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House of Flying Daggers
"Don't let beauty blind your judgement."
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.
The Blu-ray Disc:
House of Flying Daggers debuts on the Blu-ray format as one of the premiere launch titles from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Like their previous DVD edition, the Blu-ray contains only the movie's American theatrical cut, which was trimmed of some violence to earn a PG-13 rating. For a complete list of alterations, see the DVD review.
Blu-ray discs are packaged in keepcases the same size and basic shape of those for HD DVD discs (slightly shorter and thinner than typical DVD packaging), but molded in translucent blue plastic to distinguish the formats. The House of Flying Daggers cover uses the same ugly artwork as Sony's DVD edition, featuring a lumpy and misshapen drawing of Andy Lau's face.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The House of Flying Daggers Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
This is a gorgeously photographed movie that has unfortunately had a checkered history on home video. Its prior DVD releases ranged from truly atrocious quality (the first Region 3 release) to moderately decent (the later Region 3 remasters and the Region 1 release), none of them ever really doing the movie's cinematography justice. I'd love to say that this High Definition Blu-ray finally gets it right, but sadly that's not even close to being the case.
I'll start with a couple of good things. The Blu-ray has lovely colors that run deeper and sparkle better than any previous home video edition. Also, in direct comparison to the Sony DVD, the new disc has much less edge enhancement (though minor halos do still pop up in some places) and better detail in certain textures like clothing fabric, hair, or on-screen text such as the opening prologue. I've owned many copies of this movie from different parts of the world, and of them I'd have to admit that this is perhaps the best it's looked by some very moderate degree. That will do it for the good stuff.
Here's the problem: although this disc is an improvement over the comparable (mediocre) DVD, it's quite awful by High Definition standards. It looks essentially like the DVD should have looked, not like an HD disc should look. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this is the worst HD image I've ever seen. The picture is distractingly soft. As mentioned, certain textures like clothing look decent in close-up (by DVD standards, at least), but wide shots lose definition and the actors' faces look waxy if not outright blurry. It's true that if you check the same shots on the DVD, they're also soft on that disc, but the problem was less obvious on the lower-resolution medium and stands out in stark clarity here. There is no detail at all in things like skin pores or complexion as you'll see in the best High Definition sources. I'll concede that the movie may have a deliberately soft photographic style, but the disc goes too far and looks excessively filtered and compressed. The image is often dupey and flat, with no sense of depth. Compression noise and image shimmer are problematic in scenes with high levels of detail; for example, keep an eye on the beaded curtains in the background of wide shots inside the Peony Pavilion. Film grain is poorly compressed and looks noisy as hell, especially during the bamboo forest scene. To put it bluntly, this disc is a disaster.
By virtue of the fact that it does indeed look better than the movie's DVD edition, I'll be generous and give this Blu-ray's picture quality a couple of stars. However, it's plainly obvious that the space constraints caused by using inefficient MPEG2 compression on a single-layer disc cluttered by space-hogging PCM audio has taken a serious toll. For a premiere launch title intended to sell the public on the merits of the new Blu-ray video format, this disc is an embarrassment.
The House of Flying Daggers Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality (or at least what passes for it on this disc) over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate Blu-ray picture quality.
The movie's Mandarin language soundtrack (the disc menus refer to it simply as "Chinese", as if not understanding the distinction between the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects) is encoded in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format or in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. The film has a terrific sound mix. As I originally said about the DVD, the track has outstanding breadth and dimensionality. It's crisp, spacious, highly directional, and has clean, rocking bass. Surround effects frequently bombard the rear soundstage. The mix as a whole may not be as overwhelming as that for the director's Hero, just as the movie itself is more restrained, but it's still a fantastic sonic experience.
Since these initial Blu-ray releases (and the first-generation players) offer no support for advanced audio formats such as Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, or DTS-HD, Sony has been promoting the advantages of encoding the discs with uncompressed PCM regardless of the toll it takes eating up valuable space that could otherwise be used to enhance the video quality. While putting an uncompressed track on the disc seems like it ought to offer the best possible audio quality, what Sony glosses over is that the PCM has been downsampled to 16-bit resolution from the original 24-bit master. This is something that only true audiophiles are likely to quibble much about, but I will say that I found the PCM track to be a little bright in the high end and occasionally uncomfortable during the loudest action scenes. In comparison, the 1509 kb/s standard DTS track on the Region 3 DVD sounds a little smoother and more pleasing, and remains my choice for the best audio copy of the movie to date. Its discrete 6.1 mix also fills the rear soundstage a little better than this one. I doubt many viewers will find anything to complain about with this PCM audio, and in fact I think it's pretty terrific overall, if just short of perfection.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1, or Spanish DD 5.1.
The English subtitles are printed in a large yellow font that is much smoother and nicer-looking than the DVD's optional subtitles, but unfortunately the text remains positioned half-in/half-out of the 2.35:1 movie image. This is a particular nuisance for many front projection users with dedicated 2.35:1 movie screens.
The bonus features on this Blu-ray title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. Only two of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
- Creating the Visual Effects - 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.
- Storyboard Comparisons - A short animated montage.
No interactive features have been included, but it's worth noting that the Java-based disc menus can be accessed while the movie is still playing, much like the iHD menus on HD DVD discs. The booklet included in the disc case advertises a function called Blu-Wizard that allows you to "customize the way you watch special features to provide a unique viewing experience". The booklet instructs you to select "Blu-Wizard" on the disc's main menu, but in fact there is no such option anywhere on the disc that I could find. Whoops.
Hidden on the disc is a selection of HD test patterns. You can access these by entering 7669 on your remote control from the disc's main menu. Use the Skip button to page through the patterns. Please note that due to an error in the Sony encoder used to author the disc, blacker-than-black and whiter-than-white portions of the video signal have been clipped, essentially rendering the Brightness and Contrast calibration patterns useless.
I hate to say this because I do genuinely like the movie and was looking forward to finally having an excellent copy of it, but this House of Flying Daggers Blu-ray is a mess. It has good audio but very poor video well below par by High Definition standards, and can't even manage to port over all of the bonus features from the regular DVD release. This disc is a disaster and I can't recommend it for more than a rental.