Hero (2002)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Dao Ming
Extras: Featurettes, Interview, Storyboards

For some time, director Yimou Zhang has delivered a series of incredibly impressive movies that made Chinese cinema accessible and popular here in the US. Audiences here took first notice of the director in 1991 when his film "Raise The Red Lantern, " got recognition, but the string of successes continued and with every film, it seemed as if Zhang is topping himself yet again. The 2002 movie "Hero" was clearly one of the master's highlights as it showcases not only his sense for dramatic story arcs, but for his incredible visual style. The film, called "Ying Xiong" in its original version is nothing short of cinematic poetry.

Set during the time of the Seven Kingdoms in China, a nameless swordsman (Jet Li) has killed three notorious assassins (Donnie Yen, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) that the King (Chen Dao Ming) of the kingdom of Qin and all his men have been unable to capture or kill. To celebrate the occasion he is brought before the King, rewarded and asked to tell the story how he, a lowly, unknown prefect in the kingdom was able to bring to an end the lives for the best warriors the kingdom had ever seen before.

Willingly, the swordsman tells his story but the King is wary of the amount of truth in the Nameless One's recollection and offers his own interpretation of how the events may have played out, and thus unfolds a film that tells a variety of angles and possible scenarios around the notorious death of the three assassins and the purpose they may have served.

To put it very bluntly, "Hero" is by far the most beautiful and most poetic film I have seen in many years. Like Zhang's own "Curse Of The Golden Flower," which came in 2006, this movie is in a league entirely of its own. Using all techniques at the hands of a filmmaker – color, contrast, light, sound, action, editing, and so forth – Yimou Zhang proves that he masters them all like few directors in the world can. Particularly his use of color and the sense of serene cinematography that is hauntingly beautiful make "Hero" stand out among any other film. The mood and atmosphere is almost dreamlike despite the fact that we are watching in full-blown action movie. Moments are subtle, emotions are deep, characters are balanced and the pacing is perfect. Add to that the restrained music by Dun Tan and this movie turns into an exercise where less is so much more.

Awash in wonderfully rich colors, flowing gowns, thousands of extras lining the screen, filled with blistering fight choreography and topped of with impeccable performances by some of Hong Kong's best, "Hero" is a treat for every fan of thoughtful foreign cinema. (It is too bad, though that a small actress like Zhang Ziyi is given prominent placement on the cover despite her one-line part in the film, whereas Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung, who essentially carries the entire film with her character of Flying Snow, is barely featured at all. Hollywood studio politics are just completely beyond me sometimes, I'm sorry.)

The DVD version of the movie was spectacular to say the least, but with Blu-Ray's vastly superior capabilities I was extremely eager to see how "Hero" would look like in high definition. To give you the essence in a nutshell — it is absolutely mind blowing!

The transfer boasts a 1080p high definition presentation in the movie's original widescreen aspect ratio and to say it is clean would be an understatement. In fact, the transfer is virtually pristine – a marked improvement over the DVD transfer in all respect. The image is highly defined and sharp, giving the expansive vista shots incredible detail, while also making sure that during close-ups, textures and edges are rendered superbly. The black levels are deep giving the image the visual depths it lacked on the DVD version, now rendering shadows properly deep but always with the proper amount of detail intact. Colors are wonderfully rich in the presentation, which is key to a successful presentation of this movie in particular. The director has painted entire scenes in individual color palettes in hues that are vibrant and rich, boasting life and emotion. The Blu-Ray version makes sure these colors virtually leap off the screen, drenching the viewer in their atmosphere. Even the most subtle shades and colorations are evident in the transfer, making it a true feast for the eye.

The release features the original Mandarin audio track of the movie in Dolby Digital 5.1, while an English dub is provided also, in DTS 5.1 HD Master audio format. Now, one could argue why the original track is presented in an inferior format than the dub, but I guess we all know the answer to that, so why quibble with the inevitable. Either way, however, the audio is wonderfully directional and makes constant use of the surround channels. It offers a wide frequency response and impressive dynamic range, adding to the overall atmosphere and action on the screen.

The bonus materials included in this release have all been retrieved from the previous DVD version and, while they are of good quality, they are sadly presented in standard definition here also.

It starts out with an interview segment in which Quentin Tarantino talks to the movie's star, Jet Li. It is a fairly interesting piece as Li is talking about some of the challenges this film posed both technically and stylistically, but ultimately Tarantino barely manages to get his questions focused on anything but the film's action sequences.

It ties in nicely with the featurette "Close-Up Of A Fight Scene" which takes a closer look at the actual shoot.

then there is the 25-minute featurette "Hero Defined" which features interviews with cast and crew members as well as plenty of on-set footage from the film's shoot. It not only talks about the characters and production but also gives director Yimou Zhang the chance to talk a bit more about his intentions, the expectations with which he jumped into this project.

Storyboard to film comparisons for four scenes from the movie are also included giving you the chance to compare how the initial concepts turned into the final film.

Lightning fast action, choreographed by the incomparable and legendary Ching Siu-Tung, and heartfelt drama on an epic level make up the experience of "Hero." It is a film like you may never have seen before and it is a movie that breaks with Fantasia swordplay formulae to present a kinetic, energetic, and emotional story that is as memorable as the best films I've seen. Do yourself a favor, if you love movies. Go, get yourself a Blu-Ray copy of "Hero" and see what great movies are made of and experience at a level of quality that is simply unsurpassed.