is a little difficult to relate the comprehensibility of the dialogue, but to my ears it sounded perfectly clear and well-replicated. Overall this is a stunning mix and home theatre junkies will be more than happy with this as a demo disc.
Subtitles are provided in Japanese, English and Chinese. The English subtitles are clear, accurate and of a good size: neither too small to read nor so large that they impede on the lush imagery. Better yet, they are placed within the image frame rather than over the letterboxing, so viewers with projection displays who are used to masking the unused area at the top and bottom of 2.39:1 ratio films will have no problems with reading them. Furthermore, the opening and closing text scrolls are fully subtitled, something that was omitted in some other releases of the film.
This 2-disc set, which comes packaged in a very attractive digipack with a shiny outer cardboard slip, is fairly substantial in the way of extras, but unfortunately not all of them are going to be of interest to English speakers since a fair number of them are presented in Mandarin or Japanese with no English subtitles. Still, at least from a visual perspective there is a fair amount on offer, and there are smatterings of English-language material throughout.
The first disc contains cast and crew filmographies in Japanese, as well as interviews with a number of key participants, including Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen, Zhang Yimou, costume designer Emi Wada and composer Tan Dun. Maggie Cheung and Tan Dun speak in English, but the others speak only in Mandarin, except Tony Leung, whose interview is conducted in a combination of Mandarin and English, so at least half of what he says will be comprehensible to English speakers. In terms of content, we actually get to learn quite a lot about the creation of the story and music, and we also get to hear about various cast members' opinions of what it means to be a hero, and of working with Jet Li. It's quite nice to be able to watch straightforward interviews with these people without them being interrupted by the usual MTV style of fast cuts between different speakers and copious amounts of movie footage.
(Note that the second disc's menus read from right to left - the same as Japanese text - rather than left to right.)
The second disc begins with Hero Defined, a 24-minute featurette on the making of the film. It features an American narrator, although most of the various interview clips are in Mandarin, barring Christopher Doyle, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung (sometimes), Donnie Yen and Tan Dun, who speak in English. The banal script and his bombastic enunciation soon grate, but a great deal of interesting information is conveyed about the making of the movie. A lot of this pertains to the film's cast and crew, and near the beginning we are treated to stills of various key players accompanied by their names - a nice idea, as it allows us to put faces to many of the people behind the camera. The copious amounts of behind the scenes footage is fascinating, although the fact that the featurette is somewhat unfocused means that it rarely goes into much detail: often, when it seems only to be getting into one subject, it jumps to the next.
A 6-minute Behind the scenes montage is up next, featuring footage of the filming of various scenes, followed by some footage of a scoring session, and costume designer Emi Wada looking at various pieces of concept art.
There are yet more Cast and crew interviews on this disc. This time round, the participants are Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Yimou, an unnamed fellow in a business suit, Christopher Doyle and Emi Wada. This time round, only Doyle speaks in English (Maggie Cheung starts speaking English but very quickly switches to Mandarin), so these interviews are on the whole less informative than those on Disc 1.
15 minutes of Press conference footage and 12 minutes of Tokyo premiere footage are also included. Again, no English audio or subtitles.
Up next is a collection of 8 Trailers and TV spots (4 of each) in a variety of languages, followed by a Photo montage and galleries for Costumes and Design. A Location guide is also included, showing a map of China with various clickable locations, which take you to screens of Japanese text and brief clips from the film, highlighting which locations were used for which scenes. Finally, for reasons best known to the makers of the DVD, the film's closing credits are also featured.
Hero is, when all said and done, little more than a visual extravaganza, but it happens to be a spectacular one. An enthralling and highly entertaining piece of filmmaking, this Japanese 2-disc set is comfortably the best way to experience the film until the notorious extended cut gets a decent release (the current version is poor quality and suffers from a recurring watermark when English subtitles are selected). If you haven't yet seen Hero, or indeed if you have, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this release.
Last updated: 04/05/2018 20:20:17