House Of Flying Daggers

House Of Flying Daggers (2004)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro
Extras: Commentray Track, Documentary, Featurette, Music Video, Storyboards, Photo Gallery

It took them 8 years but finally, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has got it right. After regularly butchering the Hong Kong movies they had in their licensed library with sub-par transfers and no supplements to speak of, finally the studio has released one Chinese movie on a quality level that compares to their own productions. Now, was that really so hard?

I am talking, of course, about the release of Zhang Yimou’s latest movie, "House Of Flying Daggers." Yimou, who also directed the highly acclaimed "Hero" is hailed as one of China’s hottest current filmmakers, and rightfully so. With "House Of Flying Daggers" the filmmaker yet again brings us a highly dramatic and tragic character-driven story that uses martial arts as a narrative tool instead of a mere showcase effect. That gives the film immensely more weight than most of its genre entries and weaves an intriguing tale that is in many ways familiar, but at the same time refreshingly differently told.

During the Tang Dynasty the government is undermined by corruption of its own officials as well its own decadence. An underground rebellion is forming, called the house of flying daggers, a group of freedom fighters determined to bring the crooked, exploitative government to its knees by assassinating its officials. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) are two such officials who expose a member of the Daggers in a local brothel. In a charade escape Jin tries to win her trust and hopes she will lead him to the secret hideout of the Daggers. As the two travel along, suddenly however he develops real feelings for the blind girl and his integrity for the job at hand becomes questionable.

There is a lot more to this story that I do not want to give away. While the story itself – as well as its resolution – is following a fairly common formula found in many Chinese and Hong Kong movies, but the way it is told is clearly not. With a fresh visual style, Yimou once again creates a film that is a tapestry of colors, movement and imagery. The images of the film are oftentimes staggeringly beautiful in their composition and the use of light, shadows and colors. The opulent fall colors of the forests, combined with the golden light, the lush greens of the bamboo forests, the rich interiors of the entertainment house, all help to create a visual experience that is dazzling. The climactic battle in the snow is the crowning moment of the film, making it an instant classic moment in cinema history in both its execution, its tension and its visual style. Once again Yimou has rewritten the book on martial arts films with this movie, showing that by freshening up the style and visual vocabulary, and by giving characters the focus as opposed to action, these films can turn into completely engulfing experiences with an immense emotional impact.

So far I’ve not been a huge fan of Ziyi Zhang but I have to admit that she is breathtaking in "House Of Flying Daggers." Her portrayal of Mei is deep, emotional, surprising, honest, and powerful. Her martial arts sequences are rock solid this time as is her portrayal of a blind girl. It is nice to see the genre’s traditional blind swordsman theme reversed here with such expertise by both Zhang and director Yimou. Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro also bring their characters to life admirably with great depth and personality.

With stunt choreographer legend Ching Siu-Tung arranging the action sequences of the movie you can also be assured that what you see here is not only authentic and meticulously executes, but also very beautifully choreographed and timed. In fact, despite the movie’s depth it is some of the stunt work that steals the show, like the aforementioned climactic battle and the assault in the bamboo forest.

In terms of the DVD, "House Of Flying Daggers" is a jaw-dropping beauty as well. The presentation is practically flawless. There is not a single speckle or blemish in the transfer and no grain mars the picture. The level of detail in the transfer is very high, bringing out every little detail of the wonderful production design. Colors are amazingly rich yet never over-saturated keeping the screen awash in hues you may have never seen in such richness – or such subtlety, depending on the scene. Skin tones are absolutely faithful and the transfer’s black levels are rock solid, firmly rooting the image and giving it great visual depth with shadows that never lose definition. No edge-enhancement or compression artifacts mar the picture in any way. It is the best transfer of any Hong Kong movie I have seen to date and in a word, this <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> presentation is a picture perfect transfer.

The <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio tracks are just as impressive. Coming in its original Mandarin, as well as English and French the audio wonderfully complements the action on the screen. I have only sampled the original Mandarin track as my tolerance threshold for dubs goes towards zero, and I’m happy to report that it is aggressively active and well balanced. It makes good use of the split surrounds to create a bustling atmosphere and enhance the feeling of omnipresence in some of the movie’s scenes. The frequency response is very wide with a good bass extension and the dynamic range brings out even the most subtle rustle of cloth without problems.

Finally we have a release of a great Chinese/Hong Kong movie with extras that are befitting the movie. First up is a <$commentary,commentary track> featuring director Zhang Yimou and actress Ziyi Zhang. It is entirely in Mandarin and as one of the greatest features, this <$commentary,commentary track> has been completely subtitled. That’s what I’m talking about. In their own candid words this is a rare occasion to really hear what the filmmakers had in mind when making the movie, how they achieved certain effects, how they determined the flow of the story and the characters and so much more. I think it is a wonderful step by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment to take this route with the commentary as opposed to having a scholar talk about it.

But the good things don’t stop here. Also included is a 45-minute documentary about the making of the movie. Go behind the scenes and see how Ching Siu-Tung is working out the stunt choreography, how he explains it to the cast and how he supervises the shoot. See how Ziyi Zhang is preparing for the dance scene in the beginning of the movie, and how the Echo Game was shot. Everyone is talking very candidly about the experience of making this film – and everyone is rightfully gushing all over director Zhang Yimou – all the way to the film’s premiere in dedication of Anita Mui and the press tour that accompanied it. Never before have you been allowed such an intimate look at the production of a martial arts masterpiece.

It is nicely complemented by a featurette on the visual effects which has equal depth and is just as detailed in showing how certain shots were enhanced and created.

Storyboard to film comparisons are also included on the DVD as well as photo galleries covering the production of the movie. In addition to that, you will find the "Lovers" music video on the disc.

"House Of Flying Daggers" is a 119 minute trip to wonderland. It is one of the best period Hong Kong martial arts movies I have seen that convinces and dazzles on all fronts. I finally tip my hat to Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment for finally coming to grips and giving a Chinese/Hong Kong movie the treatment it truly deserved with this rich package that contains such insightful and valuable bonus material. You simply owe it to yourself to watch this movie. It is a revelation.