" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

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Released in American theaters this summer, Hero has been available on home video as an Asian import in specialty shops (like Boulder’s own Video Station) for more than a year. But only this week is the American studio-sanctioned film (presented by Quentin Tarantino) available.

The movie is very good and visually, it’s a knockout. The DVD looks good, too, but it’s surprising how unable modern digital home video is to capture what I saw at the theater this summer. Zhang Yimou is a master of color and detail. Perhaps that’s what it takes to humble the mighty DVD format.

Empires and Epics

Broken Sword and Flying Snow in their Green period
Broken Sword and Flying Snow in their Green period
Special features aren't so special, but the movie is
Special features aren’t so special, but the movie is

Hero is a historical Chinese epic of love and war. Somehow, the movie exudes self-confidence, as though it were a foregone conclusion that Hero would be a great film. But it’s that sense of self-importance, and the popular stampede to hail it as one of the greats, that sets the skeptical nerves twitching.

Set two thousand years ago, Hero tells us that the King of Qin (Daoming Chen) wants to unite the separate nations into one empire, but those from the other six do not want unity imposed on them. Assassins lurk, so the king has become careful about whom he lets near him. He invites a constable (Jet Li), who has killed three notorious assassins, to approach within 100 paces, and later 10 paces, to tell his tale.

The movie spends equal time in about six different timelines. The present, with the king and the constable, flashes back to fights between the constable and the assassins. There are also versions of the constable’s tales, introducing a Rashomon-like sense of uncertainty, if only for part of the movie. There are even mindscreen sequences and flashbacks within flashbacks.

Hero is epic, but it is too aware of its grand ambitions. Instead of being disinterested, it panders to popular culture. Lawrence of Arabia is a great epic with romanticized heroes, exciting action sequences, and great cinematography, but it never feels like it’s pandering, which is the one place Hero seems to stumble.

Picture and Sound

Nevertheless, Hero is a very good film, and it’s good on DVD. Of course, cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s work is gorgeous. On DVD it is crisp and rich and colorful. I haven’t seen a VHS version of the movie, but I can only imagine how much of that information is lost. But even DVD is lower resolution than 35mm film, and from what I remember, the color and detail in the theater were even more breathtaking. DVD is good, but Yimou may have managed to illustrate some of its limitations.

The digital soundtrack, however, is wonderful. Encoded in both Dolby Digital and DTS, the rich, full sound fills the room. Heavy Japanese drums alternate with rumbling brass horns and the thundering of hooves — and that’s just the first scene.

DVD Extras

The Miramax DVD comes in a cardboard slipcase with raised, silver lettering (for which Miramax no doubt paid extra). This promise of excellence is betrayed by the marketing-heavy special features.

The featurette called Hero Defined starts with an American documentary narrator — a male voice I swear I’ve heard a hundred times before — introducing us to the film and its makers. Already the piece feels too slick to be genuine or informative. There are interviews with Yimou, composer Tan Dun, and cinematographer Doyle, who are always on-message. So although the feature is informative, there are few real insights.

Another feature is a conversation between Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li. Again, the piece immediately reeks of marketing slickness. The two are seated in front of a richly lit set, slashed with mood lighting. The interview cuts from a stationary camera to an epileptic camera operator, and back to a smooth dolly, all serving no purpose except to distract from Tarantino and Jet. Their conversation is somewhat disappointing: mutual back-patting, with clips of some of Jet’s earlier films. What this segment is actually good for is a list of recommendations for fans of Jet Li. Tarantino mentions several of his favorites (many of which are, coincidentally, available from Miramax home video).

The last “special feature” is a commercial for the soundtrack CD.

Conclusion

The extra features don’t make this Hero DVD worth buying. If anything, they signal a disappointing trend in movie supplements, away from the fans and academics of Criterion’s golden days toward the greedy hands of the marketing department. Still, Hero is a very good movie. If you missed it at the theaters: shame on you, but this DVD will have to do.