Beautiful. Exquisite. Graceful. Majestic. Poetic.
One of the most impressive films to cross my path in quite some time, HERO astounded me on almost every level: visuals, story, and style. I want to share my enthusiasm with you without giving away any details of the story that would lessen the experience for first-time viewers, so if my comments sound vague and my accolades generalized, please bear this in mind.
HERO is based on Chinese history/legend when China was a divided nation attempting to be united under common rule by a rising emperor. Upon this backdrop is laid a truly spiritual tale of justice, faithfulness, and personal integrity depicted with some of the most artfully rendered filmmaking I've ever witnessed. Director Zhang Yimou uses the 2.35:1 canvas as medium to express visual poetry undiluted by convention yet unmarred by contrivance. Images blur the material and spiritual into an enigmatic and inseparable whole. Color becomes a vehicle for emotion without timidity (last time I saw such direct and unashamed use of color this way was in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). The story unfolds like an carpet unrolling down a staircase and just as soon as you start to feel comfortable with its pattern and texture, another carpet is unrolled covering over it, and again and again. Acting, writing, and direction are without blemish. I found myself humbled to consider the vast film talent from the non-European world -- a glimpse of which I only stumbled upon here -- reminding me of how in some sublime manner artistic expression finds a way to communicate effectively across borders and cultural/political divides.
The film that one most easily compares HERO to is Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and this is the film that perhaps best captures the litmus test of whether or not you will enjoy HERO. However, digging past the mythical, dance-like style of the martial-arts scenes, I found HERO to evoke impressions of some other well-regarded films that deserve mentioning. The first is Rashoman, with its twisting, unsettling, retelling of the same facts through different perceptive lenses, forcing us to reconsider our conclusions over and over again. The second was RAN, with its dazzling, macabre, and sublimely beautiful battle scenes (especially those involving archery) and challenging tests of loyalty when duty would seem to run contrary to greater truths. The third is the Lord of The Rings trilogy...with it's epic grandeur and indelible sense of duty to fight for what it "right", while at the same time revealing at times the difficult task to judge the course.
More than an "action" film or "Martial arts" film, HERO is an art film about the journey of the human heart and the nobility of spirit to sacrifice for what is right. While my impressions of this film may not be shared by every viewer, I encourage everyone who has not seen this film to take the chance to discover how HERO affects you. I think that that risk is well worth the potential experience that awaits you.
It's time for Miramax to shut down their DVD production facilities and turn their film library over to a mastering house that knows what they're doing.
I had hoped that some of the recent high-profile travesties like English Patient and Cold Mountain might help start to turn things around. Well, for whatever reason, HERO suffers from all the ills that plagued both of those titles (especially Cold Mountain).
It appears to my eyes that all high-frequency detail has been SEVERELY filtered...completely ridding HERO of any "filmlike" quality on a large screen. My assumption is that this is an (inappropriate) attempt to mitigate the appearance of excessive film-grain for the "home video" market. Allow me to take a brief aside and suggest that if whatever inherent film-grain was present in the film-source material was good enough for a 50 foot+ commercial theater, that it should also be good enough for the proportionately much smaller screen of the current home-video market. But I digress. In any event, despite the copious degree of "filtering" there *still* appears to be quite a bit of noise associated with film-grain in the final image. This is because in an (ineffective) attempt to compensate for the lack of image detail in the filtered image, the image has been electronically/digitally manipulated to "boost" whatever high-frequency information survived. In the common HTF tongue this is what we refer to as "edge enhancement"...however...in the case of HERO which is so devoid of sharp edge-transitions due to the soft-focus nature of the filtered imagery, there are not very many traditional "edge halos" to be seen. So in that sense, one might attest that the image appears "free from EE" if they are looking for edge-halos only. The objective reality is that much electronic HF boosting appears to be taking place...as witnessed in the "digital noise" of what ought-to-appear as natural film-grain, despite the (thankful) lack of obvious haloing.
The image has a distinctly "digital" look to it on a wide-angle viewing display (one that attempt to approximate the viewing angle you might experience from the mid-to-back row of a movie theater) and it appears that compression is also heavily taxed...likely as a consequence of the pre-existing digital noise from electronic manipulation. In some scenes where the MPEG noise became bothersome (often in backgrounds) I was tempted to still-step frame by frame to see exactly what had been encoded into the video bitstream and it wasn't pretty. Before one is tempted to blame the inclusion of DTS as the culprit, please consider that many near reference-DVDs exist with DTS and multiple 5.1 DD soundtrack options (The Two Towers, and super-bit Fifth Element as examples).
Contrast also seems wanting, and I found the black-level unsatisfyingly "gray" and the image never seemed to get a solid footing that images with strong contrast/dynamic range seem to command. Colors were marginally drab though at times were more vivid and this is one area (colors) where I'm tempted to presume that what I'm seeing is a faithful replication of the source film elements.
Now, like all of you I get despondent thinking about substandard video encoding especially with a DVD of a title as meritable as the film HERO. Thus, I try to start from a "maybe it's just being true to the source" standpoint and look for evidence to prove this position otherwise. Sadly, With the HERO DVD, there was evidence ready and waiting for me. Remember all the hullabaloo with the ringing on the Phantom Menace DVD with some folks desperately suggesting that maybe the ringing was "in the film" when sadly the trailers on the DVD revealed absolutely no ringing and looked substantially better than the feature-length film? Well, we get a similar "peep hole" to see how much better HERO could have really looked on this DVD as well. There is a 4x3 encoded special feature on the disc titled "Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li" and in it you'll see some clips from the movie which are shown 1.85:1...apparently cropped on the left/right down from the original 2.35:1 image (didn't check this last point too carefully so don't quote that as scripture). Bottom line: These 4x3 encoded clips "fix" just about everything *WRONG* with the image quality of the feature film!!! GONE is the "noisy" film-grain-garble and in its place is a cleaner looking image with some natural-looking fine-film grain. GONE is the Vaseline-like blur and in its place is a visibly more satisfying increase in natural picture detail. GONE is the "flat" and "digital" look to the image and in its place is an image that looks more real, more natural, with an improved sense of 3-dimensional depth. And PRESENT is a solid black level and gray-scale that looks almost Matrix-quality. In fact, the movie clips in this special feature look almost "Warner Brothers-like" in their presentation.
Don't even THINK about suggesting that the digital noise on the running feature of this DVD is "in the source" when clearly it is NOT. Now, I'm not proposing that HERO should look as razor-sharp as live-cam sports programs on HDTV...just won't be lulled into falsely assuming that this DVD is really delivering the true-to-the-source goods.
Just to add my usual disclaimer, it's quite likely that viewers watching from greater than 2-screen-widths away from their display may not find the problems I've discussed as objectionable as they appeared to me at 1.6 screen-widths from my projection screen.
BOO Miramax for taking such a stunningly beautiful work of art such as this film and for turning it into a substandard digital mess. EVERY OTHER MAJOR STUDIO HAS FIGURED OUT HOW TO PROPERLY MASTER A DVD to look good on a large-screen, wide-angle display presentation. When will you???
Update Dec 1: Comparison to R0 version by Cameron on HTF:
| I rented a copy of the Miramax release and compared it to my GD Face R0 standard length release. Using David's criteria in Post #43 I would give the Miramax release a 2.0 (maybe a 2.5 if you prefer the greater color saturation) and the GD Face a 3.5. |
The Miramax release definitely has problems. Fine detail is pretty much obliterated, even in close up shots. I didn't watch the whole movie, just parts, but the most offensive scene I encountered was in the last 10 minutes or so when Nameless stands in front of the almost black gate and turns around. There is a great deal of mosquito noise in the black areas, a veritable swarm. The scenes I viewed overall exhibited some level of noise, giving it a digitally "grainy" look. The GD Face exhibited some noise in the black gate scene, but not to the same level of distraction.
As I was watching the GD Face it really reminded me of the video quality of movies like Kill Bill V2. Close up shots have fine detail but medium shots and wide shots have decreasing levels of clear detail. I believe this is a result of horizontal filtering?
The one thing I can say the Miramax release seems to have is greater color saturation. I noticed that immediately without having to do a comparison. But standing on its own the GD Face is certainly no slouch in the color department.
Let me know if there are any particular scenes you'd like me to compare. I have the Miramax release through the weekend.
FYI: I was viewing on a 73" screen and sitting at a distance of 1.75 screen width. InFocus 4805 projector being fed an interlaced signal from a Toshiba 4900, so Faroudja DCDi enabled. Calibrated of course.