Encouraged by the enormous international success of Ang Lee's 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou decided to mount his own big-budget revival of the martial arts fantasy genre known as wuxia. At the time, high-flying kung-fu action may have seemed like the last thing viewers would expect from the director known primarily for humanist, political dramas such as 'Red Sorghum' and 'Raise the Red Lantern'. Nevertheless, Zhang brought his considerable artistry and storytelling skills to the project. Far from the cash-in ploy it may have looked like at first, 'Hero' managed to be a rousing success in its own right.
The film features a stellar line-up of Asian action movie talent, including Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Donnie Yen, and Zhang Ziyi (in a role not dissimilar to the one she played in 'Crouching Tiger'). Li stars as a nameless countryside official in feudal China who has been granted an audience with the Emperor. Despite the failure of the Emperor's fearsome army, this one man has single-handedly dispatched the deadly trio of assassins known as Sky (Yen), Flying Snow (Cheung), and Broken Sword (Leung). The Emperor is fascinated, and more than a little skeptical, that a man of such humble origins could defeat the greatest threats to his throne. He demands to hear a detailed account of how this feat was accomplished. Thus progresses a series of 'Rashomon'-like flashbacks wherein the story is told multiple times from different perspectives -- the nameless man's version, the Emperor's supposition of what actually happened, and another version that may be the real truth. As the story grows, it continues to double-back on itself, contradicting what we had previously learned and becoming more outrageous and fantastical the closer we come to the truth.
The plot is both intriguingly complex and needlessly convoluted. The flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks sometimes cause too much confusion and excessive misdirection. Even though every one of the action sequences in the movie is worth savoring, several of them prove pointless to the overall story. The purpose of the battle between Nameless and Broken Sword on a lake is insufficiently explained and doesn't make much sense at all. It's there only because it looks interesting, and Zhang needed somewhere to shoehorn it in. The same problem holds true of the characters. The movie has scenes of tremendous emotional power that are later undone when we learn that the events never really happened. As such, it's difficult to develop too much attachment to anyone in the film or the goals they strive for.
Even so, 'Hero' is a beautiful, lyrical film with enough dazzling visuals and exciting action to overcome any flaws in the scripting. Wuxia stories are tales of sheer fantasy. As a matter of course, their characters can fly, walk on water, move with superhuman speed and athletic grace, and do other crazy things that defy all known laws of physics. Over the decades, Chinese filmmakers have perfected the genre into a precision ballet of flying feet and swooshing swords. The combat scenes in 'Hero' are fabulously choreographed, even more so than those in 'Crouching Tiger'. The photography by Christopher Doyle makes ravishing use of light and color. From an artillery barrage of thousands of arrows launched in unison on a tiny village, to the forest duel between two characters whose every sword swing creates a swirling vortex of flying leaves, the film conjures breathtakingly beautiful images time and again.
In August of 2004, 'Hero' became the first foreign-language movie to open at the top of the U.S. box office. Sadly, this achievement was undercut by the fact that the Miramax marketing machine promoted it with a misleading ad campaign that consciously avoided any indication that the film in fact had foreign-language dialogue and subtitles. This led to a minor uproar among certain segments of the audience, and caused theaters throughout the country to install signs in their lobbies notifying patrons that "No refunds will be offered." Consequently, the film's box office take dropped off precipitously in the following weeks. All told, it grossed a little over $53 million, certainly a respectable amount for a foreign film, but less than half that of the $128 million that 'Crouching Tiger' had earned for Sony Pictures Classics a few years earlier. Regardless, it was enough of a success worldwide that Zhang Yimou was able to follow it up with two more entries comprising an unofficial "trilogy" of sorts: 'House of Flying Daggers' and 'Curse of the Golden Flower'.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Hero' debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Miramax Home Entertainment (a division of Buena Vista Home Entertainment). The disc comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with slipcover. Unlike most Buena Vista releases, there are no annoying forced trailers before the main menu.
The Blu-ray contains only the movie's 99-minute theatrical cut. Specifically, it's the American theatrical release which adds some extra prologue text over a map of ancient China to the beginning. (The international release has different prologue text over a black screen.)
A longer 109-minute extended version of the film is also available on DVD in Asia. The extra footage in the longer cut primarily consists of filler shots that pad out the length of scenes, often interminably. There are no new scenes, and very few new lines of dialogue. Having seen both, I greatly prefer the shorter theatrical cut. The extended version feels like an unfinished workprint.
Although beautifully photographed, 'Hero' has never been a stunner on home video. I've owned numerous DVD editions of the movie from around the world (U.S., Hong Kong, China, Korea, Japan), and all are flawed in one way or another. Either the image has too much edge enhancement (HK), the contrast is blown out (China), the colors are oversaturated (Japan), or the digital compression is filled with artifacts (most of the above). I've even owned 720p copies of the movie on the now-defunct EVD and HVD formats that were also quite poor. I have not seen the HD DVD or Blu-ray editions released previously in Europe, but have heard many bad things about them.
It's safe to say that this Miramax Blu-ray represents the best that the film has yet looked on home video. Unfortunately, that's a far cry from saying that it's perfect. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer has its share of issues. The 2.35:1 image is rather soft on the whole. Textural detail is quite clearly improved over DVD (enough to expose how fake the CG arrows look), but still just adequate. Close-ups fare better than wide shots. Witness the final shot of the movie, in which one character stands in the background and appears to be out of focus.
The picture is often grainy. I commend the studio for preserving the grain without trying to filter the hell out of the image. A mild amount of Digital Noise Reduction may have been applied at times. Sporadic artifacts where grain will freeze in place occur now and again, but nothing too severe. For the most part, the grain is well rendered so as to retain its original film-like quality. However, on occasion, the picture appears excessively noisy during moments of complex action (such as the swirling leaves during the forest battle), which implies to me a digital compression problem.
Colors are solid and clean. They don't necessarily pop off the screen with three-dimensional vibrancy, but appear accurate. Flesh tones are suitably pale when appropriate, and do not look oversaturated (as happened to the Japanese DVD).
The transfer is free from edge enhancement problems. All in all, the disc looks fairly good, if not quite great.
Miramax really screwed up here. The Blu-ray contains the movie's original Mandarin-language soundtrack only in standard Dolby Digital 5.1 format. Meanwhile, the ridiculous English dub has been encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. This wasn't an error. Someone intentionally decided to prioritize the dub. (The same thing has happened to the simultaneously-released 'Zatoichi', 'Iron Monkey', and 'The Legend of Drunken Master'.) Quite frankly, this is a shameful case of someone having their head up their ass.
As upsetting as this may be, the fact of the matter is that the quality of the movie's original sound mix will always be more important than the compression codec used. I'm sure you'll read reviews in other publications that will give this disc 1 or 2 stars for audio quality, but I won't indulge in that kind of hyperbole here. 'Hero' has always had an amazing soundtrack. Lossy Dolby Digital or no, it still sounds better than many lossless tracks for movies with lesser sound design.
This is an extremely aggressive surround mix with constant separation effects that create a truly immersive auditory environment. Fists fly, swords swing, and arrows cut through the air all around you. Low-end activity is loud and punishing. The powerful drumming in Tan Dun's score will get your heart racing, while deep bass sweeps extend as far as your subwoofer can handle. Many scenes in the movie have extraordinary auditory depth.
On the other hand, the lossy track often has poor balance between dialogue levels and overly-loud sound effects. The high-end scraping of steel on steel during the fight scenes can sound a little harsh and bright. The 1.5 Mb/s DTS tracks on some of the foreign DVD editions (while still lossy) were smoother and better resolved in these regards. No doubt, the Mandarin track would have benefited from lossless encoding had Miramax bothered to author the disc properly.
English subtitles are contained entirely within the 2.35:1 movie image, and are safe for viewing on Constant Image Height projection screens. Unfortunately, Miramax's subtitle translation is different than and significantly inferior to that used on international DVD releases of the film. The subtitles are coherent, but greatly simplified and "dumbed down." They lose much of the poetry of the language. For example, when the King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) describes his plans to unite "all under heaven" (as every other edition of the film translates it), in the Miramax translation he generically refers to it as "our land." The epilogue text also proclaims that, "This was more than two thousand years ago" just in case anyone wasn’t sure.
The American DVD edition released back in 2004 had only a slim selection of bonus features. All of those supplements have made their way to the Blu-ray. For some reason, even though all of the features are in English, the disc automatically prompts English subtitles that must be turned off manually for each one.
Considering its dazzling visual style and outstanding sound design, 'Hero' ought to have been a slam-dunk on Blu-ray. Unfortunately, this highly-anticipated catalog title disappoints on many levels. The video quality is just OK, the subtitle translation is poor, and the supplements are entirely worthless. Although the sound quality is very good, Miramax has made a boneheaded decision to provide the original Mandarin soundtrack only in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 format while the absurd dub benefits from lossless encoding. This is clearly a case of people at the studio having their priorities all wrong.
Fans of the movie will certainly find the Blu-ray a noticeable improvement over DVD. Nonetheless, it's still a big disappointment and a missed opportunity. At this point, I can only hope that some Asian studio will eventually do a better job with the movie.