Film review by Ed Nguyen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Jet Li, Chen Dao
Ming, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen
Director: Zhang Yimou
Audio: DTS HD 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Cantonese)
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 99 minutes
Release Date: September 15, 2009
"In any war, there are heroes on both sides."
Zhang Yimou is among the premier filmmakers working in China today. A Fifth Generation (post-Cultural Revolution) filmmaker with a highly visual directorial style, Zhang has garnered more international awards and recognition than any other current Chinese director. Zhang's new films are frequently awaited with eager anticipation, and among his best-known works are Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and To Live.
Zhang Yimou's best early films regularly featured his protégée Chinese actress Gong Li. However, in recent years he has introduced a new leading lady, young Zhang Ziyi (no relation). First featured in the director's touching 1999 film The Road Home, Zhang Ziyi would soon endear herself to western audiences as a precocious but deadly heroine in Ang Lee's popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In light of the success of Ang Lee's Oscar-winning film, Zhang Yimou was himself inspired to attempt his own "Wu Xia" saga. Drawing upon his strength in character-driven dramas, Zhang Yimou fused dazzling martial artistry with gorgeous cinematography in what was to become the most expensive Chinese film ever made - Hero (2002). The epic film was a huge success in Asia and reunited the director with his protégée Zhang Ziyi, who would also appear in Zhang Yimou's equally breathtaking martial arts follow-up, The House of Flying Daggers (2004).
After its initial release, Hero was honored with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. However, despite its international acclaim, distribution woes prevented this remarkable film from reaching North American audiences until now. Fortunately, Hero is a film well worth its accolades and certainly worth the long wait.
Zhang Ziyi is featured in Hero, but the film's true star is Jet Li, an exceptional martial arts champion most familiar to western audiences through films like Lethal Weapon 4, The One, and Kiss of the Dragon. Prior to his venture into mainstream Hollywood films, however, Jet Li was already an established mega-star in Asia, particularly for his portrayal of Wong Fei Hung in the Once Upon a Time in China series. One of those films, Once Upon a Time in China 2, placed Li opposite another Hong Kong star, Donnie Yen. Both men are featured in Hero, and as the most obviously skilled martial artists in Hero, Li and Yen provide one of the film's highlights, a dazzling display of martial arts for an early fight sequence.
Still, while the action in Hero is undeniably thrilling in its combination of swordplay with wire-fu and graphical effects, the film is most memorable for its frequently exquisite cinematography. Hero may well be the most beautifully photographed martial arts film ever made.
As the film opens, the age of Hero is one of turmoil, an ancient time of the Seven Kingdoms. Among these great realms is the Kingdom of Qin, whose aggressive ruler is doggedly pursuing the conquest of the surrounding six kingdoms. The Qin Emperor's vision, however, calls for more than just mere conquest. Rather, he dreams of unification, of creating one nation of Chinese people.
The Qin Emperor's aspirations are not shared by everyone, certainly not by clandestine agents of the other kingdoms. The Emperor has thus had to live under the constant threat of assassination, and in this ancient time, there are no assassins more feared than the legendary warriors of the Kingdom of Zhao - Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow.
These assassins are no mere mortals but possess super-human, almost mythical skills. Flying Snow alone is capable of warding off thousands of arrows and of defeating hundreds of the Emperor's soldiers. Broken Sword is not only a master of the blade but also of calligraphy, and within his powerful brush strokes lies the secret to his swordsmanship.
For years, these mythical heroes have conspired to end the Qin Emperor's reign of virtual terror over the other kingdoms. They regard him as a blood-thirsty tyrant, an egotistical warmonger with designs on the murder of innocents rather than their subjugation under a unified banner. Although their efforts to defeat the Qin Emperor have thus far not succeeded, the potential threat that these powerful but evasive nemeses pose to the Qin Emperor has forced him in desperation to issue enormous bounties upon their lives.
One day, an unlikely man (Jet Li) emerges to claim those bounties. He is an unnamed citizen of the Kingdom of Qin, a lowly government Prefect from the district of Lan Meng. Yet, he has mastered a mysterious and deadly sword technique that has allowed him to triumph over the Qin Emperor's three deadliest enemies. As fantastical as his claims may be, the Hero has brought with him physical evidence of his triumphs.
In the majestic pageantry that opens this film, the unnamed Hero is welcomed to the throne palace, carefully prepared, and then brought before the Emperor himself. In the Royal presence, the Hero begins a narration of how he first defeated Sky and then Broken Sword and Flying Snow.
Hero alternates between the Hero's present audience with the Emperor (Chen Dao Ming) and flashbacks into the Hero's tale. In the first flashback, we are introduced to Sky (Donnie Yen), a peerless master of the spear who has just effortlessly brushed aside the hapless efforts of the Qin Court's seven elite guards to arrest him. But before Sky can retire from this field of combat, the Hero suddenly appears and challenges him to a duel. It will be a contest to the death between the Hero's sword and Sky's silver spear. What ensues is a spectacular melee, complete with lightning-fast parries and some incredibly athletic feats of physical prowess by both combatants. The fight ultimately concludes when Sky's speartip is severed and he is finally defeated.
This speartip is the first physical proof brought by the Hero to the Qin Emperor. In addition, the Hero has brought Broken Sword's cracked blade as well as Flying Snow's sabre. As the Emperor listens intently, the Hero continues his epic tale of how he used the fall of Sky to deceive and defeat both Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). These assassins of Zhao, though extraordinary in their abilities, still possessed the flaws and vulnerabilities of mere mortals, and the Hero describes how, by exposing and exploiting these flaws, he revealed the path to their downfall. The second flashback incorporates even more dazzling images into the tale, from a thunderous rain of pouring arrows from the Emperor's attacking archers to a series of combats between the Hero, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword's lover, Moon (Zhang Ziyi).
Were the story to end at this point, it would make for a visually splendid and entertaining if familiar tale. But Hero offers much more, expanding into a more probing examination of the Hero's tale as seen from various perspectives. These alternate re-tellings of the tale offer subtle insight into the veracity of the Hero's statements. We the audience become gradually aware that, as with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, not everything in Hero is as it initially appears nor should each character's declarations necessarily be taken at face value, either. Secret agendas abound, for the Hero and even for the Qin Emperor. Lesser films might portray the Qin Emperor as a pure villain, but Hero provides opposing points of view on his ultimate quest - the epic and tragic cost of uniting the Chinese people versus the long-term repercussions of allowing countless years of warring between the Seven Kingdoms to continue unhindered.
By any standard, Hero is quite a spectacular film. In assembling together some of the finest Asian actors or martial artists today under the confident directorial guidance of Zhang Yimou, Hero is the East's reply to Hollywood's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Furthermore, there is some historical truth to Hero, too. The Qin Kingdom did indeed exist, and its Emperor was actually able to unite all of China together, creating in the process the Qin Dynasty, one of history's greatest dynasties. Among subsequent immortal achievements of the Qin were the constructions of the Great Wall of China and the Emperor's own majestic tomb, home of a virtual army of thousands of terracotta stone warriors, his symbolic guardians.
While Hero offers a mythical spin to China's Qin Dynasty and explores the very essence of what defines a "hero," its influence may be more far-reaching. This is one film that may inspire many viewers to actually read more about China's real and equally fascinating history of the Seven Kingdoms. How many action films, after all, can boast of such a feat?
This is one of the most beautiful of modern Asian films, and Blu-ray high definition really brings out the mastery of Yimou's extraordinary vision. The images are colorful and detailed, from the onslaught of thousands of arrows to the falling yellow and red leaves of a key fight scene...you see everything with a brilliant clarity and sense of crispness. Terrific job!
For some reason, this new edition of Hero eschews the DTS soundtrack, but it does feature a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 track in Mandarin Chinese with available English and Spanish subtitles. The meek may opt to listen to an optional English (or French) audio track, but really, where's the point in that? Even in Dolby Digital, this is a thunderous and enveloping audio offering, with powerful music, swooshing arrows, clanking swords and more to keep you firmly centered in the action. Dynamic range is strong, and spoken words, effects and music are all well-balanced.
Director Quentin Tarantino may border upon utter mania, but he certainly recognizes a good film when he sees one. Film buffs all around should thank Tarantino for his tireless efforts in getting Hero off Miramax's dusty shelves and into the spotlight. Included on this disc is an interview (14 min.) with Jet Li, conducted by Quentin Tarantino. Jet Li briefly discusses his acting experience as many incredible combat clips from his films are shown. Unfortunately, the interview is somewhat marred by a jittery camera that never seems to stay still. The interview concludes with a tantalizing behind-the-scenes look at the making of Hero.
Storyboards (7 min.) are included for some of the action sequences in the film. These include the "Golden Forest" fight sequence between Flying Snow and Moon, a "Library" sequence with the Hero, the "Ring of Iron" combat between the Hero and Flying Snow, and the "Lake" encounter between the Hero and Broken Sword. There is also a "Close Up of a Fight Scene" featurette for a more in-depth look at the action.
The standout feature on the disc is "Hero Defined", a 24-minute featurette about the making of the film. It starts with a backstory concerning how Zhang Yimou developed the film over a period of two years prior to completing The Road Home. Production shots are then shown of the action sequences and huge spectacle scenes, many of which involved the actual participation of the Chinese army. The principal actors as well as Zhang Yimou discuss their view of the film and of the challenges of shooting in many spectacular if remote regions of China.
Lastly, there is a quick advertisement spot for Hero's score. If the music sounds reminiscent of the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that is because both films share the same composer - the award-winning Tan Dun! And for portable fans, a bonus disc is included so that you can make a quick digital copy of the film to take with you.
More cerebral than most action films and more gorgeously-photographed than most big-budgeted productions, Hero packs the sort of visceral punch and visual resonance that equals the best efforts of Hollywood today. Zhang Yimou's inspiring epic Hero is not just a good martial arts film, it is a good film in general, and better than ever on Blu-ray. Highly recommended!