There are very few films I'd go as far as to describe as epic, and fewer still that could be classed as breathtaking.
However, after experiencing Zhang Yimou's extraordinary 2002 swordplay opus 'Hero', it will be an even longer time before I describe another film as both those things.
What Zhang manages to so deftly capture are the character's changing emotions and, depending on which version of events, the effect this has on each subsequent individual. From the anger and bitterness of the first description of Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow's (Maggie Cheung) relationship, to the sorrow and heart-breaking love shown by Sword as he drops his weapon mid-battle in order to wipe a droplet of water from Snow's face, Zhang never lets you go once he engages your emotions.
The genius of the film's direction is the way in which you can come to sympathise with a character you previously hated, yet are still unsure as to quite who or what you to believe to be the true nature of that person.
This rich variety of emotions left me breathless at the film's conclusion. Every moment captured, from two combatants battling atop a lake, using their weapons to keep them from falling into the water, to the way in which Snow evades Moon's vicious attack in the forest, has both an artistic and emotive meaning.
The simplest gesture, to the broadest movement, all seem to hold a meaning of their own, and it was this depth and poignancy at the film's conclusion which left me desperate to return once more to the story I had just left.
The story begins as Nameless (Jet Li), an assassin for the King, and an extremely talented warrior, is ushered into the Kingdom walls. He has been granted an audience with the King Qin (Chen Daoming) in order to recount his tale of triumph over the King's enemies.
Shown in flashback, Nameless first describes his victorious duel with Sky (Donnie Yen), the first of three Masters intent on executing the tyrannical King for the good of the Kingdom.
Suitably impressed, the King then goes on to ask the details of Nameless's battle between lovers Broken Sword and Flying Snow - the two other Masters.
All appears to be going smoothly for Nameless - with the recounting of each victory, land and gold are lain at the feet of the King's "hero". But the King seems troubled...
As the true events transpire, and intentions are exposed, it appears Nameless's agenda is not as honourable as first thought.
It has been some time since a piece of cinema left me quite so exhausted at its conclusion, such is the tension and intricacy of Zhang Yimou's stunning film.
A seemingly simple premise is deftly expanded upon with some of the most glorious cinematography (courtesy of Christopher Doyle) to grace a film in recent memory.
Sweeping desert vistas, a cascade of leaves falling in an autumnal forest, and a crystal-blue lake are just some of the locations in which action and drama are unfurled.
What really makes Hero so infinitely rewarding though is that whilst the Director
places his characters in such vast and beautiful settings, he manages to retain an emotional intimacy with the viewer.
With each subsequent flash-back the film's mood shifts, along with its colour palette - affecting lighting, costumes and make-up.
This neat change manages to not only bring clarity to the particular view of events you're watching but also reflects the emotional tone of each account.
Fairly or unfairly, Hero will almost certainly draw comparison with Ang Lee's somewhat disappointing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, whilst both films find a balance between character development and action sequences, the similarities end there.
Set 2000 years ago, the battle scenes are all weapons-based, with choreography reminiscent of classic swordplay movies such as Swordsman 1 & 2 and Duel To The Death.
It's rather difficult to
explain, but whilst combat is central to the storyline, at the same time it is almost irrelevant .
This is due to the heart of the film being based firmly in the exploration of its characters, and their motives.
That the action is exceptional, utilising superb locations and state of the art direction and choreography makes you feel almost overwhelmed that you should be lavished with such an amazing package.
The actors are central to all that occurs within the movie's structure, with each giving very different, yet equally brilliant, performances.
Jet Li's return to Chinese filmmaking shows the West just what they've been wasting in their dire productions, as his cold, calculated facade begins to fray at the edges in front of the King.
King Qin is also a character whose outward, bullish appearance is eroded by the film's conclusion - something which only deepens the emotional impact of the film.
Re-united once again (they were last seen opposite each other in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love) Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung draw the viewer to them like a moth to a glowing flame, such is their ability to radiate charisma.
With the aforementioned flash-backs, and conflicting versions of the same basic story, the two actors are able to create subtly different characters with each subsequent scene.
Having turned his hand toward period martial arts films, in much the same way as Ang Lee did, Zhang Yimou has managed to move the swordplay film onto greater heights, whilst also paying homage to the Hong Kong style of films gone by.
The usage of CGI is abundant in some sequences, but it is very well integrated, and therefore never makes you feel distracted by its presence.
An absolute triumph for Zhang in all departments, and a reminder to the rest of the world that a film can be at once action-packed, gripping, and exquisitely beautiful, and yet retain that most important element: heart.
Wherever Christopher Doyle is involved, it's always tough reviewing a DVD, as grain, smearing and an extreme colour palette could all be intentional elements of his cinematography, rather than poor mastering.
Here, grain is evident at times although it's never distractingly obvious.
Thankfully, with the a film crafted with such loving attention to detail, the spotless, Anamorphic image is bursting with well-defined colour and superb levels of clarity.
Black levels are also very consistent and detailed, allowing you to bask in the glory of the costumes and scenery, without being distracted by artifacts.
Incidentally, as stamped on the cover, this DVD won Edko the 2002 award for video and sound excellence, and on this showing, it was fully deserved.
Possibly the best transfer yet afforded a Hong Kong film.
Not only a feast for the eyes, but also the the ears, as Tan Dun's stirring score is reproduced with excellent clarity.
For those with Dolby Digital 5.1 set-ups, this will certainly sound very good, with directional effects and the aforementioned soundtrack coming across particularly well.
DTS amp-owning viewers have reason to be smug though, as they are afforded an incredible soundtrack which brings the film to life.
The difference in quality is striking, and those wishing to test this should move straight to Jet Li's confrontation with Donnie Yen in the chess-house court-yard.
Watching with the Dolby soundtrack engaged leaves you feeling excluded from the scene - a distant onlooker at best. Switch to DTS, and you could be standing beside the King's guard as they witness the battle unfold. Droplets of rain surround you, the clash of weapons resonates your ear-drums, and the battle of 5.1 versus DTS is ruled a non-contest due the overwhelming difference in class...
I had some reservations before watching the DVD that, no matter how good the production was meant to be, the subs would let it down.
These fears very quickly ebbed away as I witnessed what I can only guess are perfect subtitles. I say "guess" because I neither speak nor understand any Mandarin, so the accuracy of the subtitles must be taken on faith.
However, the STYLE of the subtitles - the sentence structure and wording - perfectly portrays the period of the film, and is completely free of any grammar or spelling errors.
Although at times it is slightly difficult to find your way out of some menus, both discs feature some excellently designed screens, with animation and music both playing their part.
Each menu fits perfectly with the style of the film, and whilst they can feel cluttered on occasions, they certainly maintain the high standards of the films presentation.
Found on the second disc, of this two-disc Special Edition, are the rather hit and miss extras.
A very brief character synopsis, along with a link to sketches and photos of their weapons.
Cast - Chinese-language biographies for each of the actors below.
Jet Li. Includes short, English subbed interview.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Includes short, English subbed interview.
Maggie Cheung. Includes short, English subbed interview.
Zhang Ziyi. Includes short, English subbed interview.
Donnie Yen. Includes short, English subbed interview.
Crew - Chinese-language information relating to the crew.
Zhang Yimou (Director). Includes short, English subbed interview.
Li Feng (Co-Writer).
Wang Bin (Co-Writer).
Bill Kong (Producer).
Christopher Doyle (Director Of Photography).
Tony Ching Siu-Tung (Action Director).
Emi Wada (Costume Designer). Includes short, English subbed interview.
Tan Dun (Composer). Includes short, English subbed interview.
Yi Zhanzhou (Production Designer).
Hou Tingxiao (Production Designer).
The Journey To Hero
Featuring footage from the film, each screen gives brief details of the locations and shooting dates of key sequences.
Ancient Oak Grove
Behind The Hero
Making of (6 Chapters)
Set to music from the film, each chapter is made up of a montage of behind the scenes footage, and interviews with the cast and crew.
Again, this is fairly useless to Western viewers as no English subtitles are provided.
Exactly as it says on the tin - worth watching once for the odd funny moment.
Behind the Scenes
A fairly interesting look behind the scenes of the filming process, although without English subs, the discussions taking place are often incomprehensible.
Ring Of Iron
Key sequences from the movie, presented alongside their hand-drawn story-boards. Set to the films soundtrack, this can be at times illuminating, and quite striking.
Rolling presentations of the hand-drawn designs for each element of Hero.
Something About Hero
Heroes Behind Hero Seminar
Cinematography (10 mins) - Christopher Doyle
Music (12 mins) - Tan Dun
Action (12 mins) - Ching Siu-Tung
Acting (14 mins) - Tony Leung & Maggie Cheung
All of these press-attended interviews are excellent save for one rather major flaw - they've no English subtitles. Extremely disappointing.
Colours Behind Hero
The colour schemes used in the film are
described in a few words, with sequences integrated into the menus.
(Select '5' on your dvd's remote, or select the central word 'Hero' on the main screen with your mouse).
2 Theatrical Trailers
2 TV spots, plus specially marketed ones for Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Zhiyi respectively.
A number of stills highlighting the stunning composition and cinematography featured throughout.
Artwork and Merchandise Gallery
As above, although showing from the sublime to the ridiculous of Hero-themed merchandising.
A large number of impressively presented extras are contained on Hero's second disc. Sadly, with the exclusion of english subtitles on some, and a lack of English text on others, they can make for frustrating viewing.
My disappointment at the schizophrenic handling of the extras is still not enough to dampen my enthusiasm for this must-buy film, particularly as it looks and sounds so damn good!
With talk of Zhang Yimou's 2-hour Directors Cut also on the horizon, I would still recommend Edko's disc for immediate purchase - films this good shouldn't be kept waiting.