Director Zhang Yimou's career has taken an interesting turn lately. After decades building a reputation for carefully-observed, politically-minded character dramas, his last two pictures in a row have been big-budget martial arts epics. It's an unexpected change of pace that not everyone has been comfortable with. Although both Hero and now House of Flying Daggers were huge box-office hits in his native China, and Hero also opened fairly big in the United States, some of the filmmaker's older fans have accused him of selling out for mainstream success. Is that a fair criticism? Perhaps. Then again, maybe the poor guy was just tired of seeing all of his movies banned in his homeland and wanted to make something fun and beautiful to look at. Who can fault him for that?
In late 9th Century China, a Robin Hood-like society of revolutionaries has been stealing from the corrupt government to give to the poor. Local military captains Leo and Jin are ordered to capture the faction's leader within 10 days. To accomplish this, Jin goes undercover as a bandit calling himself "Wind" and attempts to woo a blind girl (Zhang ZiYi) suspected to be the leader's daughter, a plan that works all too well. As they escape from a series of traps that he and Leo contrived, Jin develops real feelings for the girl, and soon must inadvertently become a real criminal in order to keep his cover and protect her. Complications ensue, followed by not just one but two major plot twists, at least one of which is frankly pretty obvious early on.
Like Hero, House of Flying Daggers is a visual tour-de-force featuring vibrant, painterly photographic compositions and stunningly choreographed fight scenes. The use of visual effects and CGI are even better integrated in this one, seamlessly creating a fantasy world where warriors can fly through the air and a thrown blade can dodge and weave to a target at its master's will. The storyline, though complex on a basic plot level (the twists and turns are intricately structured, if not necessarily surprising), is a bit simplistic as a narrative, unfortunately, yet is still satisfyingly grounded in the rich emotions of its characters. Filmmaker Zhang remains a gifted storyteller even when, in cases like these last two films, his focus has shifted toward telling his stories through images and action rather than plot and dialogue.
House of Flying Daggers is a smaller, less epic film than Hero, with more emphasis on character and less on action. Nonetheless, it similarly contains some truly breathtaking scenes such as the early brothel sequence or the bamboo forest battle, and climaxes with a gorgeous finale (both visually and emotionally). It's more art film than action movie and won't be to everyone's liking (nor was Hero), but is a beautiful piece of work from a major filmmaking artist.
These changes to the movie are edited seamlessly, and would probably not be noticeable to an audience who hadn't seen the movie in its original edit. Nonetheless, it is a disappointment that Sony did not provide the original uncut version of the movie.
Also note that in the UK, the BBFC has censored the movie differently. The Region 2 DVD edition from that country has had several shots of horse stunts removed due to concerns about perceived animal cruelty. The Region 1 edition is intact in this regard.
Edko single-disc edition (Region 3 Hong Kong): (Reviewed previously). This initial DVD has the worst video transfer, a PAL-to-NTSC conversion with severe white crush and contrast blooming. This disc should be avoided.
Edko 2-disc Special Edition (Region 3 Hong Kong): (Reviewed previously). Edko's second attempt at the movie was a significant improvement, a true NTSC transfer with corrected contrast levels and no PAL conversion artifacts. Colors look a little less vibrant than they might and the digital compression quality is mediocre, but overall this is a very watchable disc and the best option for the uncut version of the movie.
Starmax 2-disc Limited Edition (Region 3 Korea): The Starmax DVD is largely similar to the Edko transfer, and in some small respects a slight improvement. The picture is marginally sharper and has better digital compression quality. However, in direct comparison the colors and flesh tones look slightly washed out and edge enhancement ringing is a bit more pronounced. On balance, the Edko disc is more pleasing.
Sony Pictures (Region 1 US): Although not a dramatic improvement, Sony's DVD has the best video transfer thus far. The 2.35:1 anamorphically enhanced image is slightly sharper and less filtered than either the Edko or Starmax copies, with a better sense of depth, though wide shots still do not appear as detailed as they might. Standing inches away from the screen, fine details in the image look a little noisy and there is a minor presence of faint edge enhancement halos, but at regular seating distance neither is noticeable.
Colors are more precisely saturated than the Asian editions, but again the improvement is incremental. The movie's photography favors softer pastel hues than the more vibrant swatches of color found in director Zhang's Hero, which may disappoint some viewers, but the transfer is pleasing in its own right. Digital compression quality has no significant flaws (despite what you might read in some misinformed online reviews), and there is no truth whatsoever to the myth that the Sony disc repeats the white crush and contrast imbalance of the original Edko transfer.
For a non-SuperBit Sony disc, the movie looks very good indeed. I wouldn't be surprised if the studio plans a SuperBit re-release somewhere down the line, which may or may not offer some further marginal improvement, but for the time being what they have provided is very satisfying.
The good news is that the Mandarin-language Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on Sony's disc is pretty terrific itself. The track has outstanding breadth and dimensionality. It's crisp, spacious, highly directional, and has clean, rocking bass. Surround effects fill the entire rear soundstage, including a center channel with EX decoding engaged. The DTS options on the foreign discs are a bit better (especially the Edko's), but this is just about as good as Dolby Digital can sound, and that is nothing to complain about.
A ridiculous English dub track is also available in Dolby Digital 5.1 for those viewers unable to read and chew popcorn at the same time, as is a French 5.1 dub. Optional English or French subtitles have been provided. The English subs have a slightly different translation than those on the import DVDs, but (unlike the travesty on Miramax's Hero DVD) the differences amount to only subtle phrasing changes and do not alter the basic content of the dialogue. The font of the subtitles is an ugly yellow that appears half-in and half-below the 2.35:1 picture. This may not bother the majority of viewers but is an annoyance for those front projection users who mask their screen to the wider ratio (only the Starmax copy keeps the subtitles entirely within the active picture content).
We start with the audio commentary by director Zhang Yimou and star Zhang ZiYi, spoken in Mandarin with English subtitles. This is a very good, intelligent discussion about the artistic intentions and meanings of the movie. Director Zhang mentions that he consciously designed the film so that audiences would pick up more details on the second viewing to enhance their understanding of the narrative's levels. Unfortunately, the track does not make any mention of the cuts made to the US version of the movie.
The 45-minute Making of House of Flying Daggers featurette appears to have been prepared for the movie's Electronic Press Kit and has an annoying voiceover narration gushing about how "brilliant", "perfect", and "amazing" every little thing in the movie is. It does, however, also contain some more worthwhile interviews and behind-the-scenes footage that make it better than average for this type of program.
Creating the Visual Effects is a 4-minute presentation of before-and-after footage from a few of the movie's big effects scenes, with no dialogue or voiceover to explain the technical workings in any kind of depth.
The storyboard comparisons, costume galleries, and behind-the-scenes photo galleries are all short animated montages. A music video for the theme song "Lovers" by Kathleen Battle and a theatrical trailer round off the disc. The trailer is pretty good but plays up the action elements in the movie too much and probably mislead most of the intended audience.
No ROM features have been included.
Best picture quality: Region 1 Sony
Obsessive fans will want to collect them all.
The Region 1 release of House of Flying Daggers is unfortunately an abridged version of the movie, but the DVD from Sony Pictures has very nice picture and sound as well as a decent assortment of bonus features. I'm still waiting for the all-around best edition of the movie to be released somewhere, but for now this is a very nice option despite that one significant caveat. Recommended.