Two thousand years ago… during the Warring States Period, China was divided into 7 Kingdoms. For years they battled for supremacy while the people suffered. The King of Qin was the most ruthless in his effort to conquer the land & unify all under heaven. He was regarded as a common threat by the other six Kingdoms. The annals of Chinese history abound with tales of the assassins sent to kill the great King. This is one of the legends…
The King (Chen Daoming) particularly fears three assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), & Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), & has placed great rewards on their head. So when Nameless (Jet Li, who ought to make more films like this, instead of wasting his time in more mediocre at best conveyor-belt US flicks) comes forward with proof of their destruction, he is granted an audience with the King. Nameless recounts his tale of how he killed such fearsome assassins, but as the King listens he begins to suspect foul play…
Utilizing a complex Rashamon-inspired structure, Hero tells a deceptively simple story with a teasing complexity. Genuine flashbacks, wild speculations, lies, & battles which occur only in the minds of our protagonists; all are brought vividly to life on the screen & it’s up to the viewer to piece together exactly what the truth is.
Intriguing though the narrative is, in many ways it is little more than a structure from which the visuals & fight sequences can hang. Whilst this may turn some off the film, I for one have absolutely no problems with it when those visuals & fight sequences are this good. Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) works here with Wong Kar-Wai’s regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle, The Pillow Book’s costume designer Emi Wada, & The Emperor & the Assassin’s Production Design duo of Yi Zhenzhou & Huo Tingxiao, & the result is truly a stunning sumptuous visual feast. I have no qualms about saying that Hero is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Eschewing boring realism, each sequence has its own unique signature look & feel which prevents what would otherwise be little more than a string of martial arts sequences from ever becoming boring. Those fight sequences themselves are all breathtaking, although the lack of a pure visceral thrill may turn some viewers off. Particular mention must be made of a jaw-dropping mass archery sequence which could give Lord of the Rings a run for its money, a wonderfully dreamy battle above the surface of a lake, & Jet Li’s grainy black & white face/off with Donnie Yen.
With Hero, producer Bill Kong seemed intent on producing a crossover hit to follow Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The similarities are indeed there – a large-budgeted historical martial arts epic made by a director more well known for dramas, Zhang Ziyi, a percussive Tan Dun score (although Yo-Yo Ma’s cello is replaced here by Itzhak Perlman’s violin). But whilst CTHD tended to get rather bogged down in its drama scenes, Hero is a flightier, pacier film that is rather easier to watch. On a purely visual level, Hero is several leagues above CTHD, although it perhaps lacks the emotional quality of Lee’s film & it’s fight scenes are slightly less thrilling. Having said that, Hero is and elegant, engaging film that I know I will be re-watching more than CTHD. It’s a simple but affecting tale, gorgeously told, impressively acted, & boasting breathtaking set pieces. There may be little more to it that just that, but frankly that’s more than enough to keep me happy.
Hero arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Buena Vista, featuring an appealing 2.35:1 transfer that boasts a very vibrant color palette, some impressive fine detail, and a much better overall image than previously available. There are occasional bouts of artifacting and an ever-present fine cinematic grain, but nothing that proves distracting. My only complaint is that, for a film that is such a visual powerhouse, Hero looks just a little flat, lacking the sense of depth and dimensionality I was hoping for.
The choices made regarding Hero’s audio tracks are a bit perplexing, as only the English dub track receives the HD treatment, here, while the original Mandarin is saddled with a lowly Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Like many fans of the film, I prefer the subtitled version, so, while the DTS Master HD English audio track offers a much more robust aural experience, it’s not a track I’d revisit in future viewings.
Bonus features are somewhat lacking, with the disc offering only a smattering of short featurettes in standard definition, most of which were part of the original DVD release. We get a relatively in-depth making-of featurette entitled Hero Defined; Inside the Action, which is short interview segment featuring Jet Li and Quentin Tarantino; Close-up of a Fight Scene, which offers a very brief examination of the film’s fight choreography, and a few storyboards.
Hero is a beautiful film, and one that seems tailor made for the Blu-ray treatment. Sadly, while the image quality is a definite upgrade over previous releases, the puzzling choices made in the audio department, as well as the lack of truly compelling extras (HD or otherwise) makes it difficult to recommend this release. If you’re a fan of English dubs, then you’ll certainly want to add this to your collection, but purists may want to hold off until the property is revisited and the superior Mandarin track is given its due.