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
When Buena Vista released the domestic Blu-ray edition of 'Hero' last year, the results were very mixed. Although the disc had a decent high-def video transfer, the studio made a bad decision to encode the movie's original Mandarin-language soundtrack only in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 format. Meanwhile, the ridiculous English dub was granted a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track. The disc also suffered a poor English subtitle translation that simplified too much of the dialogue.
The distribution rights to 'Hero' are held by different studios in different territories. Previous HD DVD and Blu-ray editions released in Europe lacked any English translation and were said to have very poor video quality. However, the recent Blu-ray released in Spain by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment seemed like a promising alternative for English-speaking viewers. I decided to try my luck and import a copy. Unfortunately, while the Spanish disc indeed makes at least one big improvement, it is also a compromise that has its own share of significant drawbacks.
Despite indications on the packaging that state otherwise, the disc is locked to Region B and will not function in an American Blu-ray player unless the machine has been modified for region-free playback. (The packaging also misidentifies the audio format as Dolby TrueHD 5.1, when no such option exists.) In other respects, the disc is actually quite English-friendly. All menu options are written in English, the movie offers optional English subtitles, and the bonus features are also in English.
Like the domestic release, the Spanish Blu-ray contains only the 99-minute theatrical version of the movie. In this case, it's the international theatrical release which displays the opening prologue text over a black screen. (The American theatrical and video editions play the text over a map of ancient China.) The Blu-ray does not contain the 109-minute extended cut of the film that has been released on DVD in Asia.
Annoyingly, even though the prologue and epilogue text are written in English, the disc also adds English subtitles that say the exact same thing at the bottom of the screen simultaneously. Other than this one minor nuisance, the subtitles are the Spanish Blu-ray's most appealing feature. The disc's English subtitles are taken from the original theatrical translation, not the "dumbed down" version that Buena Vista used on its domestic DVD and Blu-ray. The King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) now explains his plan to unite "all under heaven," rather than the generic description of "our land." The improved subtitles restore much of the poetry of the dialogue, and remove clunky exposition such as the epilogue text that proclaimed "This was more than two thousand years ago" in the American version.
Constant Image Height projection viewers should be warned that the subtitles dip into the lower letterbox bar just enough to be illegible on a 2.35:1 screen, unless you are fortunate enough to own one of the Blu-ray player models that can adjust subtitle position.
Unlike most Sony discs, 'Hero' has no forced trailers before the main menu.
Although beautifully photographed by the acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle, 'Hero' has had a problematic history on home video. As I described in my previous review, the domestic Blu-ray may have been the best-looking video release of the film to date, but was still not without its share of issues. The picture on that disc is a bit soft on the whole, and has a mild but noticeable application of Digital Noise Reduction.
For the Spanish Blu-ray, Sony has struck its own completely separate video transfer. I hesitate to say that it looks worse than the domestic disc, but I also can't say that it looks better. Mostly, it's just different. On balance, I think I prefer the appearance of the Buena Vista copy.
To its benefit, Sony's transfer has no noticeable DNR. The issues with frozen grain patterns on the domestic disc are not apparent here. Unfortunately, the tradeoff to this is that the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is extremely grainy, and much of that grain has a noisy electronic texture. And yet, the lack of DNR doesn't mean that the 2.35:1 image is any sharper or more detailed than Buena Vista's transfer. In fact, it's generally even softer. Close-up shots have acceptable detail, but wide shots are very soft and lacking in focus. The contrast on this disc is also a bit duller than the domestic edition, which leaves the picture looking flat and two-dimensional. Finally, the end credits are quite shimmery, as if the video there has been badly compressed.
Judged on its own, the Spanish Blu-ray isn't terrible by any means, at least not for this movie. Aside from the noise issues, it looks reasonably film-like (sort of like a second-generation dupe print, anyway), and is watchable enough. It's certainly better than any DVD edition of the film I've seen (and I've seen a lot of them.) However, the domestic Blu-ray is just a slight bit crisper, a little less grainy, and has better contrast and depth.
It's also worth noting that this disc caused my region-modified OPPO BDP-83 Blu-ray player to have a lot of problems syncing with my projector at the 24 fps frame rate. It took numerous attempts before I got it to lock in. Until it did, I had no picture on my screen. On the other hand, it worked fine at 60 Hz (with 3:2 Pulldown applied) on every attempt. I've never had that problem with any other disc.
Buena Vista really dropped the ball with their treatment of audio on the domestic Blu-ray. On that disc, only the awful English dub was given lossless DTS-HD Master Audio encoding. The original Mandarin-language track was relegated to standard lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 status. Despite this, I gave the soundtrack a strong 4 stars out of 5 rating. The movie's sound mix is so powerful that, even after lossy compression, it still sounds quite exceptional in many regards. 'Hero' truly has a stunning soundtrack filled with hyper-aggressive surround envelopment and punishingly deep bass.
Sadly, the Spanish disc also foregoes lossless audio. All three language options (including the original Mandarin) are offered only in standard DTS 5.1 format. Some readers may instinctively associate DTS with having better sound quality than Dolby, and assume that this will at least be somewhat of an improvement over the domestic Blu-ray. Unfortunately, that's not the case at all. Someone at Sony really screwed this one up. It's terrible.
First off, the Mandarin track on the disc is set for a very low volume. I had to crank my receiver at least 10 dB over normal settings in order to bring dialogue and sound effects up to equivalent footing with Buena Vista's Dolby track. Of course, volume should not be mistaken for quality. A low default volume doesn't necessarily mean that there's anything wrong with the audio. However, it's certainly unusual for any soundtrack to be set this low. I was careful to volume match the tracks as best I could before listening. It didn't help.
The problem is shockingly obvious immediately. The DTS track (actually, all three of them) on the Spanish disc has almost no bass at all. That's not an exaggeration. The signal delivered to my receiver reads as 5.1, but the LFE channel is completely dead throughout. It sounds like someone forgot to encode it. The main channels also have very shallow low-end response. To be certain that this wasn't still a volume-matching issue, I spun my volume dial in opposite directions for each disc. I put more than 25 dB of difference between them, to the point where the domestic Blu-ray's dialogue was nearly inaudible, and the Spanish disc's was nearly deafening. Even with that disparity, the domestic disc still had more auditory depth and low-end activity. After that, I threw in several different DVD editions and got the same results. The Spanish Blu-ray is clearly in error. The 'Hero' soundtrack is legendary for its heart-stopping bass, but that entire portion of the mix is simply missing here.
The Spanish disc has reasonable surround activity, but even that sounds less aggressive and has less precise directionality. I wouldn't be surprised if the soundtrack here was mastered from a stereo mix-down, matrixed into surround, and then re-encoded as 5.1.
If you can get beyond that massive disappointment, the DTS track is listenable otherwise, so long as you crank up the volume. Dialogue is crisp enough. High-end sound effects sound pretty good. Complex auditory scenes do sometimes feel a little muddy, though.
If this were any other movie, I'd say that the soundtrack lands in the range of acceptability. But this is 'Hero', and I know that this movie is supposed to sound a lot better. Frankly, this is a travesty.
Few video releases of 'Hero', on DVD or Blu-ray, have ever offered much in the way of bonus features. The Spanish Blu-ray doesn't break that trend. It has even less content than the Buena Vista edition.
I can barely express my disappointment. The American Blu-ray release of 'Hero' was already flawed with lossy audio and a bad subtitle translation. While this Spanish import rectifies the subtitle issue, it has a slightly less pleasing video transfer and a frankly disastrous audio track that's missing all of the movie's bass activity. What a mess!
Are the improved subtitles an acceptable tradeoff for the poor sound quality? That's a decision that each viewer will need to make for him- or herself. With international shipping from Spain, importing this disc will cost around $50 USD. It's also locked to Region B and will require compatible hardware. I have to assume that few fans will find it worth the effort.
Anyone still interested can purchase the disc from the Spanish division of the FNAC retail chain. Although the web site has no English option, it isn't too difficult to navigate with the help of an auto-translation tool. During checkout, choose the country code EEUU for the United States.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.