I've reviewed several of the new Blu-Ray high definition video discs (Hitch, Terminator, and The Fifth Element), and while I had high expectations for the format none of the first crop of discs have really impressed me. Even so, each time I pop in a disc, I think "this is going to be the one that blows me away." That almost happened with House of Flying Daggers. Some of the scenes are rendered magnificently and really look good on this HD format. Surprisingly though, there are other scenes that look much worse than they should, being very soft to the point where some of the lines start to blur. It's a shame they couldn't keep the quality consistently high throughout this disc. If they had, Sony would have at least one movie that shows off the benefits of the format.
The movie takes place in China at the end of the Tang dynasty, around the year 900. The government is weak, and there is much corruption. Springing up from the turbulence of this period is the House of the Flying Daggers, a group of rebels who are fighting the government but also gaining a lot of popular support by stealing from the corrupt rich officials and distributing the booty to the poor. Named after the curved boomerang-like weapon that they skillfully wield, the Flying Dagger's leader has recently been killed by the local constables. When this doesn't cause the group to disband, word comes down from on-high that they small local police have only 10 days to find and kill the new leader.
Working on a tip that a new blind dancer at the local pleasure palace, Mei (Ziyi Zhang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is really the daughter of the dead leader, the chief of police, Leo (Andy Lau) comes up with an ingenious idea. He arrests the girl, threatens her with torture, and has one of his best officers, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) rescue her. With Jin's help, Mei should lead them right to the new leader of the Flying Daggers.
There are a couple of things that complicate the plan however. First the General in charge of the area doesn't really care about Leo's plan or the men under his command. He sends squad after squad of soldiers to track down and attack the fleeing girl and her protector in an attempt to draw out the Flying Daggers. If that doesn't work, at least Mei will come to trust Jin.
The second problem is even harder to overcome. Though Jin knows that Mei is the enemy, he starts to fall in love with her, and she with him. Fighting through the countryside, Jin and Mei have to fight their own feelings as well as groups of highly trained warriors.
Directed by Yimou Zhang who was also at the helm of the Hero staring Jet Li, this film is luminously filmed and looks exquisite. Some of the scenes overwhelm the viewer with their color, composition and sheer beauty. Zhang paints the film with luscious colors, greens, blues and reds, as well as filming magnificent landscapes. The bamboo forests, plains of wild flowers, and low mountains all make the movie look absolutely gorgeous.
The fight scenes are well done too. Some of the choreography does rely on wires, something that has been overused a lot in the last few years, but it is not as ubiquitous in this film as several others that could be mentioned. The fight in the bamboo forest is the worst offender, but even that had a style and grace to it that makes one overlook the silliness of men jumping to the top of trees.
While the movie doesn't have the most intricate or most original story to ever be filmed, it was more than an excuse to link together fight scenes. The Romeo and Juliet aspect of the story worked well, and there were several plot twists that kept the story interesting for viewers.
The acting was top notch across the board. All three of the main characters are huge stars in Asia, and it is easy to see why. Each of them played a multifaceted character with ease, turning their lines into a living person with weaknesses, desires, and feelings. Takeshi Kaneshiro did an especially good job as Jin, giving the officer a lot of depth and more than a dollop of humor. An all around excellent film that is both exciting and gorgeous to watch.
This movie is presented with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is encoded for 1080p playback. The video quality of this disc seems to fall at both ends of the spectrum: It either looks really good or fairly bad. It seems that the MPEG2 encoding didn't work as well as it was supposed to in many sections of the film.
A good example of the poor encoding is the scene where Mei is first introduced to Jin in the house of pleasure. The first closeup of the lovely Ziyi Zhang isn't as pristine as it should be. Her skin tone doesn't shift gradually from one tone to another, there's a small amount of contrast between the two shades. This posterization mars an otherwise nice looking image.
Ironically, the following scene, the echo game, looks better. There are more details in the faces of the crowd watching and the minor color bleeding that the original release had is no longer apparent. Other scenes look great too. When Mei and Jin finish fighting the soldiers in the field of wild flowers, both of the characters just pop off of the screen. The movie looks great in this section and made me wish that the entire disc was so clean and clear.
There's a fair amount of digital noise in the picture too. When Mei is sitting in the bamboo forest just before being attacked, the green stalks that surround her shimmer and move almost as if they are vibrating.
The worst offense that this transfer commits is the lack of sharpness. Many areas, though by no means all, are very soft. So soft that the image looks like it's slightly blurred. Where Mei is pulling Jin across the landscape near the end is a good example. Mei's green cloak is indistinct and the lines are blurry. Other scenes however look fantastic, with razor sharp lines and images that just pop off the screen. It is a shame that the entire movie couldn't have looked that way.
This disc comes with a wide variety of audio choices. There is a byte hogging 5.1 PCM track in 'Chinese' (that's how it is identified on the menu. I assume they mean Mandarin as opposed to Cantonese, Wu, or any of the other handful of dialects spoken in the country of China), as well as DD 5.1 tracks in 'Chinese'. English, French and Spanish.
The PCM track is simply outstanding. Subtle, powerful and encompassing, the audio quality of this film is just fantastic. The full soundstage was used to very good effect, having music and sound effects seem to come from all corners of the room. The aural cues really add a lot to the viewing experience and these were reproduced with great precision. The echo game is a good example of how varied and full the soundtrack is. The sounds of the captain picking up a bean from the bowl and flicking it are soft but clear, followed by the booming of a drum as Mei hits it. The chorus of drummers then kicks in and the music fills the room with their rhythmic pounding. The high end is well represented too in the battle scenes where swords clash with a high pitched 'ting' that is clean and clear. An all around excellent sounding disc, the audio is a reference quality.
As with the other Blu-Ray discs that were released at the format's launch, this disc leaves out many bonus features that were included in the standard definition DVD. The commentary track is no where to be found (they decided to add a Spanish language track instead), and the 45-minute making-of featurette is also gone. The only extras that are included on this disc are Creating the Visual Effects, a four minute short, and a handful of storyboard comparisons. Both of these were ported over from the SD DVD of course. Heaven forbid that any unique content be included on the Blu-Ray discs.
This is yet another Blu-Ray disc that really doesn't appear as good as it should. There is a real problem with the very soft image (in places). Some areas of the film look great though, with sharp lines, bright colors, and a good definition. It's too bad the whole film couldn't look this good. The audio is absolutely superb however, filling room with rich music and accurate sound effects. Unfortunatly the audio can't really make up for the lack of special features that are available on the SD DVD and the uneven picture quality. The movie is very, very good, it's too bad this Blu-Ray DVD isn't. Rent it.