US Rating: PG-13 For Stylized Martial Arts Violence and a Scene of Sensuality
Film Length: 99 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 – Enhanced for Widescreen TVs
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound – English, French and Original Chinese Language Tracks
Subtitles: English and Spanish
Release Date: September 15, 2009
Review Date: September 13, 2009
“People give up their lives for many reasons…For friendship, for love, for an ideal…And people kill for the same reasons…”
The Film: 4.5 out of 5
Director Zhang Yimou’s Hero (Ying xiong) is a resplendent accomplishment in true martial arts. His creation is replete with a level of visual splendor that in lesser hands could have devolved the whole proceeding into a tangential exercise whose purpose was only to hang upon a simple story, excursions into artistic indulgences. But Hero is a marvelous merging of the art of filmmaking, intelligent storytelling, and rich performances from the actors.
Before China was a unified province, the country was divided into seven warring states, separate and self-governing regions. The ruthless King of Qin sought to unite the disparate and conflicting areas. His rule was with the sword and fist, conquering any that did not ally with him. His rule was bloody – and his enemies great. When a nameless, skilled man is brought to the palace of the King of Qin, a reward for his elimination of three assassins whom the King had feared, the King is told the incredible tale of how this humble man was able to defeat the three most skilled warriors in the land.
The story told by the nameless man is recalled as flashbacks; incredible recounts of magnificent martial arts, deft skills with sword and fist, and warrior bouts worthy of legend as he defeats the renowned assassins Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky. As the story is told, the paranoid king – who had his great hall emptied so that no assassin could find a place to hide – is suspicious, though he still allows the nameless warrior to advance 10 paces towards him upon the telling of how he was able to defeat each of the great warrior assassins.
It isn’t the story that is remarkable, or the construct of flashbacks to consume the narrative, it is the piece as a whole that supersedes the sum of its parts in remarkable ways. The tale of the Kingdom of Qin, and the nameless hero who earns the opportunity to sip tea with the King for his deeds, is wrapped in threads of duty, honor, romance, love, peace, greatness, and power that intersect in glorious ways with a production that is near flawless.
Director Zhang Yimou, working from a story he created in partnership with Li Feng and Wang Bin (who also crafted the screenplay with him) presents a film of spectacle, scale and intimacy. The cinematography is splendid, and the look of the film is art, as sure as paint on canvass. Zhang boldly employs color in augmentation of the scene; rich blue, deep red, vivid green, bold gold, and flashes of white that inform the film in subtle and unsubtle ways – all by design. As the same scene is recalled by nameless, and a hypothesized version from the king, Zhang changes the base color palette of the scene, even within the process of a scene, such as the duel between Flying Snow and the female servant, Moon, evolving from the palette from bright gold to the deep blood red, with leaves swirling around the fight as the two duel in a grand ballet. The scene is breathtaking.
Hero stars Jet Li as Nameless, with Maggie Cheung as Flying Snow, Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Broken Sword, Donnie Yen as Sky, Zhang Ziya as Moon, and Dao Ming Chen as the King of Qin. Jet Li is terrifically understated in this role, engaging in an intellectual dual with the King. While his martial arts performance, featuring his well known wire work, is superb, and with more grace than usual, it is the power in his calm that renders this one of, if not his finest performance. Similarly, Dao Ming Chen as the King provides the bottled madness of a tyrant in glances and inflections – ways that work contrary to how such roles are typically played – but with impressive results. The true power players in the film, however, come from the actors portraying the assassins and from Zhang Ziyi, portraying the servant Moon. Each must deliver from a scene, subtle variations that, supported by the color tint, maneuver us emotional through the scenes in different ways.
Discussion of this film would not be complete without recognition of Tan Dun’s wonderful score. Use of the famous Kodo drummers, the ancient Chinese lute, and stings that give the film as much power as the striking visual sense, converge to layer upon Hero a gripping emotional lasso. Score fans will hear reminiscences of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Ring’s score in the fine brass instrumentation. Overall, a striking score.
Hero is a visually arresting, emotionally powerful action film that transcends its membership in that genre; the gamble and duels of intellect, and deception exploited and expressed with the amazing artful eye of the director are a sight to behold.
The Video: 3 out of 5
Miramax Home Entertainment brings us this new Special Edition version of Hero with what appears to be the same transfer used in the previous DVD release, but it is better than the former release – perhaps due to the extra space in the disc that comes from the omission of the DTS audio option. Better, but not by too much. The colors used throughout the film to display mood and emotion are bold and bright, but the image is still iffy at times. Not as washed out in certain scenes, and cleaner generally, the improvements could simply be a better treatment of the color balance. The palace scenes use clean lines, symmetry and are more muted in tone than other sequences, but the level of detail isn’t precise enough – and that imperfection is disappointing. The image just isn’t as crisp as I would have liked to see, and this film is of such quality that a re-mastering is more than warranted – especially given the ‘Special Edition’ moniker attached to this release.
The Sound: 4.5 out of 5
Owners of the previous DVD release will immediately notice that this new ‘Special Edition’ comes without the DTS 5.1 audio option. But the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio option is surprisingly bombastic, rich, precise and alive. It is almost a case study in how a dynamic and expert audio accompaniment can serve the story. With the sound of horses, and the drums of Tan Dun’s superb score thundering in the front channels and subwoofer, and his brass instrumentation punctuating the center channel, the audio can be felt. The surrounds are used extremely well – sounds of rain drops, bells and more create an enveloping audio sphere – and even the directional effects across the front speakers – as swords tear into a lake from right to left, and left to right, we are taken into the scene by the moving sounds. The audio stands in contrast to the weak video.
The Extras: 3.5 out of 4
Close-up of a Fight Scene (9:17): This new extra, available on the special edition DVD and blu-ray only has Quentin Tarantino, who helped bring this extraordinary film to a broader western audience, talking about the film, cut with looks at several of the film’s key martial arts sequences. We get a look at some of the wire work that went into the sequences, and how complicated each scene was to pull off, though it isn’t nearly as in-depth as I would have liked to see.
Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino & Jet Li (13:54): A high energy conversation between Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li is augmented by scenes from Jet Li’s films, demonstrating his considerable talents on film.
Hero Defined Making-Of Featurette (24:00): A more typical making-of featurette that covers a number of the film’s production aspects, including the birth of the story, the actors, and developing the action sequences.
Storyboards: Storyboards are available for four of the film’s action sequences – ‘Golden Forest’, ‘Library’, ‘Ring of Iron’ and ‘Lake’, played as a slideshow to Tan Dun’s score.
Soundtrack Spot: A promo spot for Tan Dun’s score.
This being a Special Edition release – it certainly falls short of warranting the extra money to upgrade, but those new to the film (who are not ready to buy the Blu-ray version), this is a worthwhile investment. The previous edition is listed as out of print, so this is better value for your money when directly comparing the two.
The video presentation is unworthy of this poetic action piece, but Hero should be seen, experienced, examined and appreciated – so find a way to catch it if you have not yet watched it – but understand the video will leave you wanting and the audio will sonically wow you.
Overall Score 4.5 out of 5