[box cover]

Hero (2004)

Buena Vista/Miramax Home Video

Starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung,
and Donnie Yen

Written by Lee Feng, Zhang Yimou, and Wang Bin
Directed by Zhang Yimou

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

American viewers coming to Zhang Yimou's delicious, impeccable Hero (originally released in 2002) will most likely compare it to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Both are epic, gorgeous homages to classic wu xia films of China, an immensely popular genre of pictures that are surprisingly unknown to most Western audiences. Beyond the fundamental inspiration, however, the two films are very different in plot, style, and intent.

Like many classics of Asian cinema, Hero's story 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. Computer enhancement is used, in each case, to further the story in positively magical ways — the simultaneous flight of 10,000 arrows is gut-clenching, and that battle taking place on the surface of the pond is arguably one of the most jaw-droppingly amazing segments ever committed to celluloid.

*          *          *

The visual exuberance of the work aside, the controversy behind the release of Hero is equally interesting. In China, the film inspired a fair amount of outrage over what was perceived as Zhang's bootlicking of the Chinese government by making a picture that supposedly celebrated fascism — in the film, Qin expresses rather eloquently to the nameless warrior that he intends to unite all the country's provinces (once he's conquered them) and that the freedom of individuals must be sacrificed for the good of the majority. Given that Zhang has had his films censored heavily by the Chinese government and has even been denied the right to travel to other countries to receive awards for his work, the charge is preposterous — even more so considering the deeply ambivalent note on which Hero ends.

In the U.S. there was additional controversy when Miramax's Harvey Weinstein (known in the industry as "Harvey Scissorhands") bought distribution rights to the film, reportedly edited it and then, in typical Miramax fashion, let it languish on the shelf without a distribution date. The movie finally made it into theaters, uncut, in 2004 with the addition of "Quentin Tarantino Presents" above the title, after Weinstein's favorite moneymaker convinced him to restore the cuts — and the movie finally got its release after Weinstein was alerted to the scads of money being spent on import DVDs of the film, purchased via mail order by impatient and frustrated Asian film fans.

Despite the lengthy time-lapse in Asia-to-U.S. release, Hero is well worth the wait. Having shot such diverse — yet equally exquisite — films over the past few years as Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American, and his work with Wong Kar-wai such as In the Mood For Love, Christopher Doyle may be the most underappreciated cinematographer working today. Hero is sumptuous, exquisite, exciting, and, in every sense of the word, cinematic — the sort of film experience that defines why we go to the movies.

*          *          *

Buena Vista/Miramax Home Video's Hero DVD is, unfortunately, lacking in the excellence that this film deserves — the four stars granted in this review are, sadly, for the movie itself, not this home-video release. The Miramax disc is downright disappointing, in fact. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is excessively grainy and the colors — so glorious in the theatrical release and on the Chinese DVD release — are off, with reds looking far too orange and subdued enough to be notably lacking in the requisite vibrancy. 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 motion pictures 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 clangs and sshhhings of swords are bumped up to the point of being startling, with most sound effects being separated and heightened so that the viewer is far too aware of which speaker's doing what.

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.

— Dawn Taylor

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