House Of Flying Daggers 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.