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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: House of Flying Daggers (RECOMMENDED)



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#1 of 73 OFFLINE   Aaron Silverman

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Posted April 13 2005 - 06:02 PM

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House Of Flying DaggersPosted Image

US Theatrical Release: August 3, 2004 (Wide release: January 14, 2005) (Sony Pictures Classics)
US DVD Release: April 19, 2005
Running Time: 1:58:43 (28 chapter stops)
Rating: PG-13 (For sequences of stylized martial arts violence, and some sexuality)
Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic (Extra Features: 1.33:1 non-anamorphic)
Audio: Mandarin DD5.1, English DD5.1, French DD5.1 (Extra Features: Cantonese & Mandarin DD2.0)
Subtitles: English, French (Extra Features: English)
TV-Generated Closed Captions: None
Menus: Background animation only
Packaging: Standard keepcase with a cardboard slipcover that has identical graphics; single-sheet insert has cover images for other martial arts titles on one side and for Chinese non-martial arts films on the other.
MSRP: $28.95

THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 4/5

There was a time when Chinese films were best known in the US through badly dubbed Sunday-afternoon Chop Socky-fests. Well, we’ve come a long way, baby. First, names like Zhang Yimou and Gong Li started popping up in art house theaters, and later, the action flicks of Jackie Chan and John Woo met with some box office success. More recently, the genres have merged as artsy directors Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou have turned their attention to martial arts films; more specifically, the Wu Xia style.

In Wu Xia, wandering fighters and oppressive warlords battle it out in premodern China using magical kung fu styles that would put Jedi warriors to shame. Themes of honor and good vs. evil are the order of the day as martial arts masters defy the laws of physics, leap through treetops with the greatest of ease, and once in a while even do the windows.

House of Flying Daggers, Zhang’s second action film, is not so much a pure Wu Xia tale as it is a love story set against a Wu Xia backdrop. The epic conflict and amazing fight scenes are present, but the plot is focused elsewhere. Ironically, however, the movie works better as an action picture than as a romance. The actions of the characters don’t always sell their relationships, and the story twists perhaps one betrayal too many. But, zounds! There’s some mighty fine kickin’ and punchin’ goin’ on.

The film opens in the waning years of the Tang Dynasty, over 1000 years ago. A secret society of rebels, known as The House of Flying Daggers, is challenging the corrupt and decadent government. Two local police captains, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), ponder how to investigate suspected rebel connections at a local house of ill repute. Jin selflessly volunteers to go to the brothel and heroically imbibe various recreational beverages while investigating the employees.

New showgirl (and prime suspect) Mei (Zhang Ziyi) soon appears, and Jin is amazed to discover that this great beauty is blind. Despite this, her dancing and singing skills are as dazzling as her brightly colored silk robes. He is enthralled – until Leo arrives to arrest him. This is, of course, a trick designed to take Mei into custody as well. More importantly for the viewer, it leads to the most spectacular scene in the film – the Echo Game.

Real Tang-era cave paintings served as a model for the breathtakingly colorful styles of the walls, furniture and clothing featured in the brothel. A ring of drums and an orchestra of musicians playing period instruments round out the background for a game in which Mei dances acrobatically in response to beans flicked at the drums by Leo. The brilliant hues, inspired cinematography, and pounding beat all add up to some serious home theater demo material. It’s almost a shame that it appears so early on in the film. Of course, the rest of the movie is nearly as impressive visually and aurally.

Eventually, Jin and Mei embark on a physical and emotional journey together – an adventure in which no one’s motives are exactly what they seem to be. The physical journey is peppered with awesome kung fu sequences, cleverly staged by action director Tony Ching Siu-Tung. He and director Zhang come up with some inventive variations on the usual wire fu and computer effects, including yet another new twist on the standard bamboo forest battle. The special effects are very well done, such that the viewer isn’t distracted by jarringly artificial CGI or blatant wire work. These fight scenes do not disappoint.

The emotional journey of the characters isn’t quite as successful. It’s difficult to discuss in detail without getting into the plot’s many surprises, but suffice it to say that the development of the relationships ends up being fairly simplistic, and their resolution is drawn out almost to the point of being laughable (the fact that the actual weather changed drastically in the middle of filming the climactic sword fight exacerbates this, although it does look beautiful). Once the characters reach the moment of truth, however, their choices are interestingly played out. And the various plot twists and hidden motivations make for rewarding viewing the second time around.

House of Flying Daggers is a smashing artistic success, albeit marred by a central romance that may not work for everyone. Fans of Wu Xia will enjoy the kung fu, but may be disappointed by the way that the plot strays from traditional Wu Xia themes. On the other hand, there’s enough fighting that viewers who aren’t enamored of martial arts films might find themselves bored by the lengthy battles. All told, however, the good easily outweighs the bad.


THE WAY I SEE IT: 4.5/5

House of Flying Daggers features one of the most absolutely stunning color palettes ever committed to film outside of animation, and this transfer does it justice. Colors are rich and blacks are deep and velvety. The detailed, film-like image is nearly flawless, with almost no compression artifacting to speak of. The source print is extremely clean, showing no dirt or scratches at all.

The only flaw in this just-shy-of-perfect transfer is a touch of edge enhancement. It is actually less noticeable than in most Sony releases (which have of late been generally improving in terms of EE). Many of the scenes in this film deserve a perfect score (rarely will a more beautiful image appear on home theater screens than during the Peony Pavilion Brothel sequence in chapters 3-5), but now and then a sword with a glowing purple fringe will bring the picture quality back down to earth.


THE WAY I HEAR IT: 5/5

The Mandarin DD5.1 track is nothing short of fabulous. The mix of dialogue, effects, and music is just about perfect. The rear channels are quite active with both music and directional effects, and the LFE channel thunders away like a champ without being boomy. As with the image, the Echo Game scene makes for wonderful audio demo material.

I also sampled the English Dolby Digital track, which seems to be recorded at a lower level than the Mandarin. The LFE isn’t quite as crisp, but it’s still an overall excellent track.


THE SWAG: 3.5/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)

Commentary With Zhang Ziyi And Zhang Yimou

The director and star provide a nice running commentary in Mandarin with English subtitles. (The backing audio is the Mandarin track, but the English or French audio can be selected on the fly so that Western audiences can follow the movie dialogue while reading the commentary.) Most of the discussion is scene-specific, talking about how different sequences were put together and pointing out many of the filmmakers’ artistic choices. They sometimes ramble about the obvious, but for the most part it’s a good, informative track.

The Making Of House Of Flying Daggers (44:45) (1.33:1 non-anamorphic)

A solid making-of that combines interesting behind-the-scenes interviews and production footage with premiere events and some EPK-type fluff. The narration is in Cantonese, while most of the interview audio is in Mandarin, all with English subtitles (which can be turned off for those multitudes who are able to handle both dialects). It’s a little heavy on film clips (which are in Mandarin with burned-in Chinese subtitles), but its 45-minute running time allows for plenty of meatier material.

Creating The Visual Effects (4:22) (AR varies; non-anamorphic)

A straightforward effects reel that showcases a selection of CGI from four different sequences by showing the various individual elements of each shot, set to music, followed by the final shot, played with its finished audio.

Storyboard Comparisons (16:55) (1.33:1 non-anamorphic; actual image is in an OAR box)

Six different scenes (including the fantastic Echo Dance) are played along with the corresponding storyboards. Each scene and its panels are shown in a pair of OAR boxes over a static rendered background image. The boxes could have been a bit bigger, but they’re large enough to get the idea across. The scenes can be played individually or via a Play All button.

Costumes Gallery (1:27) (1.33:1 non-anamorphic)

A slide show of a dozen concept drawings by designer Emi Wada, displayed alongside brief film clips that feature the finished costumes, set to music from the film.

Behind The Scenes Photo Gallery (3:31) (1.33:1 non-anamorphic)

A slide show of 39 production photos, set to music from the film.

Theme Song “Lovers” Music Video (4:08) (1.33:1 non-anamorphic)

International opera star Kathleen Battle treats the viewer to her best diva mugging as she sings this rather bombastic song from the film. She’s interspersed with movie clips, some of which are in slo-mo for extra heart-tuggin’ effect. The audio is DD2.0, and the lyrics are in English.

Previews:

Five trailers are included, and can be selected either from the main menu or the special features menu.
  • House Of Flying Daggers (1:57) (DD5.1; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
  • Steamboy (1:38) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
  • MirrorMask (1:09) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Video & DVD) (0:32) (DD2.0; 1.33:1 non-anamorphic)
  • The Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition (0:17) (DD2.0; 1.33:1 non-anamorphic)
SUMMING IT ALL UP

The Way I Feel About It: 4/5
The Way I See It: 4.5/5
The Way I Hear It: 5/5
The Swag: 3.5/5


Although it doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional martial arts mold, House of Flying Daggers is a worthy addition to the recent genre of Wu Xia art films. In fact, its deviation from the norm can be viewed as a moderately successful experiment, and one that will hopefully lead to other original works. It’s got a decent story that perhaps could have been deeper, seasoned with plenty of excellent kung fu action -- the kind that puts Western directors and their cheap quick-cut fight scenes to shame. On top of its quality as a film, this release also serves up a generous helping of extra features and some true A-list home theater demo material. Heartily RECOMMENDED.
"How wonderful it will be to have a leader unburdened by the twin horrors of knowledge and experience." -- Mr. Wick

#2 of 73 OFFLINE   Cameron Yee

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Posted April 13 2005 - 06:24 PM

Thanks Aaron. As I mentioned elsewhere I will be picking this up when it hits the pre-viewed shelves since I already own the 2 disc Edko (and that will make it my third copy of this film).
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#3 of 73 OFFLINE   Aaron Silverman

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Posted April 14 2005 - 04:00 AM

Guo, let us know what you think of the PQ of the Sony release vs. the Edko. I find screen caps to not always be entirely accurate indicators.

Incidentally, for anyone planning to check out the comparison of different versions of this film on DVD Beaver, you should avoid his synopsis if you haven't seen the film yet, as it reveals a major plot spoiler.
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#4 of 73 OFFLINE   Scott_lb

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Posted April 14 2005 - 05:49 AM

For those interested, House of Flying Daggers will be released on PSP UMD soon as well.
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#5 of 73 OFFLINE   George See

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Posted April 14 2005 - 05:52 AM

Glad to hear this has a great region 1 transfer and it's not another Hero. Saw this one twice in the theaters i'll definitly be buying this ASAP. Anamorphic 5.1 trailer cool! I wish every release had one of those. Great review.

#6 of 73 OFFLINE   Cameron Yee

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Posted April 14 2005 - 06:59 AM

Quote:
Guo, let us know what you think of the PQ of the Sony release vs. the Edko. I find screen caps to not always be entirely accurate indicators.
I went ahead and put it in my Netflix queue, so I'll post my impressions soon. My main gripe with the Edko was a degree of breakup in certain moments of fast action (horses galloping through the woods).
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#7 of 73 OFFLINE   Kain_C

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Posted April 14 2005 - 07:56 AM

Can't wait to buy this! Tuesday is a long way off for me. Hero was my fav film of last year and this one looks to be as good, if a different type of story.

I saw the PSP version in our store in the back. Not surprising, it has no extra features. What was surprising was the PSP version of Kill Bill had about two pieces of extra content (I think the making-of and a trailer).

#8 of 73 OFFLINE   Aaron Silverman

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Posted April 14 2005 - 08:01 AM

Quote:
Glad to hear this has a great region 1 transfer and it's not another Hero. Saw this one twice in the theaters i'll definitly be buying this ASAP. Anamorphic 5.1 trailer cool! I wish every release had one of those. Great review.


Thanks, George! Two amazing trailers for HoFD have been included on a lot of recent Sony releases, so I've been getting really pumped for it (and hoping it'd live up to the trailers). It didn't disappoint!

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#9 of 73 OFFLINE   CaseyL

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Posted April 14 2005 - 08:46 AM

Question 1) This is being packaged with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, correct? Is the CTHD with it SB:SE, or just SE?

Question 2) Is this title destined to become a SB title? 'Cuz I'd rather wait for DTS if it is.

#10 of 73 OFFLINE   Aaron Silverman

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Posted April 14 2005 - 09:23 AM

1) It's the SE of CTHD, not the Superbit.

2) Possibly -- you never know. But honestly, the DD track is fantastic (note my rating). I normally prefer DTS myself, but there isn't a whole lot of room for improvement here (unless you have a pretty high-end setup, perhaps). I suppose that an English DTS track might be superior, if that's what you're looking for.
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#11 of 73 OFFLINE   Doug Graham

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Posted April 14 2005 - 06:37 PM

I've got a Chinese DVD of this (I think it's either Edko or a bootleg of the Edko release) that has one of the best DTS tracks I've ever heard. It's full-bitrate and jaw-dropping. I really hope a Superbit comes out soon, though, because the video quality sucks. It seems to be converted from a non-progressive PAL source.

Also, did anyone check the aspect ratio on the UMD version? If it's cropped to 16x9 like Spidey 2 I'm gonna be ticked. This movie would be absolutely destroyed by panning and scanning, moreso than most.

#12 of 73 OFFLINE   Brian_cyberbri

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Posted April 14 2005 - 06:58 PM

The DVD Beaver comparison is here, and includes the new R1 release:

http://www.dvdbeaver....ingdaggers.htm

I might end up getting one of the Chinese versions.


But this really shocked me, especially after there was no such mention of crazy stuff in this review on the above DVD Beaver site:
http://dvd.ign.com/a...4/604412p1.html

[quote]
The Video

Ouch, holy blooming, Batman. The early scenes in Peony Palace just hurt. The IRE looked to be amped to around 125, whiting out half the movie. This makes everything way too hot, killing all the ornate and beautiful detail of the backgrounds, clothing and even the actors.

Also painful in this scene is the pixilation. Ever take a small AVI or MPG file and blow it up past its recommended size? That's what you get here. It's most notable early on in the Peony Palace, but you see it in other places, too.

Because the video is so hot, all colors are over bright and look bleached as a result. Black levels are unsteady and nowhere near true black. To be honest, I'm not even sure of the skin tones because the cast are generally light-skinned to begin with. But early on, in Peony Palace, when Zhang makes her entrance, all you see is the bright red of her lipstick standing out against the white of her face.

And just to cap it all off is the ever-present flicker throughout the film. I can't express my disappointment. This transfer makes me nostalgic for a Miramax DVD.

Score: 4 out of 10




Geez, I wonder what happened here... Isn't Andy Patrizio the main reviewer there? IIRC, didn't he just get a new TV and DVD player? Maybe there's something really off with his display/calibration (contrast/white level)?

#13 of 73 OFFLINE   ThomasC

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Posted April 15 2005 - 12:49 AM

The screenshots from IGN didn't look very good either, so I don't know what's up. I'll see when I get it from Netflix.

#14 of 73 OFFLINE   Donnie Eldridge

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Posted April 15 2005 - 02:54 AM

What a shamePosted Image . Great movie, great sound, lousy picture. It deserves much better. That's two strikes for the last couple of foreign releases. First it was Hero and now HoFD.
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#15 of 73 OFFLINE   CaseyL

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Posted April 15 2005 - 03:15 AM

Thanks for the reply Aaron. One way or another, I'll buy this, but I'm not sure in what format yet.

#16 of 73 OFFLINE   Matthew Brown

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Posted April 15 2005 - 03:21 AM

The Columbia version is also slighty edited to tone down the violence.
I am happy with my Edko release.

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#17 of 73 OFFLINE   Cameron Yee

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Posted April 15 2005 - 03:27 AM

Quote:
Geez, I wonder what happened here... Isn't Andy Patrizio the main reviewer there? IIRC, didn't he just get a new TV and DVD player? Maybe there's something really off with his display/calibration (contrast/white level)?


This came up in the other thread here:

http://www.hometheat....44#post2642044
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#18 of 73 OFFLINE   Brian_cyberbri

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Posted April 15 2005 - 04:12 AM

Thanks. I'm subscribed to that thread as well, where Andy from IGN has chimed in on his thoughts on the transfer, just as with his review.

It's hard to know who to trust. But anyway, I thought the Hero transfer was very nice, not perfect by any means, but very good. Maybe I was too mesmerized by the color, cinematography and story to notice anything else. I didn't notice all the "grain" in Collateral people were complaining about either. It goes to show that a lot more of this is subjective than people like to think, at least in certain cases, with all the different display/playback combinations possible...



I ordered the EDKO 2-disc edition of HoFD last night, along with Kung Fu Hustle, from a place in Hong Kong called http://www.play-asia.com/ - Good prices, and with shipping, it came to about $19 per DVD. I'm hoping they're legit. At least they seem a lot like Yes Asia, with video games (Japanese and Asian versions usually), Asian music, Asian DVDs, etc. But I can't wait to hear this full-rate DTS track. It was hard to see from the DVD Beaver website shots how the R1 could be so bad. I saw another site comparing EDKO 1-disc and 2-disc, with 1-disc's bad PAL->NTSC conversion and flagging/combing, inconsitent contrast, etc. I think maybe people's standards are going up as we are exposed to more and more HD material. Going back and forth between HD and DVD-SD on a movie, I definitely prefer the HD. But I still enjoy the stunning pictures I get from my DLP and HTPC on most DVDs (still notice ringing, halos, etc. though...)

#19 of 73 OFFLINE   Cameron Yee

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Posted April 15 2005 - 04:19 AM

Quote:
Good prices, and with shipping, it came to about $19 per DVD. I'm hoping they're legit.


Next time check out CD Wow, based in the UK. Prices are excellent, as is customer service.
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#20 of 73 OFFLINE   Brian_cyberbri

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Posted April 15 2005 - 04:36 AM

Thanks. I will. I have used Yes Asia in the past, mainly for Japanese music CDs, and really like them. They were just out of the DVDs I was looking for, so I found another place.


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