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Yimou Zhang
Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang, Daoming Chen, Donnie Yen, Liu Zhong Yuan, Zheng Tia Yong, Yan Qin
Writing Credits:
Feng Li, Bin Wang, Yimou Zhang

Master filmmaker Quentin Tarantino presents Hero - starring martial arts legend Jet Li in a visually stunning martial arts epic where a fearless warrior rises up to defy an empire and unite a nation! With supernatural skill ... and no fear ... a nameless soldier (Jet Li) embarks on a mission of revenge against the fearsome army that massacred his people. Now, to achieve the justice he seeks, he must take on the empire's most ruthless assassins and reach the enemy he has sworn to defeat! Acclaimed by critics and honored with numerous awards, Hero was nominated for both an Oscar® (2002 Best Foreign Language Film) and a Golden Globe!

Box Office:
$30 million.
Opening Weekend
$18.004 million on 2031 screens.
Domestic Gross
$53.583 million.

Rated PG-13

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1
Mandarin DTS 5.1
English Dolby 2.0
French Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 96 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 11/30/2004

• "Hero Defined": A Look At The Epic Masterpiece
• Storyboards
• "Inside the Action": A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino & Jet Li


Mitsubishi WS65315 65" TV; Pioneer VSXD409 Home Theater Receiver; Sony DVP NC665P 5 Disc DVD player; KLH Home Theater Speakers


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Hero (2004)

Reviewed by Brian Ludovico (December 9, 2004)

Hero begins two thousand years ago, with a lone man on his way to visit with the King of China’s Qin province during the height of the warring states period. The King has been leading a bloody campaign trying to unite the whole of China and bring peace to the county, and his aggressive tactics aren’t exactly a big hit with the entire population. As such, the King has been constantly under threat of assassination, surviving multiple attempts over the last decade. The problem has gotten so bad that no one is allowed within 100 paces of the royal throne, under penalty of immediate execution.

The stranger, a man who is known only as Nameless (Jet Li), has evidence to present to the king that will prove to him that he has nothing left to fear. He’s brought with him the weapons of the three deadliest assassins in all of China: the spear of Sky and the swords of Broken Sword and Flying Snow. As an honor for his amazing service to his royal highness, Nameless is invited to an audience, and allowed to advance to within twenty paces. His majesty is so impressed by the news that he asks Nameless to recount the tale of his victory, to tell him how this one local prefect accomplished what hundreds of thousands of Qin soldiers could not.

Nameless tells the king first of his defeat of the spear-wielding Sky (Donnie Yen) at the House of Chess. After Sky dispatches with the seven elite guards of the royal palace sent to arrest him, Nameless makes his own attempt. The two fight an epic duel, until finally, the speed of Nameless’s sword is just too much for Sky, and he succumbs. As one might expect, this impresses the king even more, hearing it first hand. After rewarding Nameless with riches and power, the King entreats him to come another ten paces closer, and tell him the tale of the defeat of the lethal partners, Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai).

It’s in the retelling of the defeat of the two assassins who have come closest to murdering the king that we first see the artistic device that director Zhang Zhimou employs to emphasize the structure of Hero: color themes. Nameless’ story is filmed with everything in red, from the clothes to the wood to the ink at the calligraphy school. At first glance, this would appear to just be a cool visual indulgence, when in fact, it’s a signal. Nameless’ story, as the King figures out, is a lie, at least the story about Flying Snow and Broken Sword.

From here, the film takes on a structure reminiscent of the all-time classic Japanese film, Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The king has his own theory on what happened between Nameless and the two infamous Zhao assassins, and his story is told in a blue tint. Nameless listens attentively, and when the king finishes his story, he tells the king the truth about what happened (this time in white). The final layer contains a flashback to the initial attempt on the King’s life, told in green.

While Hero is certainly not in the same class as its progenitor to which is owes its entrée into American cinema, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it’s nonetheless a gripping and entertaining film with a bevy of aspects to appreciate. In American movie viewer minds, the main focus of these Wu Xia films is almost invariably the action of the film. I’ll admit it, the reason I went to see Crouching Tiger was because I wanted to see some serious kick ass karate. I walked out as impressed as I did, convinced that the movie should win the Oscar for Best Picture, because of the amazing performances and incredibly emotional story. Hero features much of the same strengths, starting with Jet Li. In American movies, there’s no other word for him but awful. His charisma and emotions are far more evident in a Chinese language film, as is to be expected. I loved the combination of serenity and simmering rage he played Nameless with.

For me, the real added “oomph” to Hero that separates it from the pack is the love story of Broken Sword and Flying Snow. Like the story of Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai, it’s largely played out as courtly love, nobly loving each other from afar, with intimacy only hinted at. Their eyes and words are the only real signs of love, pride, pain and anger that these two characters reveal to each other, and to the audience. The delicate emotional balance this sort of relationship requires to make it believable onscreen are among the biggest challenges for actors. Thankfully, Maggie Cheung and Tony Lieung Chu Wai are both up to the task. By the time their arc comes to its close in the final moments of the film, I was crying, which I didn’t do during Crouching Tiger. My only question was how did Broken Sword and Flying Snow get their swords back? Minor detail, but strange nonetheless.

Hero is also one of the most visually striking movies I’ve seen in a long time. The color work is only part of the artistry of the film. Yimou will mention in the featurette that one of his goals was to really burn images into the viewer’s minds, so that in five or ten years, even if the viewer doesn’t remember the story, they remember a scene or an image. His mission is certainly accomplished as some of the most indelible and delicious screen shots in the last ten years are on display here. The scenes in the Golden Forest, or at the Mirror Lake, or Nameless’s exit from the palace, or the stark and brutal desert will all stay with the viewer long after the film is over.

Of course, it would be negligent to leave the action sequences of Hero out of any discussion. The film features no less than eight outstanding fight sequences, all designed and choreographed by fight film luminary Tony Ching Siu-Ting. Each of the tales features at least one of the fights, which makes for fantastic pacing for the narrative between the action spots. Make no mistake, if it’s high-flying kung fu and jaw-dropping swordplay you’re after, Hero is certain to satisfy.

My only real criticism is in regards to the presence of Zhang Ziyi on the cover art. She’s a tertiary character here, so she doesn’t belong on here. Jet Li is only one of the three main characters in this film, and should have shared the cover with Cheung and Leung if the ‘floating head’ technique absolutely had to be applied. Personally, I would probably have gone with the single sword stuck in the ground against the backdrop of Broken Sword’s calligraphy, with the Chinese character for “Hero” offset in a corner. The English translation could have been superimposed on the character, with the title along the spine. I hate when artful movies have unimaginative, or in this case almost fraudulent, cover art. It just doesn’t seem fair.

The DVD Grades: Picture D+/ Audio A+/ Bonus C-

Hero appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The quality of the picture has been the subject of much discussion among DVD enthusiasts, and to put it in a word: appalling.

From the very beginning, an unacceptable layer of grain - or what I’d more accurately described as filth - pervades any scene where high contrasts are in play, particularly any sequence featuring wide shots of the royal palace and its courtyard. This is only where the grain is at its worst, as the entire presentation suffers from it to some degree or another. This grain obviously affects fine detail level proportionally; the flickering flames of the king’s candles are the worst victims, blurring and really lacking the sharpness we’ve come to expect from DVD. We aren’t talking about something you’d only see on a large television, either. This grain is perfectly visible in a 27 inch view.

Artistically speaking, though, this grain level is the least of the disc’s problems. Hero is film chock full of sumptuous imagery, carefully crafted and imagined by Yimou, and the colors have a special significance to each story. Instead of a vibrant pop, the greens (flashbacks) and blues (King’s theory) look tired and blanched. Black levels are inconsistent and contribute to a vague looking frame when overloaded. We aren’t talking about a low-budget, grindhouse chop-socky jaunt here…Hero was a major, major project in China. This is a deplorable picture, and leads me to hope for some future reissue to correct the problems. At least the menu animation is nice.

As disappointing as the picture can be on Hero, the audio is the exact opposite: impressive at absolutely every turn, right off the bat. The Mandarin 5.1 DTS track is the track of choice, and its first notable quality is its volume. This is a strong, clear, loud DTS track, really filling the room with a palpable audio presence. I loved that the film’s score, a violin-heavy orchestral composition, isn’t limited to the front lateral channels, instead residing in all four of the side channels, front and rear. The main subwoofer activity, in fact, comes from the Japanese drums on the soundtrack, it’s really phenomenal.

Besides being loud, it’s also one of the most active tracks I’ve experienced in recent memory, from the first few moments of the film all the way through, a true 5.1 surround track. The thunder of the approaching Qin horde, for example, in the early chapters really demonstrates the dynamics that a surround track is capable of. Nameless’s exhibition of his indefensible maneuver at the library contains the rare 360-pan, with each speaker handling the load perfectly. Maybe you’re the type that believes that the true test of a 5.1 track is in its quiet moments; if so, look no further than the House of Chess sequence. The serene raindrops sizzling against the bricks and trickling off the rooftops work out the rear speakers and create an aural ambience that few DVDs can rival.

Hero also features a Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin track that is not quite as loud and not quite as tight as the DTS, but formidable in its own right, as well as a track for those too lazy to read the subtitles, a 2.0 English track. I don’t know why anyone who doesn’t want to read subtitles would be into these movies, the dubbing almost invariably undermines the performance of the actor. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish, and the disc contains English closed captions for the hard of hearing.

The first Region 1 version of Hero - I’m hoping there’s a second someday - isn’t exactly teeming with bonus material. What’s here is pretty decent, starting with the twenty-three minute featurette entitled Hero Defined. The featurette is divided into sections of its own, though not chaptered, beginning with “Backstory.” As one might expect, this details the genesis of the project, which was apparently a very personal project for director Zhang Yimou. We here in mild detail about the scripting, casting, design and scoring of the film, as well as a brief familiarization with some of the big Eastern names that Westerner cineastes may not recognize. The next section, “Action,” talks about the challenges Yimou faced in directing his first action film. Jet Li and Donnie Yen, bona fide Hong Kong action stars, chime in about working with other actors who don’t have a kung fu pedigree. “Challenges” focuses mainly on shooting in the exotic and sometimes brutal locations, like the desert or the lake, and “Magic” talks about Yimou’s desired impression of his film. Overall it’s a well paced and interesting featurette, as far as they go.

The next bonus is a section of storyboards for four of the film’s sequences: “Golden Forest (1 min),” “Library (15 seconds),” “Ring of Iron (80 seconds)” and “Lake (2 minutes 49 seconds).” Miramax gets this feature right; these aren’t just stagnant sketches. They run side by side with the finished film, and it shows how close Yimou’s original vision is to the final print.

The disc also contains a thirteen minute Conversation with Jet Li and Quentin Tarantino. Basically, Tarantino talks to Li about kung fu cinema, going over Li’s pedigree and showing some of his highlights. Strangely, this section seems to omit each and every one of Li’s Hollywood efforts. Yes, even The One and Romeo Must Die…I know, I can’t believe it either. The feature is not anamorphically encoded, so it stretches the image, causing Tarantino to look overweight and his head freakishly disfigured. The camera man also appears to be drunk. Tarantino’s apparent hair plugs were so distracting that the rest of the content, mainly discussion of Hong Kong cinema, becomes secondary.

Wrapping up the supplements is a pretty interesting commercial for the film’s soundtrack. This film had some of the better marketing materials in the last year, from the trailer to all of the commercials, it’s too bad they aren’t included. In the pantheon of bonus materials, Hero’s is pretty pedestrian, seriously lacking in the quantity department.

For my money, though, the bonus package rating here is immaterial. A DVD’s raison d’etre is simply to contain a film, and seeing as I loved Hero as much as I did - this would be an A- if we rated movies - it’s very easy to wholeheartedly recommend it. The gentle but steady stream of Wu Xia imports is certain to abate at some point, and when it does, Hero will be one of the films that we remember. The performances are great, the story is interesting, and the narrative structure is fresh if not entirely original. No, the technical specs on this DVD aren’t all around great, and the supplements are a bit on the anemic side, but what’s here is certainly enough to warrant a purchase at the online discounters.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.238 Stars Number of Votes: 21
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