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In any war there are heroes on both sides

Ying Xiong—a.k.a. Hero—is an epic tale set before the unification of China towards the end of its Warring States Period (5th Century BC to 221 BC). The many smaller states of China had been absorbed over the years into seven Kingdoms, and the King of Qin had taken it upon himself to end the conflicts by bringing all of China under one ruler.

This had made the King many enemies in the other six Kingdoms, not least in Zhao. The King there had dispatched three assassins to Qin and they came within inches of successfully completing their mission. That was three years ago.

The King of Qin (Chen Dao Ming) has spent those three years in his palace only allowing an honoured few within one hundred paces of the throne for fear of another assassination attempt. But news has arrived that someone has killed the hired swords, and the King has granted an audience with the vanquisher.

With no family name since he was orphaned at a young age, Nameless (Jet Li) has spent ten years learning the ways of the sword to get revenge for the death of his parents, and to serve his Kingdom. He enters the King’s chambers, bringing with him the weapons of those he has defeated. Each victory allows Nameless closer to the throne as he recounts the tales of his battles with the suspicious King. After all, how could one man defeat an enemy so skilful that an entire army could not stop them?

Other than the King and Nameless there are four other leads, each with a significant part to play in the narrative. The story behind the three assassins—Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk)—is revealed gradually. Sky’s is the first story told, and he has separated from the other two after the failed attempt on the King’s life, arriving in the district where Nameless is Prefect.

Broken Sword and Flying Snow were lovers, but although they stay together the relationship has been strained since their mission was aborted. Nameless, it would seem, thinks this is something he can use to his advantage, as is Moon’s (Zhang Ziyi) alleged infatuation with Sword (her master).

I realise that I haven’t gone into too much detail about the story, but I really am trying to avoid spoiling it for those out there that have not witnessed this spectacle.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said in the time since this film was first released? Filmed during the latter part of 2001 and first seeing the light of day (or dark of cinema, if you like) in October 2002, the majority of Western audiences had to wait quite a while to see what all the fuss was about.

Epic in scale, if not in duration (the whole thing comes in at 1h35m26s), Zhang Yimou has crafted a tale that keeps you guessing as to how all the main characters fit together from start to finish. The majority of the movie is told in flashback as Nameless reels off his story to the King, and each arena of battle exhibits a distinct colour scheme; whether it be subtle shades of blue or green, or more alarming reds. It’s a neat trick and gives each scene its own identity, but more importantly it looks stunning. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, coupled with the art design gives the film an almost surreal look that even tops the superb set pieces.

Ah yes, the set pieces. With the film essentially being a retelling of Nameless’ encounters with the three assassins, there are ample opportunities for one-on-one martial arts and swordplay. Using much the same stylised ‘wire-fu’ that was brought to mainstream attention by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero delivers in spades. Without giving too much away (I hope) the different locales of the Lang Meng ‘House of Chess’, the Autumnal forest, the Zhao Calligraphy School (!), and the desert provide different challenges and visual feasts. The swirls of leaves and colours in the forest scene are possibly the highlight of the film, but even the subdued environment of the Chess House is brought to life exquisitely.

The Chess House is also where the sound design starts to strut its stuff. Much like the sound of the water feature at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1, the dripping water here brings you right into the action and raise the tension between the two foes. These subtle touches are present throughout the film. Together with the full on battles, the whining of swords cutting through the air and the breeze stirring up leaves, the atmosphere is top notch and Dun Tan’s score only serves to heighten the experience.

The acting is also good, especially when you consider that Donnie Yen and Jet Li are the only ‘true’ martial artists on display (their showdown is masterfully choreographed). The calm battle of wills between the King and Nameless shows off veteran Chen Dao Ming’s acting pedigree, but even he has to take a sword in hand for the flashback to the assassination attempt. Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhang Ziyi also use their time in front of the camera well.

Credit where credit is due, it took Quentin Tarantino associating himself with the movie to bring it into popular view but this seems to have had the effect that Zhang Yimou is not getting the recognition that he deserves (when I told a friend that I watched Hero at the weekend he replied ‘The new Quentin Tarantino one?’—Shocking). Still, this is a superb piece of filmmaking and the visuals alone make it worth a watch. I just wish I hadn’t waited this long myself.

Hero comes to us with an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer—and quite nice it is too. Mixing a natural palette with scenes where it can be cool or warm, the colours in some places are spectacular in their intensity. Thankfully this stops short of any form of blooming and saturation is always spot on. Deep blacks mix well with the almost surreal reds in the scene between Moon and Snow, and shadow detail is good throughout. Colour coordination appears to have been high on Zhang Yimou’s agenda—each individual flashback has its own signature colour, which is brought to the forefront in the clothes and surroundings, and each variation is represented well.

Just as importantly, the level of detail in the movie is good as well. The director sometimes chose to focus solely on the foreground characters—effectively blurring out the background—but where this is not the case the fine detail is impressively rendered. Skin texture too is handled with aplomb, and even with the large number of steps leading to the King’s chamber the transfer resists the temptation to provide us with distracting pixel crawl. Dust, the bane of digital transfers, also passes the test.

If there were a negative in the picture quality, it would be the occasional use of very minor edge enhancement. This is never to the extent of the alarming white ‘halos’ that some discs force on those with a decent sized display—and you probably won’t even notice it unless you are looking for it—but it is there. The print itself is very clean, and only on a couple of occasions did I notice some very tiny marks.

Not A+ reference quality, but if the majority of releases got this close to perfection I’d be a happy bunny. The layer change—at 1h04m11s in chapter ten—is not particularly well done, and the subtitles (should you wish to go that route) are easily readable. Seeing ‘Yaaagh!’ up on the screen did make me smile though.

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first—no DTS track. By all accounts the region one DTS track is outstanding, so I’m a bit disappointed that it has not appeared on this release.

Having said that though, the Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 track (reproduced here at 448Kbps) does a great job. Subtlety is the watchword, and the surrounds are frequently alive with drips and the odd ambient noise. Clarity on the track is superb in terms of the effects and the vocals, although the latter can seem a little distorted when there is a bit of shouting going on. From the creak of Qin’s armour, to the dripping water in the chess house and the whining of swords cutting through the air, the effects are well rendered. Listen out for the ‘Boioioioioing!’ of an arrow embedding itself in something at 20m54s as well.

Treble and bass ends are well catered for, and thankfully the low end is balanced nicely between the main speakers and the subwoofer with the LFE channel never overpowering the proceedings. From the subtle (there’s that word again) beats from the sub in the opening titles to the rumble of horses and crumpling shelves this is generally a pleasure to listen to.

If there is one fault it would be that the track can feel a bit too front-biased at times, the horses at the start of the film being an example. While there is a lot going on at the front of the soundstage the rear seems a little too subdued. This is not always true though, and the fight at around 35m00s uses the surrounds really well.

The English 5.1 track does suffer from not being the best dub in the world (they rarely are), but otherwise it performs similarly to the Mandarin track.

A second English track is also provided, and I’ll admit this is the first ‘Audio Descriptive’ track I’ve come across. Rather than leave the dubbing in and have someone describe what is going on, both the dialogue and the scene descriptions are represented here. I don’t know if this is the norm, but I would have though it would be more advantageous to at least have the characters in different voices, rather than the one male voice doing the lot (a female provides the ‘scene setting’ vocal).

So, no DTS, but a more than decent effort with the Dolby Digital tracks. The inclusion of the Audio Descriptive track is possibly something that should be done more often on our beloved format—as long as it doesn’t mean losing out on the sound quality in the other tracks.

Well, as seems to be the usual thing with Buena Vista DVDs, you get a set of trailers as soon as you put the disc in. All of them are in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and you get Shall We Dance (1m42s, letterboxed 1.85:1), Finding Neverland (2m19s, letterboxed 1.85:1), Alias: Season 3 (1m03s, 4:3) and The Alamo (1m24s, letterboxed 2.35:1). They are skippable—thankfully—but I’d just as soon only have them available from the Extras menu (which, by the way, they are not on this disc).

Once you actually get into the Bonus Features menu you get three choices, all of which are presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.

Hero Defined (24m01s, anamorphic 1.78:1, enforced English subtitles) is a decent making of documentary. Featuring input from the director and the cast and crew, it is more informative than your usual promotional ‘behind the scenes’ fare, and is a good addition. Narrated in English, any parts in another language are subtitled.

Storyboards allows you to view four scenes alongside their original ‘visualisation’. Golden Forest (54s), Library (15s), Ring of Iron (1m19s) and Lake (2m48s) can be viewed individually, but there is also a ‘Play All’ option. It is remarkable how close some of the shots come to their original storyboarding, but the features themselves could have done with taking up more of the 4:3 screen.

Finally, Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li (13m55s, 4:3, no subtitles) was, for me anyway, an annoying addition. QT ‘big ups’ Jet Li and vice versa, and the former manages to get at least one mention of Kill Bill in. Interspersed with clips from Jet Li’s earlier work and some behind the scenes footage, the appalling camera work only serves to make the piece all the more unbearable (it’s an interview for gosh sakes—what are you doing waving the camera around all over the place?).

We haven’t lost anything here from the region one version—possibly a pity in the last feature’s case—but then it is not exactly substantial either. A poor effort overall, but at least they tried with the documentary and storyboards.

You need to see this film. Even if the story does not instantly appeal, the sheer ‘experience’ that Zhang Yimou has produced is worthy of a watch. While the extras are nothing special, the film itself has been rendered onto DVD very well indeed. Although the loss of the DTS track is a negative point the Dolby Digital tracks just about make up for it, and the transfer is more than acceptable.