Hero (2002)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi
Extras: Featurette, Interview, Storyboards, Soundtrack Spot

Director Yimou Zhang is probably best known to American audiences for his 1991 film "Raise The Red Lantern, " and he is back with an incredible period piece that is a sweeping movie full of cinematic poetry and staggering imagery, called "Ying Xiong." Miramax has distributed the film here in the US under the title "Hero" with the superfluous "Quentin Tarantino presents" moniker thrown around left and right as if he had anything to do with the movie – which of course he doesn’t.

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 he 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 unfolded, 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. Off the top of my head I can’t even think of any other movie to hold a candle close to the cinematic genius that is on display in this 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. (Isn’t it absolutely ironic, if not absurd, to have Tarantino associated with this picture? The master of "throw it all at the wall and see what sticks?")

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.)

Buena Vista Home Entertainment is presenting "Hero" in its original 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD. The transfer is a bit of a mixed bag, unfortunately. It is mostly clean, though a few blemishes and speckles are evident in the print. The image detail is also good throughout, though it could be better. The black levels in the transfer are the presentation’s biggest problem. They are weak, rendering even the darkest blacks as mere grays. As a result the image oftentimes lacks proper contrast and image detail in the shadows has a tendency to break up and wash out completely. While definition in the bright parts of the image is great and reveals itself as sharp and finely delineated, it is this lack of shadow definition that turns many great shots into artifact-ridden murkiness. 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. Fortunately these scenes are nicely reproduced for the most part, bringing out this wonderful part of the production.

The audio comes as a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> and an optional <$DTS,DTS> track in the movie’s original Mandarin language. While an English dub is also available on the DVD I have not checked it out for obvious reasons. The audio is very clear and rich with subtle ambient details. It is in tracks like this one that DTS can fully play its trump card, as even the softest timbres and sonic textures are perfectly captured and reproduced in this highly dynamic track. The frequency response is wide and solid with good bass and clear high ends and dialogues are well integrated without ever drowning out.

As extras the DVD contains an in 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.

Much better 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 copy of "Hero" and see what great movies are made of!