|DVD Martial Arts|
|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 30 November 2004|
“Hero” was a long time coming to the United States, and it took Quentin Tarantino’s influence to bring it in its original form. “Hero” was actually nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2002 Academy Awards, which indicates how long it took to bring it to the States. The first action film from acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, who has given us such notable films as “Red Sorghum” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero” combines his poetic and often painfully tragic storytelling with incredible action. Shot by British cinematographer Christopher Boyle, it is a lyrical, ravishing, exciting and ultimately heartfelt film.
The story begins over 2000 years ago in a divided China, when the ruler of the Qin province sought to unite all of the kingdoms. One man, simply called Nameless (Jet Li), has appeared at the palace at the behest of the King (Chen Dao Ming) because Nameless has dispatched the three most dreaded assassins whom the King has feared for the last 10 years. Nameless is rewarded with an audience and is allowed to advance to within 20 paces of the King for dispatching the first of the assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen). Nameless is also rewarded with gold and property, and while he drinks with the King, he relates the tale of how he overcame Sky. Thus begins the first of a series of flashbacks, which tell the story of how Nameless overcame the assassins.
Nameless next relates how he overcame the lovers Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). For dispatching these two, he is allowed within ten paces of the King and given more gold and property. Though the relation of Sky’s demise begins the film, it is the interplay between Nameless, Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Broken Sword’s assistant Moon (Zhang Ziyi) that truly serves as the backbone of the film. Nameless relates how he traveled to the province of Zhao to seek out Broken Sword and Flying Snow at a calligraphy school. While the Qin army attacks, Nameless studies the two. It is believed that Sky slept with Flying Snow, and that as a result, she and Broken Sword have not spoken for three years. Using them against each other, Nameless disposes of them both. The King, however, is unimpressed with the story and relates how he believes that Nameless is in fact in league with the other three, and has killed them in order to get to within ten paces of the throne and finally assassinate him. So begins the retelling of the story from the King’s perspective, and finally from the truthful standpoint which Nameless is compelled to reveal. Each different telling is shown in a particular color scheme, which not only differentiates each one, but indicates an overall tone of love, trust, coldness, or betrayal. As the stories are told, they slowly become intertwined with the present and we learn whether or not the King is at risk from Nameless.
A singularly powerful film that has many peaks and valleys, each helping to accentuate the other, Zhang has fashioned a truly remarkable work in terms of story and style. For those who know Zhang’s work, they know he has a purposeful, languid style where color is always used to indicate emotion, and where emotion and turmoil mark all of the characters in one way or another. “Hero” has these qualities, and they are combined with some fantastic action sequences that are infused with Zhang’s sensibilities. From a sword fight between two red-clad women in a yellow forest to a fight over a completely mirror-still lake, “Hero” effectively combines the best of the martial arts action film and an achingly heartfelt tale of the emotions between lovers, enemies and a people for their land. It does sometimes seem a bit too ethereal and dramatic, causing the film to lag at certain moments. However, this is part of Zhang’s style, and whether it appeals to the viewer is up to that individual.
This is an extremely sharp transfer, thankfully so, because the film itself is so very careful with its imagery. While there are some small dust marks here and there, the crispness of the transfer is notable. The detail is very fine and the vistas, costumes, extremely important color scheme and slow motion sequences remain crisp and beautiful. There are several low light situations where the grain of the film is noticeable; while this might be seen as a weakness, it helps to convey the inky and thick nature of the dark and its shadows. The subtitles are rather large and yellow, placed at the bottom of the image. What I want is for subtitled films to put the wording below the image, in the black space of the letterboxing, instead of on the image. While this is unavoidable in the theater, it is lamentable that this space is not utilized on letterboxed films, thus preserving the total integrity of the image.
While fine sound is certainly expected from both DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 presentations, the mixing itself is quite nice, as the effects, music and dialogue are equal in their dynamics and audibility. The English track sounds less pure, both because of the dubbing and because of the elements that get covered by the dub. This is a natural occurrence with any dubbed film, so the recommendation is to listen to the original Mandarin track in 5.1 channels, thereby sacrificing a bit of time spent reading subtitles for a high-quality soundtrack.
“Hero Defined” is a featurette about the film that consists of roughly 25 minutes of very interesting interviews with the cast and director. There are some incredible bits of information that will truly blow anyone away, like the fact that one sequence was shot so painstakingly that the company could only shoot for two hours a day for 20 days. “Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li” is an interview of Li by Tarantino, who is a martial arts nut. Li talks about the different aspects of martial arts and the way it is portrayed in films. Tarantino relates his experiences with the “Kill Bill” films and Li actually compliments Uma Thurman’s work a great deal. This is clearly a recent interview, as they both talk about “Volume 2.” There are bits of other Li films shown. The only annoying thing is that the camera seems to be on a pendulum for much of the interview portions. There are also more behind-the-scenes portions, sort of narrated by Tarantino and Li. The storyboard comparisons are nice, as they show both the actual scenes and the different corresponding boards at the same time. There are four of these sequences. While brief, they do enough to convey both the function of storyboards and the close adherence that the final film has to them. If there is anything that is missing here, it’s director’s commentary. While the whole thing would have to be subtitled, they could simply switch out the dialogue subtitles with commentary subtitles. Zhang Yimou is such an interesting and thoughtful director that we miss out only hearing his thoughts on a few aspects of the film in the featurettes.
With a fantastic transfer, “Hero” is a must-have DVD for those who enjoy martial arts films and for those who enjoy great visual storytelling. High marks not only for the film itself, but also for the high-grade film and sound transfer. Bonus features could be better, but the DVD was two years in coming and we’ll have to leave it at that.