Zhang Yimou’s HERO (2002) is the centerpiece of Miramax’s new Ultimate Force of Four martial arts Blu-Ray box set (which also includes the American re-edit of DRUNKEN MASTER II, IRON MONKEY, and Takeshi Kitano’s remake of ZATOICHI) and is probably the best known of the films to Western audiences. The internationally acclaimed film was famously saved from the ignominy of the Weinstein’s vault by fan Quentin Tarantino, who helped secure a successful North American release of the uncut print in its original language (a fate not shared by many Hong Kong martial arts films in the States.) The historical epic (whose surreal stylization and fanciful martial arts action pushes it into Fant-Asia territory) broke box office records when it was released in China in 2002, where its none-too-thinly veiled support of a unified China (filming began only 4 years after the British handover in 1997) struck a patriotic chord with audiences.
Hero is structured around a meeting between a warrior known only as “Nameless” (Jet Li, demonstrating a vitality and strength at nearly 40 that most never see at less than half that age) and the King of the Qin territory(Daoming Chen) in the years before the birth of Christ, when modern China was composed of several large (and frequently warring) states. Nameless is being rewarded for killing several assassins from the enemy state of Zhao that have plagued the King for years. The King invites Nameless to tell him stories of how he overcame these mighty warriors, allowing the warrior to move closer to the throne with each story. Nameless first tells him of defeating Long Sky (Iron Monkey’s Donnie Chen, reunited with Li after many years) in a Weiqi parlor, then bringing the tip of his broken lance to a calligraphy school in Zhao, where he uses it as a means of driving a wedge of jealously between lovers Flying Snow (Maggie Chung, of Irma Vep and as Jackie Chan’s long suffering girlfriend May in the Police Story series) and Broken Sword (one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Tony Leung, from John Woo’s Hard-Boiled and Red Cliff and the Infernal Affairs series that was later remade in the US as The Departed) and tricking them into fighting each other, with Nameless ready to dispatch the loser. At this point the King interrupts Nameless’ tale and questions its validity; the King himself had once faced these warriors in battle and doesn’t believe that they would be duped so easily. Is Nameless really the heroic Qin warrior that he claims to be, or has the King allowed an assassin close enough to kill him?
It’s no surprise that Quentin Tarantino became an outspoken fan of Hero; however much his impish geek routine frays even our resolute nerves, his adoration of certain genres of film is infectious, and without his sway at Miramax, Hero might even today have been rotting in the company’s 2002 film festival swag bag. The fragmented storytelling style closely resembles Tarantino’s own, particularly when certain scenes are replayed to suit the duplicitous needs of the storyteller.
Director Yimou began his Hong Kong career as a cinematographer, and his directorial debut, 1987’s Red Sorghum made startling use of color to convey story and emotion. Hero’s palate is nothing short of spectacular, with scene after scene bathed in deep, rich primary colors. Watch closely a scene between Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Nameless in the calligraphy school. We actually see two versions played out in the film – to explain exactly why would constitute a mean-spirited spoiler – first in a vivid red and then again in a pale blue (or green, depending on how well calibrated your monitor is) and we marvel each time we see it at how much the alteration of the color scheme changes our perception.
It’s great to see Maggie Chung and Tony Leung reunited 2 years after appearing in Wong Kar-wai’s haunting In the Mood for Love, and their character’s relationship gives this very formally structured film an emotional heart that resonates. And we loved hearing that Jet Li personally intervened with Yimou to have Donnie Yen cast in the smaller role of Long Sky; of all the main actors, Chen is likely to be least familiar with American audiences. Yen’s career recently got a huge boost with the release of Ip Man, a critical and commercial smash about the Wing Chung master who taught Bruce Lee (sadly, still no information about a North American release).
But Hero rises and falls on the presence of Jet Li, the only Hong Kong martial arts star other than Jackie Chan to cast a large shadow over the American box office. From the late ’90s onward, Li had been dividing his time between mostly forgettable US fare, including Cradle 2 the Grave and The One and a final burst of excellent Hong Kong pictures like Ronny Yu’s 2006 Fearless, likely to be Li’s last true martial arts epic. Li doesn’t have the acting chops of co-stars like Tony Leung, but his Nameless character – though nominally the protagonist – steps aside for large sections of the film, allowing his strong co-stars to take center stage. Stoic expressions aside, Li has tremendous charisma which plays off beautifully in the film’s final moments.
Hero’s martial arts sequences divide many fans of the genre; they are breathtakingly photographed and impeccably choreographed, but are heavily weighed down with digital effects. Some are subtle, as with the removal of wires (the film is heavily dependent on wire work in the action sequences – a long tradition in Hong Kong films, but a harder sell in America outside of art house darlings like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) but other large scale sequences – like the arrow attack on the calligraphy school – suffer a bit from their overuse. Fortunately, the action sequences grow organically from the story, and the occasional dodgy effects are never too troublesome.
Hero’s Blu-Ray transfer is pleasing – certainly the best the film has looked on home video – and it is currently the only HD offering of the title. Color and detail are thankfully quite strong, making their counterparts on Miramax’s standard def DVD look pale by comparison.
At the urging of Tarantino, Hero was released theatrically without the all-too typical edits and English dub track to which most Hong Kong films are subjected when they come under the corporate wing – that’s the good news. The bad news is that, on Blu-ray, the powerful lossless DTS audio is only available for the English-dubbed track; thankfully, the Mandarin audio sounds just fine, but this decision demonstrates the studio’s bewildering and habitual mishandling of these films.
All extras from the standard DVD release have been ported over, including the EPK making-of documentary Hero Defined, while the interesting Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li is filmed in such a distractingly jittery way that even the participants don’t seem to know where to look most of the time.
New to Blu-Ray is Close-Up of a Fight Scene, which is actually culled from the same interview and behind-the-scenes footage from which the documentary is made – not worth an upgrade on its own.
All extras are in standard definition and the package also included a digital copy of the film.
Click below to read reviews of the three other films from the set at the Blood-Spattered Scribe: