The DVD release of Bichunmoo has been highly anticipated by fans of Asian film and Korean cinema in particular. This is not so much because of the film itself, but more due to the fact that it represents the first release from Premier Asia, the new sister label to Hong Kong Legends that intends to release some of the best recent Asian films without being restricted to Hong Kong or martial arts.
Perhaps wisely, for their first release Premier Asia have chosen Bichunmoo, a South Korean film modelled on the Hong Kong fantasy swordplay genre that is bound to appeal to the established audience for Hong Kong Legends releases.
Bichunmoo is based on a six-volume series of comic books by Kim Hye-rin that enjoyed huge popularity in South Korea during the eighties. Set in 14th Century China, Bichunmoo tells the story of Jin-ha (played by Shin Hyun-june), an orphan who falls in love with Sullie (Kim Hee-sun), the daughter of Mongol general Taruga. Unfortunately, Taruga wants his daughter to marry King Namgung (Jung Jin-young) in order to form an alliance. Recognising Jin-ha as an obstacle, Taruga arranges for him to be killed. Believing Jin-ha to be dead, Sullie agrees to marry King Namgung. Jin-ha, however, is still alive, and discovers that he is the sole survivor of a family slain by Taruga for refusing to reveal the secret of Bichun, a deadly sword fighting style. Jin-ha learns the art of Bichun for himself and plots his revenge for the death of the family he never knew.
From this beginning proceeds a surprisingly complex, if melodramatic plot that is filled with passion, betrayal and shifting allegiances. If some viewers find the story difficult to follow, this is due in part to the fact that some scenes were cut from the film at the insistence of the Korean studio, who wanted a running time of below two hours. These missing scenes were reportedly to have been re-included in the international cut of the film, but unfortunately they appear to have been lost or destroyed as Premier Asia were unable to trace their whereabouts. While it is still possible to follow the story without their inclusion, some viewers may like to read the film notes supplied on the disc that describe the contents of one of the most crucial absent scenes. Further details of all the deleted scenes are available on the Internet.
Bichunmoo was filmed on location in China, and the Koreans enlisted the help of Hong Kong talent to produce the action scenes. Action choreography is by Ma Yuk-sheng, a protégé of Ching Siu-tung who worked on such films as A Chinese Ghost Story and A Better Tomorrow II. The action is enjoyably fantastical and over-the-top, so purists who only appreciate traditional style Kung Fu should look elsewhere for their thrills. However, those who are more open-minded and appreciative of the fighting style typical of Hong Kong fantasy swordplay movies will find much to enjoy here.
Bichunmoo is presented as a two-disc special edition. Based on what has been announced so far, it looks as though this may become standard practice for Premier Asia releases.
The first disc is used exclusively for the film itself, with the only extra present being the audio commentary. Premier Asia have made full use of the space available and the technically-minded will be pleased to hear that the average bit-rate for the main feature is a more than healthy 9.7 Mb/sec, close to the maximum limit that current DVD technology allows. The second disc houses the extensive extras.
Both discs are dual encoded for regions 2 and 4.
Bichunmoo features an anamorphic transfer in the aspect ratio of 1.77:1, slightly cropped from the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Whereas Hong Kong prints are stored in notoriously poor conditions, no such problems exist with Korean films, so Premier Asia were able to use a source print in comparatively good condition. Any scratches or print flecks that may have been present have been removed without trace by the restoration team, leaving an almost flawless image that only suffers from some minor film grain in the occasional scene. The black levels have been improved in comparison to the Korean DVD, and the transfer also benefits from the greater resolution of PAL. The palette of rich tones that the film uses is nicely presented. The layer change, sometimes a problem in Hong Kong Legends releases, has here been sensibly and unobtrusively positioned.
In all respects, the quality of the transfer matches what would be expected from a modern Western film. No concessions to the film's Asian origins have been made when rating the picture quality.
Unlike any Hong Kong Legends releases, Bichunmoo has been graced with a DTS 5.1 surround track, albeit for the Korean language option only. The surround mix is extremely active, utilised for both the score and ambient effects and exploding even further into life during the action scenes. The Korean language DD 5.1 mix is good also, but lacks the clarity and punch of the DTS track.
Premier Asia had to produce their own English dub for the film as none previously existed. Sensibly, to save on disc space, this is available in DD5.1 only. Although the standard of the English translation used is well above average, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the voice acting. Needless to say, the film should preferably be watched with the original Korean-language dialogue.
The English subtitles almost exactly match the dialogue as spoken in the English dub soundtrack. Given the poor quality of most English dubs of Asian films, this would normally be cause for concern. However, as Premier Asia produced the English dub for Bichunmoo themselves, this is less of an issue. A comparison between the English subtitles on this release and those of the Korean edition reveals them to be very similar. This is significant because at the time of the Korean release no English soundtrack existed, so the subtitles were necessarily a translation of the original Korean dialogue. By extension, the English subtitles here should be a reasonable reflection of the original Korean language. Although there are some wording differences between the two sets of subtitles, the most significant change is that Premier Asia have chosen to use more phonetically-accurate spellings for Korean names and places than were used for the Korean edition. Otherwise there has been no westernisation of names, places or objects.
English for the hard of hearing and Dutch subtitles are also included.
The menus for Bichunmoo are very much in the Hong Kong Legends style, with nicely designed anamorphic menus backed with montage footage from the film. Some more recent Hong Kong Legends releases have been criticised for their non-descriptive menu options, but thankfully this is not the case here and all the option titles are self-explanatory.
Given the popularity of Bey Logan's commentaries on Hong Kong Legends releases, it comes as no surprise that Premier Asia have hired his services to provide a commentary track for Bichunmoo. Bey's knowledge of Hong Kong cinema is legendary, but his knowledge of Korean film is considerably more limited, so in order to make up this shortfall Bey is joined by Mike Leeder, Korean film expert and editor of Impact East.
The pair cover an incredible amount of ground during their commentary, including information about the stars of the film, historical and cultural background, the action choreography, the pros and cons of CGI, comparisons with Hong Kong films and much more besides. They continue to talk right up until the last second of the film's runtime and give the impression that they could have carried on for at least another hour.
In the past when Bey Logan has shared commentary duties with others the results have often been inferior to his solo efforts, but this is certainly not the case here. Being friends, Bey and Mike are clearly relaxed in each other's company, and combined with their mutually vast knowledge of Asian action cinema this leads to a highly entertaining and informative commentary track that is arguably even better than those present on Hong Kong Legends releases.
The Interview Gallery contains individual interviews with the director Kim Young-jun, lead actor Shin Hyun-june and action choreographer Ma Yuk-sheng. All of these are of a generous length - the interview with Kim Young-jun is over twenty-eight minutes and the other two clock in at around eighteen minutes each. All the interviews follow a similar format, with the interviewees discussing how they became involved in their respective careers, their experiences working on Bichunmoo and their plans for the future. All of the interviews are interspersed with behind the scenes footage and film clips.
Within the Promotional Archive are located the original Korean theatrical trailer, the Premier Asia produced UK promotional trailer, a music video and a production photo gallery.
Both the original theatrical trailer and the UK promotional trailer are simple two-minute affairs that convey a reasonable impression of the style of the film without giving away too much of the plot.
The five-minute music video consists entirely of clips from the film, the song itself being a Korean piano ballad of a style that will be familiar to Korean cinema fans.
The production photo gallery contains over thirty still images comprised of production stills, lobby card designs and poster artwork.
One popular feature present on a number of DVDs produced in Korea is a selection of audio-only tracks from the film score. Premier Asia have taken inspiration from this and included a Music Library containing ten tracks from Bichunmoo's soundtrack. The combined running time of the tracks is around twenty-one minutes. The audio is supplied in Dolby Stereo with a bit-rate of 192 kbps. Unfortunately, the tracks need to be selected individually as there is no continuous play option.
The CGI Montage is a ten-minute feature that shows the various stages in the development of scenes involving computer-generated effects. This segment has only a musical soundtrack with no voiceover.
Despite the possibly misleading title, the Candid Camera section contains a series of seven vignettes, totalling around thirty-five minutes in length, that feature a combination of behind the scenes footage and on the set interviews with the cast. Disappointingly, subtitles are only provided for the interview segments and the on-set chatter remains un-translated.
The Out-takes section is unfortunately not the fabled deleted scenes but is instead a four-minute montage of bloopers from the making of the film. Again, this is presented with a musical soundtrack only, without the original dialogue from the scenes in question.
The Information Library is a text-only section that contains biographies for Shin Hyun-june and Kim Hee-sun along with some film notes. The film notes contain some concise background information on the film, a plot synopsis, and a description of the contents of the most crucial of the deleted scenes.
The disc also includes details of other releases from both Premier Asia and Hong Kong Legends, including trailers for Bang-Rajan, Swordsman and Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain.
The quality of video and audio of the extras is variable, depending on the standard of the source materials supplied to Premier Asia, but all are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Premier Asia have supplied an abundance of extras for Bichunmoo, combining footage garnered from the Korean DVD release with their own specially commissioned material. The extras are of particularly high value because English-language material about Korean films is fairly scarce, and translated interviews with Korean filmmakers and performers are especially so.
Bichunmoo is a highly enjoyable film very much in the style of Hong Kong fantasy swordplay movies. The comprehensibility of the plot is reduced because of the decision by the Korean film studio to remove certain scenes, but anyone willing to exercise their powers of logical deduction should still be able to follow the story, and the action scenes remain entertaining regardless of whether you attempt to follow the plot or not.
Premier Asia have succeeded in meeting the high expectations for this release, which features a good transfer, great sound, and a wealth of extras. If they manage to keep up this standard, they will soon develop the same strong brand loyalty that Hong Kong Legends currently enjoys.