The Stormriders Review
This 2-disc set features both the Original Director’s Cut (130mins) and the International Cut (90mins) - this review reflects my opinions on the Director’s Cut only.
Although I am a fan of most Hong Kong genre movies I am often left confounded as to the appeal of the Hong Kong fantasy swordplay movies as I tend to find them unrewarding in both the story and martial arts departments. With that said I am not one to cast off a film based on its genre and because of this on several occasions I have been known to be impressed with movies of this type, fortunately for myself (as I am writing about it) The Stormriders is one such movie.
Based on the popular comic book of the same name The Stormriders centres its epic story around a mighty warlord, Conquer (Sonny Chiba), who led by a prophecy orphans two children (by killing their respective parents) and takes them under his wing to train and develop their martial arts skills as part of the prophecy that he must follow to gain the impressive status of invincible ruler. Ten years of training later the two orphaned children, Wind (Ekin Cheng) and Cloud (Aaron Kwok) are accomplished warriors but are soon torn apart by their love for Charity (Kristy Yang) and the evil doings of her father and their master, Conquer. When they learn of their past Wind and Cloud reunite to exact revenge on the maniacal Conquer and in typical Hong Kong fashion an epic finale ensues.
With a huge number of both major and minor characters involved Director Andrew Lau has impressively melded this epic story into one cohesive whole that, with the exception of the occasional slow point is an invigorating watch thanks in the most part to a superbly cast set of actors of whom all play their roles to perfection and capture that fantasy feel a film of this genre relies upon. Part of the experience of watching The Stormriders comes from the simply stunning cinematography, art direction and the extensive use of CGI. Immediately I was impressed with the superb computer graphics animated opening titles (that would not have looked out of place in a Final Fantasy game!) while the widescreen format has rarely been used so well and the films varied locales are beautifully chosen and shot. The extensive use of special effects was both a milestone in Hong Kong Cinema and part of the films huge box-office success. Holding up surprisingly well three years after its debut the CGI featured in The Stormriders is visually gorgeous to look at and apart from the occasional weak point (the opening battle at the Buddha temple comes to mind) is technically proficient in creating both backgrounds, enemies and the many elemental attacks that are used in the various action sequences. Speaking of the action we do not see the precisely choreographed movements as seen in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but rather the more traditional swordplay movie style action where characters fly around making multiple hits in seconds, bolts of energy and various magic's are put to use and in the true sense of the word it is all great FUN to watch and quite a visceral experience that when combined with the mixture of orchestral and dance style music works surprisingly well.
This 2-disc set from MIA features the Director’s Cut of the film that runs for 130-minutes and is presented in non-anamorphic 2:35:1 widescreen with a Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on Disc 1 while Disc 2 contains the International Cut of the film that clocks in at a heavily reduced 90-minutes and is presented in the 4:3 Pan & Scan format with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 dub. Thankfully MIA chose not to reduce the bitrate by including both versions on a single disc and although this is commendable I really cannot see any fan of the genre using the 2nd disc for anything other than A) a laugh, or B) as a place mat.
Focusing on the Directors Cut presentation you will find that MIA have presented The Stormriders in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio but have foregone the preferable anamorphic enhancement. First the good, the print is in exceptional condition showing barely a speck of dust throughout the entire 130-minute running time while grain too is pleasingly kept to a bare minimum. Detail throughout is very high while colours are beautifully represented making close-ups particularly striking to watch. Now for the bad, black levels are not all they could be, for the most part they are fine but on some scenes they are just not black enough leading to, for example, slightly grey skies in the film’s opening scenes between Wind and his father. Finally, the lack of anamorphic enhancement becomes all too obvious when those high detail levels are spoiled by a general lack of clarity in the various shots that show extreme depth (making full use of the 2:35:1 frame) and also create the occasional moment of shimmering while some jaggies rear their ugly head all due to a lack of resolution. Other minor faults include the occasional sign of smearing within the misty backdrops of certain scenes but fortunately this is a rare occurrence. In all this is a very commendable non-anamorphic transfer that looks surprisingly good when zoomed in on a 32" Widescreen TV and goes to show that if MIA had gone that one step further they could have found themselves with a disc to rival the best output from Hong Kong Legends.
Again, I only sampled the Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack as I shunned the International cut of the film but can happily report that this is a fine effort from the folks at MIA. Being a modern effects film you would expect a superbly executed DD5.1 track and that is exactly what we have been provided with here. Dialogue is crisply presented via the centre speakers and the occasional directional effects are made use of when actors are off screen. The film’s score and background effects make superb use of the rears but all of this pales in comparison when a fight sequence occurs as the sound quite literally encapsulates the room to create a superb audio experience.
Very kindly MIA have provided two sets of English subtitles selectable via the menu, the first are framed for 4:3 Television set owners while the second set are kindly framed for us Widescreen owners who will be zooming the image due to the non-anamorphic widescreen picture. The actual presentation of the subtitles is superb, using a white font the subs are easy to read and contain very few grammatical or spelling mistakes (although they are not entirely free from them). Disappointment though comes in the form of the many scenes that have Chinese writing onscreen, all of which goes by completely untranslated (although some of it is translated in the Making of Featurettes!) and while most of the text consists of character names (as we are introduced to each new important character their name appears onscreen) that are also spoken we are not so fortunate in the scene which includes a full screen of text and presents a major problem for those - and I am suspecting it will be most viewers - who do not read Chinese.
Disc One not only carries the only version of the film worth watching but also contains all of the extra features so you need never even touch that nasty Pan & Scan disc lurking inside the case. Providing the bulk of the extra features are two Making of Featurettes that total just under 45-minutes. The first of these is a general look at the film and admirably consists of an almost solid 20-minutes worth of interviews with both the creator of the comic books (look out for some great statues in the backgrounds) and the various cast and crew. The second featurette takes a more focused look at the film’s Special Effects and essentially starts off where the first featurette left and gives us a fairly in-depth look at Hong Kong's first CGI intensive feature. Both featurettes are extremely well put together and only start to grate within the final minutes of each due to the Cast and Crew going into excessive plugging mode.
Moving on you will find three Original Theatrical Trailers (Cantonese, Mandarin and the International versions) that are all presented in non-anamorphic widescreen but sadly no subtitles are present for the Chinese versions (although the Cantonese trailer can be seen with subtitles in the Making of Featurette). Rounding off the disc is a small Promotional Stills gallery, a set of Character Profiles (eight in total) and a Cast and Crew Biography section, both of which are well presented and provide a decent level of information on the characters/actors covered.
For myself The Stormriders was a highly enjoyable experience that will serve for many repeat sittings so for that fact alone it comes highly recommended to both fans of the genre and the more intrepid moviegoers out there. MIA’s DVD is a highly commendable release that includes a decent (but not great) picture, superb sound and an informative selection of extra features making it an easy choice for fans of the film.
Although I have taken many stabs at the included International Cut of the film it is only fair to say that MIA have included this for both completion sake and to appease the uninformed mass market who just need their 4:3 sets filled with an awful panned and scanned picture and of course are afraid of subtitles, but I am pleased to see that MIA are not charging any extra for this, dare I say it, privilege!