Director Yimou Zhang’s (Raise High the Red Lantern) Hero is the highest grossing film ever in history of its native China, and rightfully so. It is a spectacle of color and sound mixed with all the best contemporary wire work martial arts visual effects and it is thoughtful and deeply poetic.
Set in the Warring States period of China, Jet Li plays a nameless assassin who has won an audience with the king who will eventually unite the different factions under one rule and fashion China into one nation. Nameless has won this audience by dispatching three other assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) out to kill the king. As his reward, Nameless is not only granted an audience with the king, but he is allowed to come within ten paces of the cautious monarch whilst he tells the tale of how he slew the king’s enemies.
But things quickly shift as the king challenges Nameless’ story, suspicious that he is just another assassin who has used the opportunity to get within ten paces to kill him. As the tales progress, the film shifts through different color palettes, starting off in red, changing to blue, before finishing off in white. Each color can be seen as symbolic of an emotional state or a cultural reference. Red, the color of violence, anger and blood, or, in Asian culture, death, blue the color of sorrow, depression, and finally, as the facts are all revealed, the color changes to hot white, the color of purity.
The film can be looked upon from many different angles. It has come under fire from some circles as promoting totalitarianism at the expense of human rights, but I do not believe this to be the case. At its heart, Hero is a story of intrigue and honor, beautifully crafted into a series of picturesque vignettes that sets the screen ablaze. It not only celebrates Asian history and culture, it revels in the established style of martial arts cinema, from flying swordsmen who can walk on water to swords that can split arrows in half at the tip, Hero is grand in every way. That it is always questioning why men are at war with one another is what sets it apart. As Nameless and the king have their dual of wits, it is the philosophy of war in men’s hearts that comes into question.
Director Yimou Zhang has crafted an epic film on the scope of Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, or Spartacus filled with beautiful imagery and questioning ideals that deserves every bit of praise that is sent in its direction.
Hero is a visual feast for the eyes and Miramax have done well bringing the film to Blu-ray with its 2.35:1 aspect ratio preserved in an AVC/MPEG-4 1080p encoding. From deep, solid blacks with strong shadow detail to brilliant primary colors that explode from the screen, Hero looks absolutely spectacular in this transfer. Film grain is present and consistent, detail in clothing and skin is sharp and there are no compression artifacts or noticeable processing issues like DNR.
Sadly, the original language track has not been provided in a lossless variety for this release, so anyone who prefers not to watch films dubbed will have to settle for a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Otherwise, the English dub is provided in DTS-HD master Audio 5.1 lossless. The DTS-HD mix is aggressive, relatively speaking, with some discrete sound effects in the surround channels and low level ambience as well. Things begin to break down when switching to the original language track in Dolby Digital, as dynamics become crushed and the high frequencies are terribly tweaked making the incessant clanking of metal swords very fatiguing to listen to after a short while. I have to mark this down a notch for failure to provide the original language track in a lossless option.
The supplements are slim on Hero and hardly worth re-watching once you’ve given them the once-over. They are also all in standard definition, which is disappointing.
The supplements available on this release are:
- Close-up of a Fight Scene (1.33:1; 480i/60; 0.09.18) — The choreography and filming of Hero’s pivotal fight sequences are dissected in this featurette.
- Hero Defined (1.78:1; 480i/60; 0:24.01) — This making-of featurette goes behind-the-scenes on the production of Hero.
- Storyboards — storyboard-to-final scene comparisons:
- Golden Forest (0:00.55)
- Library (0:00.16)
- Ring of Iron (0:01.20)
- Lake (0:02.49)
The Definitive Word
This Blu-ray release of Hero would have been perfect has a lossless option of the original language track been provided and the supplements were beefed up a bit. Even without those things, it would be a shame to miss out on this brilliant high definition rendering of this magnificent film from Miramax. Recommended.