[box cover]

Hero (2004)

Like many classics of Asian cinema, the story of Hero (2004) is one that's been told many times, in many ways — the tale of the attempted assassination of China's hated first emperor, Qin (Daoming Chen) in the third century, during a time when the ruler was attempting to unite warring factions through conquest and control. Jet Li plays a nameless warrior who arrives at Qin's palace amid rumors of his heroic exploits. He carries with him three boxes, which contain the swords of three legendary assassins who have sought to kill the warlord for a decade — Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Broken Sword (Tony Leung). As the first person in many years to be allowed an audience with the understandably paranoid warlord, the warrior must remain 100 paces across the room as he tells the fantastic tales of how he conquered each of the renowned assassins. In some cases, impressive battles were fought; in others, he used his wits to defeat his opponent. Qin then tells the warrior what he thinks actually happened, eventually revealing to the audience where the truth lies between the two versions of each of the three stories. The plot itself is a rather simple fable, but Zhang (Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum) turns it into a sumptuous visual banquet — swords slice through raindrops, the exquisitely beautiful Cheung spins skyward with her robes swirling dizzyingly around her, and warriors battle on the surface of a lake as the camera watches from beneath the water. Famed cinematographer Chris Doyle worked with Zhang to create an intense, deliberate color palette specific to each assassin's story, with different color schemes designating differing versions (depending on who's doing the telling) of the same tale, magnificently complementing the flawlessly choreographed fight scenes. Buena Vista/Miramax Home Video's Hero disc is, unfortunately, lacking in the excellence that this film deserves — the anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is excessively grainy and the colors overly subdued. The contrast is equally poor, with the entire transfer coming across as if its been overcompressed — soft, grainy, and lacking in the oomph that gave the film such visual punch. Considering that this is one of the most visually stunning films in recent memory, the presentation here is a shame. The audio (Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 in Chinese, with optional English and French dubbed tracks, and English or Spanish subtitles) is very good but unevenly mixed. The paltry extras include a fluffy, inconsequential "making-of" featurette, "Hero Defined" (24 min.); a "conversation" with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li in hand-held shaky-cam style that's mostly a lot of QT gushing and Jet Li looking uncomfortable (13 min.); some very short, overcompressed storyboard-to-screen comparisons; and an ad for the CD soundtrack. All in all, a less-than-impressive treatment of an amazing film. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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