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House of Flying Daggers

Sony Pictures // PG-13 // June 20, 2006
List Price: $28.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted July 10, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:


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.


The DVD:




Video:

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.

Audio:

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.

Extras:

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.

Final Thoughts:

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.

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