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Miramax Pictures presents
Hero (Ying xiong) (2002)

"I was orphaned at a young age and was never given a name. People simply called me 'Nameless.' With no family name to live up to, I devoted myself to the sword."
- Nameless (Jet Li)

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: November 30, 2004

Stars: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Dao Ming
Other Stars: Donnie Yen, Liu Zhong Yuan, Zhang Tian Yong, Qin Yan, Chang Xiao Yang, Zhang Ya Kun
Director: Zhang Yimou

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for stylized martial arts violence, a scene of sensuality
Run Time: 01h:39m:03s
Release Date: November 30, 2004
UPC: 786936259223
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Zhang Yimou is one of the best directors working in the world today. However, nothing he has done before will prepare you for his latest film, Hero (Ying xiong). Watching this remarkable blend of martial arts and drama is a visual treat that does to the art of visual images what Shakespeare did to the written word—it moves them to a new level of beauty and majesty.

Before China became one nation, it was seven divided states locked in a perpetual war. The King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) is leading a quest to conquer all of China for the land to be ruled by one centralized government. As the story begins, a master swordsman (Jet Li) is meeting with the King after having successfully killed off three dangerous assassins. The swordsman is truly a man with no name, being referred to only as "Nameless." Director Zhang Yimou and his co-writers construct the narrative around Nameless' meeting with the King, in which he retells his tales of swift, brutal duty to his country.

Within moments of the film's opening, the story plunges into a fantastic sword fight between Nameless and one of the assassins, Sky (played by one of the perennial figures in martial arts' films, Donnie Yen). Those who have seen The Matrix films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the Kill Bill movies will probably assume that everything that can be done with a fight scene has already been done, but Yimou proves that there's plenty more to be achieved. Immediately he combines the now-famous elements of "bullet time" and having his characters fly through the air in an almost mythic manner with a raw energy that the other films lack. While Kill Bill conveys the brutality of such fights with gore, Hero uses music and performances to make these fight scenes not only exciting, but also integral to the plot.

One of the most significant elements to the story is that the viewer never really knows the truth. The opening 45 minutes are merely a recounting by Nameless of how he vanquished his enemy. At a certain point one has to wonder if his stories can be true; after all, he claims that while infiltrating the enemy he and the assassin Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) successfully warded off hundreds of thousands of arrows from the Qin army. The scene is one of the most breathtaking action scenes in cinema history, full of sweeping shots that seamlessly blend live-action performances with gargantuan CGI shots of the archers, but what follows it is the work of a master filmmaker.

Yimou turns the film on its ear by challenging Nameless' stories. The King quickly becomes suspect that Nameless himself is an assassin who collaborated with the other hired killers, including Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Moon (Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi), in order to get within striking distance to finish the job. Now we are treated to a Rashomon style of storytelling in which it is unclear to the viewer what to believe. Unlike the classic Kurosawa film, Yimou does ultimately tell us the truth of what transpired in these past events between Nameless and the assassins. In a sense he has to, because without letting the audience know exactly what happened it would be impossible for us to understand who the hero of the film is.

Unlike most action films, it isn't entirely clear who the title character is. Initially one would expect it to be Jet Li; after all, he's the main star. But none of the character's can be fit into a box. The King is at once a tyrant and an idealist, both ruthless and compassionate. Each of the assassins has their own reason for wanting the King dead, for he is invading their lands. The most enigmatic character of the bunch is Nameless, who at times seems to enjoy killing others and at other times seems to realize the futility of such violence. Thankfully, everybody's performance conveys the intricacies, but not the way actors usually do.

The dialogue is secondary here, because, after all, it's a Wu Xie martial arts film. Apart from Jackie Chan, Jet Li is probably the best martial artist making movies today and he comes through in spades here. In previous movies, Li has always been impressive as a spectacle but this time he uses his immense skill to not only impress the audience but to also develop the character. There are subtle differences in the way he conducts himself depending on whose point-of-view the story is being told from. In the scenes told by Nameless, Li is powerful and to the point. In the scenes told by the King (especially the unbelievable fight scene between Nameless and Broken Sword on a lake), his moves are more thoughtful and emotional. Accompanying Li are tremendous performances by the other actors, particularly Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk. Both of them use subtle facial expressions to present an immensely complex relationship between the two characters that adds a whole new human dimension to the film.

Still, the most remarkable achievement of Hero is its visuals. Compared to the major blockbuster epics of today like Troy and Alexander, this is in a league of its own. The major shots of thousands upon thousands of soldiers, although probably CGI, look amazingly real. The lush, grand cinematography by Christopher Doyle is something to behold. Several films have tried to capture the epic visuals of China and fail. Doyle's work is on a level with Vittorio Storaro's on The Last Emperor—which means it is easily one of the most beautiful films ever made. Equally impressive are the sets by Huo Ting Xiao and Yi Zhen Zhou, as well as the costumes by Emi Wada. The gorgeous red dresses of Moon and Flying Snow when they battle in the middle of a golden forest are truly striking.

Accompanying the visual design of the film is the fantastic editing by Zhai Ru and Angie Lam, who marvelously cut between close-ups and wide shots that give the viewer a sense of geography, show off the fight moves, and punch in to present the actors' performances. Also worth note is the score by Tan Dun, which enriches the on screen action by presenting the psychological state of mind for each of the characters.

Hero is not just a fantastic martial arts film, but simply an amazing film, hands down. It is a stunning work of visual art that also works on an emotional and intellectual level. Zhang Yimou is certainly not the first person that comes to mind when thinking about this kind of movie, but his direction here may be the best of his entire career. Hero will easily be one of the ten best films of this year.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Like other Miramax releases of late, the image transfer here is not as good as it should be. The original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is preserved with luscious colors and strong detail throughout, but there's also a lot of grain during the scenes between Nameless and the King. Blacks are not particularly impressive, though they aren't especially distracting either. Depth is well maintained, creating a film-like look. There are a few instances of print defects during the opening credits, though the don't reappear during the rest of the film. The cinematography still looks stunning, but the transfer doesn't represent it as well as it could.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, French, Mandarinyes

Audio Transfer Review: The preferential way to listen to the film is in its original Mandarin language, however there are also English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks for those who are interested. The dubbing of the English track is not especially good, but it's a small price to pay for those who can't stand subtitles.

The DTS Mandarin track is a real treat, with superb sound separation and directionality. The opening sword fight between Nameless and Sky sounds great, with the clashing of the swords refracting throughout all the speakers, making it sound as if the fight is taking place right in your room. The musical score sounds nice, being used both in the surround speakers as well as across the front soundstage. The highlight of the mix is the scene with the Qin archers firing upon Flying Snow and Nameless, which is a wonderfully robust use of the home theater system. The Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also very good, though not quite as dynamic and crisp as the DTS. Dialogue sounds a bit flatter in it than in the DTS and some of the sound effects, especially winds, don't come through as well. Either mix is a fantastic listen, however.

Audio Transfer Grade: A+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish with remote access
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:08m:50s

Extras Review: Completing this release of Hero is a collection of extras that are not particularly extensive. A documentary called Hero Defined (24m:01s) is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, featuring interviews with director Yimou, the entire cast, as well as some of the crew. Some of the information is provided in English, but the bulk of the interviews are in Mandarin. The documentary combines mini-DV footage of the making of the film with clips from the final product while telling the story of Yimou's desire to make this kind of a movie for a long time. Learning of the adverse weather conditions and location shooting makes the film even more impressive, so this is definitely worth a watch.

Following that is a collection of storyboard comparisons. Four select scenes can be played either separately or together for a combined runtime of 5m:24s. The top portion of the screen features the storyboards, while the bottom shows the finished scene in the film. Set to portions of the score, this extra is worth a watch, perhaps especially because it isn't very long. Next is the featurette Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino & Jet Li (13m:56s). For those who don't know, Tarantino is largely responsible for the film receiving a theatrical release in the US. The two men primarily talk about the whole of Jet Li's career and include some clips from his early work, but about halfway into the feature the interview portion is dropped in favor of a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. Other cast members and film critics talk about the movie and Li's performance, which makes this extra also worthwhile.

The final supplement is a television spot for the soundtrack, which runs 41 seconds.

The extras here are a nice compliment to the movie, but certainly one needs to be suspicious about Miramax's plans to release a fully loaded special edition later on.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Hero (Ying xiong) is one of the most incredible films in a long time. It is both epic and intimate, exciting and contemplative. This DVD from Miramax has a less than stellar image transfer, though Christopher Doyle's cinematography still is stunning to look at. The Mandarin DTS and Dolby Digital tracks are fantastic listens, and there's a English Dolby Digital 5.1 track for those who want to avoid subtitles as well. The extras aren't amazing but are well worth a look. Despite the fact that there will probably be a special edition DVD of this somewhere down the road, it's highly recommended.


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