Film & DVD Review
Two thousand years ago...
At the end of China's Warring States, the Kingdom of Qin is the most ruthless and ambitious of the seven states. Its King is the target of assassin from all over China. Of all the would be assassins, Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky are the most dangerous. When Nameless kills all three, he is offered a chance to meet the King. Nameless explains to the King how he used their personal relationships to expose and attack their weaknesses, but the King tells a different version of the same story...
Please note that this DVD release of the film does not have english subtitles for the text at the start and end of the film. The text is, however, very important. The Hong Kong Edko release DOES have the text subtitled.
Hero is a film that a large number of the martial art and Asian film fan community were looking forward to for quite a long time. The hype surrounding it built up over time, and sites like MonkeyPeaches kept us well and truely informed as to every goings on in the development of the film. Then the bad news started to flood in...
One of the financial backers for the film, and the distrubtor for the non-Asian countries is the dreaded Miramax. They may be good with Hollywood films, but when it comes to any film Asian, they are among the worst. Prior to this film, Zhang Yimou had established himself as a highly respected and acclaimed film director, but yet there are people at Miramax that believe they know better than him when it comes to the film he is directing. At the, alleged, insistence of Miramax officials, Zhang Yimou was "asked" to edit out of the film over 20 minutes worth of footage. Why? I've no idea, and neither do the people who were working on the film if reports are to be believed. The reasons are likely to be the same as for a lot of the editting of other Asian titles by Miramax et al - for "better" pacing, and to make it more accesable for Western audiences. Cleary Miramax et al believe that Westerners have the attention span of a goldfish, and have an inability to accept anything outside thier own culture. In my opinion companies like this should be banned from ever laying their greedy, ignorant hands on Asian films ever again.
Enough of the rant and on to what we are left with. Because of the 20 or so minutes cut out, the theatrical release of the film, which is the same as all versions currently available on DVD at time of writing (15 May), runs at 98 minutes. So what do those 98 minutes do as a film? Well in my opinion, still a hell of a lot!
Hero is a martial art/wuxia film like no other I have ever seen before. Zhang Yimou is best known as being a rather arty director, and that style is clearly portrayed in virtually every single shot of the film. From the colours to the scenery, everything is simply stunning to look at. Anyway, more on that in a bit, first the film's plot.
Actually no, I won't give that much detail away about the film at all, but what I will do is quote the opening text of the film, which gives as much information as you should need to know, without ruining anything.
During the Warring States period,
China was divided into seven Kingdoms.
For years they battled for supremacy
while the people suffered.
The King of Qin was the most ruthless
in his efforts to conquer the land
and unify all under heaven.
He was regarded as a common threat
by the other six Kingdoms.
The annals of Chinese history
are abound with tales of the assassins
sent to kill the great King
This is one of those legends...
Dramatic, huh? The vast majority of Hero is told as flashback's through Nameless (Jet Li) as he speaks of his encounters to Emperor Qin (Chen Dao Ming), and each of these flashbacks has its own distinct colour and style which will leave you breathless. I'll put it simply, the cinematography and colours are so simply stunning that you are unlikely to see a more visually incredible film in your life. The vibrance of the colours and how they reflect the mood of the scenes is beyond words. They make you want to get perfect stills of each and every frame, and then put them up as pictures in your room/house as they are that pleasing to look at. Really. I am not exaggerating. Grey, red, green, blue and white are the main colours used for the flashbacks, and believe me, those colours will never look so good on your TV ever again. For the ability to envisage these scenes and actually create them, Zhang Yimou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle should be commended. To see screen grabs of the film, the following link takes you to a site with a huge collection of still from the film. This way you can see for yourself how incredible the film looks. Click here for the site. Warning though, some of the images may contain spoilers to what happens in the film. So only look at your own risk!
Now the film itself. There were a lot of people who were a little disappointed with the end product once Hero came out. This could be a little bit due to over-hyping, possibly because the editted out footage has ruined some of the power of the film, or also because there were undoubtedly going to be some comparisons to the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Personally I was not disappointed. I thought the story was told exceptionally well, keeping your interest throughout, and the minor twists and turns as the story progressed kept the film from being too linear. The plot was gripping, and the message behind it, whether or not you agree with it, is powerfully conveyed. The music almost perfectly fits the tone and mood of the film, and can't really be faulted. For me, there are only two places where the film does slightly faulter.
The first of these two is that I didn't find Zhang Ziyi's performance to be as convincing as it could have been. She seemed to lack the ability to portray her emotions as well, or as convincingly, as the likes of Tony Leung or Maggie Cheung, who both were quite simply outstanding in their respective roles as Broken Sword and Flying Snow. Tony Leung, after this and several of his other recent films, is without question one of my favourite actors around just now, as it just seems there is nothing this man can't do acting wise. With Jet Li, however, the jury is still out regarding his acting performance. Fighting? He can do that brilliantly with his eyes closed, but his acting delivery is again in the complete dead pan fashion. The expressionless face could very well be deliberate, as it does work with his character, but with him having been in so many roles where this is how he acted, at some time you maybe have to ask if that is how the character is meant to be, or just how he acts? Fortunately in Hero it works. All in all, the acting is of a very high standard, with Chen Dao Ming rounding up the main actors, with an excellent potrayal of the King of Qin.
The second flaw, which I admit on second viewing was not as serious as I had first thought, was the character development throughout the film. I felt that the characters weren't made to be really cared for by the audience. The development to make the viewer feel for them was a little lacking. Take Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an example. I feel it had very well developed characters, and the sad ending had far more power as a result. In Hero though, this development is far less noticable. Mainly due to their outstanding performances, it is Tony Leung's and Maggie Cheung's characters which you feel most for, indeed they possibly are the only ones you feel for, and this invoked emotion is really needed for Nameless, as he is the main character in the film. Alas it is lacking a little. Whether the 20 minutes that is missing from the film will help this matter is unknown, but if it does, it will go on to make the film even better.
Countless paragraphs in, and I'm only now mentioning the fight scenes! Despite there being plenty of action, the beauty of the rest of the film overshadows the fights, making them seem like a secondary article in the film. However, don't let that put you off as they are still highly entertaining to watch. The style of fighting is even more wuxia orientated than the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The martial arts masters can fly through the air with balletic grace, and have unfathomable power in their attacks. I will not describe any of the fight scenes, as that may give things away as to what happens in the film, but I will say the highlight it undoubtedly the Jet Li against Donnie Yen fight. This fight is pretty much Donnie Yen's entire role in the film, and it is also the most complex fight of the film. This will be because both Donnie and Jet are trained martial artists, unlike the other actors and actresses in the film. The colours, music and rain all add more layers to the scene and make it a memorable experience. Style does rule the game here, but Zhang Yimou's style quite simply works. The amount of honour among the fighters which is shown in this film also surpasses anything I've seen in other films. At the start, and, where applicable, the end of most of the fights, the fighters bow to each other, showing their repsect. This is the most evident in the Donnie Yen against the King's Officials fight, as when they realise that they are completely out matched, they bow and stand out his way. It is all a nice touch, I thought!
Audio & Subtitles
The audio option I chose to watch the film in was the DTS soundtrack. DTS apparently gives the best quality sound available, so I figured why should I settle for anything less! Anyway, like everything else in this production, the sound err... sounded flawless. All five channels were used effectively, with the wind in the golden leaves fight swirling around each of the speakers, the rain drops splashing from speaker to speaker, it really was great to listen to. The music was also handled very well, sometimes just coming from the front speakers, and at other times coming from all around. Simply put the entire soundtrack was excellent, and perfectly fit the mood of the film.
The subtitles are the only place where this release of Hero really shoots itself in the foot. At the beginning and the end of the film there are sentences of Chinese text on screen which set the scene for the film and conclude the film, respectively. Now they really are vital to the whole film's story. So with all the rest of the speech being perfectly subtitled in English, why, oh why, did the text have to be left unsubtitled?!? I really cannot understand this! If a company was going to put an english language set of subtitles on a Chinese film, I thought it would be common sense to realise that anyone who is going to require the English subs is not going to be able to read the Chinese text! Clearly I was wrong! Unfathomable reasoning for this blunder aside, the rest of the subs are perfect. Nice and clear, with no spelling or grammar errors.
Picture wise, I also cannot fault the film. It is presented in a nice and crisp 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio. Being a high profile end of 2002 film, I certianly wouldn't have expected there to be anything wrong with the print, and fortunately this is the case. The colour levels are used to their fullest, and are bold and vibrant and full of life. There was no noticable grain or blemishes on the print at all.
DVD & Extras
This being a mainland Chinese release, where English is not as widely spoken as in Hong Kong, all the menues for the disc are in Chinese. As such I didn't really know what else was on it, as I didn't have a clue what the menues were saying! Given the price that this version of the film can be bought for (£2-3 before delivery!), I got it just for the film, not the extras! The DVD packaging is very nice though. The outer slip case (pictured at top of page) covers the main DVD case, which is the same image, but with a red colour scheme instead of the yellow/brown.
In conclusion, Hero is one of the better, and most unique, films which I have seen in the past quite a while. For me it breathes fresh life into the martial arts/wuxia genre as the style and approach is unlike anything which has preceeded it. The story is good, the acting, on the whole, is very good, the fights are good, and it looks amazing. I really don't have much else to say other than track down a copy of this film now!
I would have bought this film earlier if it weren't for the rumoured release of the Extended Cut. The Extended Cut is essentially the Director's Cut, i.e. the way the film was supposed to be before Miramax butted in. However, that edition has been delayed for month after month, and I couldn't stand it any longer! Despite not wanting to support anything that Miramax have butchered, I had to buy this film! The existence of the Director's Cut, whenever it gets released, is the only reason the film lost half a point in its rating, as I figure that cut will be better, so I had to leave some room for improvement!
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