Judge Mitchell Hattaway can kill any DVD at ten paces.
One man will challenge an empire.
One of my favorite films of the past several years has made it to DVD, and I'm not happy.
Facts of the Case
China, Third Century B.C. The country is divided into seven warring kingdoms. The most powerful of these kingdoms is Qin; the king of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) has vowed to unite (read: conquer) the other kingdoms. Fearing assassination, he has spent the last several years within the confines of his palace, never removing his armor. The king receives word that a Nameless prefect (Jet Li, Black Mask) claims to have defeated three assassins who had sworn to kill the king. Nameless is allowed into the king's audience chamber, where he regales the monarch with the tale of how he defeated the assassins. Upon completion of the tale, the king expresses disbelief, and then provides his own version of the events in Nameless's story. He believes Nameless is actually an assassin, and has concocted the story as a means of getting close enough to the king to carry out his mission. Only after the king has completed his version of events is the truth revealed.
Hero was released in China in 2002, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Miramax snapped up the rights for distribution here in the United States, and Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein immediately set about editing the film. (You can almost here him: "It's great! It's like a cross between Rashomon and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon! I can't wait to cut twenty minutes out of it!") Then he stuck it on the shelf and left it there; in the meantime, fans in the know started snapping up import DVDs of the film. 2004 rolls around, and enter Quentin Tarantino, who convinces Harvey to release the film unedited. Thank the deity of your choosing for small favors.
Hero is built around a somewhat simple plot, but that simplicity belies the depth of character and emotion revealed in the visual aspects of the film; it's impossible to imagine this story, as told, in any other medium. Director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad) has created a visual poem; it's almost like a series of painting brought to life. Simply put, Hero is the most stunning example of pure cinematic storytelling I've seen in quite some time, at least since I Am Cuba.
Yimou, who began his career in film as a cinematographer, believes audiences will remember this film primarily for its visual aspects, and he's absolutely correct. I know there are moments from this film I will never forget: Nameless advancing through drops of water suspended in air during his chess house fight with Sky (Donnie Yen, Iron Monkey); thousands of arrows piercing the walls and roof of the calligraphy school (which possibly one-ups the climax of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood); Moon (Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) caught in a whirlwind of yellow leaves in the midst of her battle with Snow (Maggie Cheung, The Heroic Trio); the army of Qin massing around the dueling Nameless and Snow; thousand of scrolls crashing to the floor of the calligraphy school after Nameless has cut their bindings; Nameless splitting the white arrow; Nameless and Broken Sword leaping about the surface of a lake, and Broken's determination to catch an errant drop of water; the volley of arrows being fired inside the walls of Qin; Broken Sword scrawling a message to Nameless in the shifting sands; and finally, Snow's ultimate act of love for Broken Sword.
Yimou has assembled an outstanding team of collaborators for Hero. Each assassin's story has its own dominant color, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who photographed such films as Chungking Express, Rabbit Proof Fence, and Gus Van Sant's pointless Psycho remake, uses a bold, vivid color palette to help convey the prevailing emotion and theme of each piece of the tale. The costumes, by Emi Wada, and the production design, courtesy of Huo Ting Xiao and Yi Zhen Zhou, are incredible. The music, composed by Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), with violin and fiddle work from Itzhak Perlman and percussion by Kodo, is beautiful. The action choreography of Tony Ching Siu-Tung (A Better Tomorrow II, Dragon Inn) is, well, dazzling (that's the understatement of the year). The acting, across the board, is excellent. (I was planning on dropping in a line about wanting Maggie Cheung's and Zhang Ziyi's phone numbers, but I think I'll refrain.)
Audio options for this release include Mandarin Dolby Digital and DTS tracks, as well as needless English and French dubs. As can be expected, the DTS track trumps the others, although at times it's a little too punchy. Some of the sound effects are mixed a little too prominently, as if they were needed to really sell the action. Extras include a (thankfully) short interview/conversation between Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li, which isn't an interview/conversation at all; it's really one of those stupid infomercial deals Miramax runs on Bravo. There's also a featurette on the making of the film, and it's far too short (I'm not sure I could ever get too much information about this film). You also get some blurry storyboards and an advertisement for the film's soundtrack.
Ah, but what about the disc's video quality? Read on…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The transfer is a crime; it's tantamount to visiting the Louvre and finding the Mona Lisa covered with cheesecloth. As with many Miramax releases of late (Kill Bill Volume 2 and the Collector's Series release of The English Patient come to mind), there are compression issues—overcompression to be exact. The picture here is very soft, with far too much grain and edge enhancement. (There are moments when the picture is absolutely beautiful, but they're few and far between.) Backgrounds often look horrendous; there's very little depth to the image. A very good example of the transfer's inconsistencies occurs early in the film. There is a close-up of Donnie Yen, and the picture is so clear and detailed you can almost count the pores in his face. The next shot is of Yen and Jet Li coming together to duel, and the picture immediately falls apart. The detail is lost, and artifacts fill the screen. The film's distinctive color scheme is generally well-served, although reds tend to suffer; one scene in the calligraphy school is almost painful to watch—the reds bleed like a hemophiliac with a severed limb. This film is a visual masterpiece; it's the most stunningly beautiful film I've seen in many years, and its treatment here is unforgivable.
The extras are skimpy, too. Come on, this film cries out for a huge, monster special edition. I wouldn't care if the extras were all in Chinese; I've forgotten everything I learned in high school French (except the slang and vulgarities, of course), but that didn't stop me from buying a French-produced Brotherhood of the Wolf.
It's sad—Miramax has taken a piece of art and treated it like fodder for the kind of Saturday afternoon chop-socky theater I used to watch on television when I was younger. Nonetheless, Hero demands to be seen. Although I've tried, I don't think words can properly convey this film's power and beauty; you'll need to see it for yourself. If the Miramax release is your only option, then by all means rent it. If you can manage to find one of the imports, buy it. If you happen to know the people responsible for this transfer, smack them upside their heads.
Not guilty artistically. Way guilty technically. For shame.
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Scales of Justice
• "Inside The Action: A Conversation With Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li" Featurette
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