Hero is a deviation of a sorts for Zhang Yimou, a director who used melodrama and Gong Li to popular effect throughout the ‘90s and who has yet to outperform the success of his Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern. Now, Miramax is positioning the orgiastic Hero as Zhang’s daring answer to Ang Lee’s dopey Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film is less narratively underwhelming but it’s infinitely more dazzling and spiritually profound. Crouching Tiger‘s critical reception was curious at best: Armond White called Lee’s imitation of Hong Kong cinema a sincere form of flattening; Kent Jones and Michael Atkinson suggested that the film could be enjoyed regardless of one’s relationship to its more authentic precursors like Peking Opera Blues; while J. Hoberman, most tellingly, placed “the fight scenes” from the film on his top 10 runner-up list for that year. Hero is essentially a chamber piece and it employs a Rashomon-like narrative mechanism throughout its 90 minutes that’s every bit in service of the film as its sumptuous mise-en-scène, delirious pacing, and eye-popping aerial effects. If Crouching Tiger was lavishly soporific, Hero is almost invasively mood-enhancing. Jet Li stars as Nameless, a warrior who may or may not be conspiring against a Qin warlord with the help of his three would-be assassins (the all-star triad is played by Donny Yen, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai). Hero is alive with Chinese history, electrified by the dizzying sensuality of its convoluted love triangle, and ennobled by its acknowledgement of basic Taoist principles (indeed, trust is the film’s weapon of choice). Heavily psychological, the color-coded set pieces are paced like musical numbers and suggest the film’s art department and superstar cinematographer Chris Doyle are feng shui enthusiasts, and while green curtains seem to exist solely so they could fall deliriously to the ground, there’s still an overwhelming sense here that the power of the sword is inextricably linked to the forces of color and nature. Hero is elliptical, primal, radically disjointed, and female-empowering. Everything a wu xia should be…and then some.
Hero is a film of startling aesthetic contrasts, so don't be surprised by the level of grain and less-than-desirable blacks throughout its more monochrome sequences-when Christopher Doyle's succulent pageantry of colors kicks things into high gear, the beauty of this transfer becomes apparent. If at all possible, the sound is superior. If your system-and ears-can handle it, opt for the 5.1 DTS track: As soon as the stomping sounds of a marching army intertwine with the flapping of their flags, your jaw will drop to the floor.
It's amusing how Miramax continues to allow their foreign properties to collect dust. Infinitely funnier is how they insist on tricking audiences into thinking that every Asian import they release is a product of Quentin Tarantino's imagination. Indeed, you'll have to strain real hard to find Zhang Yimou's name on this Hero DVD's artwork (Tarantino's appears no less than three times). Though the "Hero Defined" feature threatens to be a whitewashed account of the making of the film, it's actually a very insightful piece, featuring interviews with much of the cast and crew. (Now, imagine how much better it would have been if they nixed the cloying "movie trailer guy" voiceover.) I can't tell you how good "Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li" is because I was shocked by how much weight Tarantino has put on in the last year. Rounding out the disc are four storyboard sequences and a soundtrack spot.
The extras are scarce but Quentin Tarantino's, err, Zhang Yimou's Hero gets the video/audio treatment it finally deserves.