House of Flying Daggers: Limited Edition Review
Is Zhang Yimou mastering a completely different set of skills or is he just slumming it? After the superb Western box office success (for a subtitled Asian martial arts film, that is) of 2002's Hero, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that Yimou's next effort was very much of the same mould, and yet on the other hand many expressed surprise that this director, best known for his politically motivated period pieces, had chosen to extend what many had assumed would be a brief dalliance in the martial arts world. Despite being decried for being "conventional" or "unambitious", however, House of Flying Daggers is, in my opinion, a solid piece of cinematic drama and, while its themes are less ambitious than those presented in Hero, or indeed the bulk of the director's filmography, it is by no means a blemish on Yimou's résumé.
The Tang Dynasty, China 859 AD: police officers Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) infiltrate the illustrious Peony Pavilion brothel, where it is suspected that the daughter of the recently-deceased leader of a rebel gang, the House of Flying Daggers, is hiding out. The daughter, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), turns out to be a blind woman with some rather impressive skills both on the dance floor and in combat. When she is arrested by the local police, Mei helps her escape from prison and goes on the run with her, posing as an ally to the House of Flying Daggers in order to infiltrate the organization. He soon finds himself developing genuine feelings for Mei - feelings which, it would seem, she also shares. However, in a dangerous world where appearances can be deceptive, the main players soon find the tables being turned in ways in which they could never expect...
Hero was accused by some of being thinly-veiled pro-establishment propaganda for the Chinese government (although just as many claimed that it was exactly the opposite). Its overall message seemed to be that the good of the nation is of more value than the life of any one person or group of people (a rather conventional nationalistic doctrine, so it is quite surprising that so many people reacted against it); House of Flying Daggers, therefore, would appear to be its counterpoint. Concentrating on the romance between its central characters and largely eschewing the bigger picture - a large-scale conflict is referred to as taking place but is never the film's focus - it places the attention squarely on human beings who play only a tiny part in the grand scheme of things. It therefore possesses a level of humanity largely absent in Hero, which was in itself not necessarily a problem in that particular film, but it does mean that the two are not really as similar as some critics have suggested. This change in focus gives the various fight set-pieces a level of deeper meaning not present in Hero's many action sequences (beautiful as they were), since while those seen in Hero were largely about the spectacle first and the characters second, one gets the impression that Yimou approached this film from entirely the opposite perspective.
** Warning: the following paragraph contains SPOILERS. **
What makes the love story work so well is not the script, which is not really anything special, but the interplay between the lead actors, specifically Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi. Kaneshiro's character of Jin is not particularly pleasant - he comes across as overly smug and his womanizing makes his romance with Mei difficult to accept at face value - but Kaneshiro somehow manages to make him seem more like a good-natured rogue and actually goes some way towards making him half likeable. Ziyi, who played a much smaller role in Hero, gets a real chance to shine here in the role of Mei, doing what she does best: playing the used and abused woman in peril. There is more to her character than initially meets the eye, however, and she demonstrates a remarkable ability to turn on a dime and subvert the audience's expectations of her. This does point to a failing on the part of the script, however, since the change in her Mei's character is so extreme that the revelations that she is not in fact blind and that she has actually been misleading Jin all along are both extremely difficult to accept. This problem of plausibility is the film's biggest flaw, and if the performances and imagery were not so outstanding the whole thing could quite easily have been scuppered completely.
Rather than restricting himself to the simple (but effective) colour coding of Hero, Yimou goes all-out with lush greens, blues and browns, painting his frames in a dazzling array of hues. That's not to say that he is out of control, but the overall look of House of Flying Daggers is less disciplined than that of Hero. It is still an absolute visual feast, however, and the heavily saturated greens and oranges of the forests, dingy browns and greys of the dungeons and dazzling pinks and turquoises of the Peony Pavilion make for a film that is never boring to look at. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding is clearly not of the same calibre as his counterpart Christopher Doyle on Hero, but he is no lightweight and packs the film with interesting compositions and camera moves. It is just a shame, therefore, that the CGI effects employed at various points throughout the movie are so invasive, clearly standing out of the work of a computer and lacking the seamless integration present in Hero. On the plus side, the various fight scenes are impressively choreographed, and many of them exhibit a level of brutality not normally associated with wuxia pien that helps drive home the fervent passion that influences them.
Yimou's latest film is in many ways a flawed effort, but it manages to combine pure visual spectacle with souped-up melodrama in such a way that its faults seem insignificant if you allow yourself to get caught up in the viewing experience. Those expecting tight plotting or social significance will undoubtedly be disappointed. As a thoroughly engaging piece of escapist fluff, however, House of Flying Daggers is a pretty tough act to beat.
House of Flying Daggers has so far had a number of releases, and of those that I have seen, this would appear to be the strongest. The very fact that the US and UK releases are both cut (the former to tone down violence, the latter to remove instances of so-called "animal cruelty") in my view completely devalues them, and means that the contenders are at the moment restricted to the various Hong Kong, Korean and Chinese releases. The first Hong Kong release, reviewed here by Noel Megahey, was just awful, with a PAL-to-NTSC standards converted transfer and severely overblown contrasts. The mainland Chinese release was even worse, with what looked suspiciously like a camcorded transfer, burned-in subtitles in both English and Chinese, and to cap it all, the DVD company's logo was constantly present in the form of a watermark.
Luckily, this 2-disc Hong Kong re-release goes a long way towards correcting the problems of the previous version. The film its presented anamorphically in its correct 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and although the brighter hues still seem to bloom a bit, they are definitely much more under control than in the earlier release. It is also a proper progressive scan NTSC transfer rather than being standards converted, and as a result doesn't suffer from the combing artefacts that plagued the previous release. (Around 15 seconds during the echo game are, for some reason, interlaced, but this is small fry.) A slight softness still pervades, but this appears to be the best version currently on offer (the Korean release may possibly be marginally sharper, but it appears also to feature slightly more edge enhancement).
For detailed comparisons between the various versions, check out DVD Beaver, as well as my own comparison between the old and new Hong Kong releases.
In terms of audio, this version also improves on that of the previous Hong Kong release, although in a slightly less significant way. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks have been upgraded to Dolby 5.1 EX and DTS-ES 6.1 tracks respectively, and the latter is definitely the best way to experience the film. What a track! Superb demo material, this track combines a rich, full quality with some very impressive split channel effects, the best appearing in the celebrated echo game at the Peony Pavilion. A Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 EX dub also joins the line-up, but the original Mandarin is obviously the best way to experience the film. English and Chinese subtitles are also included, and as with the previous release, they are a bit of a mixed bag. They are legible and accurate, but they appear partially over the image itself and partially over the letterboxing at the bottom of the frame, which will cause no end of annoyance viewers with projection displays who prefer to mask unused parts of the screen.
The previous Hong Kong release included only a trailer, photo gallery and filmographies. This new 2-disc release, therefore constitutes a major step up. The limited edition box set release, now out of print but probably still obtainable through the likes of eBay (and if you check our affiliate link, YesAsia still seems to have copies in stock), represents an even better deal, including a number of excellent bonus items that help make this one of the best releases to come out of Hong Kong in quite some time. Note that the score given to the Extras section here represents the limited edition; the 2-disc only edition would receive a rating of 6 for the bonus materials it includes.
All of the DVD-based extras are included on the second disc. The main feature is a 45-minute Making Of documentary. Unsurprisingly presented in Cantonese only, and sadly without English subtitles, there is still a lot of material here to appeal to those who don't speak the language, principally the large amount of behind the scenes material, which includes footage of various stages of principal photography, the highlight being an in-depth look at the complex setup required for the echo game. A great deal of artwork is also shown, ranging from production design diagrams of the various buildings to storyboard panels to colour studies of the costumes. The documentary culminates with footage of various public screenings of the film, including the Cannes Film Festival. Of course, the lack of subtitles makes the interview footage the sort of thing that most people are going to end up skipping through; however, I suspect that most people will find something to enjoy here.
Storyboard to Final Film Comparisons are featured for six key action scenes from the film. Presented in a split-screen format, this is a great way to see just how meticulously these scenes were planned, and how closely the final product matches these early drawings. The storyboards are relatively economical, for the most part lacking any indication of camera movement, but it is interesting to see how they capture various iconic poses that are transferred over into the film itself.
The usual Cast/Crew Filmographies are also included, in addition to a Location Guide for five key settings, which essentially only amounts to showing a brief clip from the film with a small amount of text describing the location and its use in the film. This text-based material is provided in both Chinese and English, which is a nice addition. Galleries are also included, featuring slide shows of a range of different images, including promotional photographs, location art, props and costume designs.
A number of features are also included as easter eggs. These include two Trailers, six TV Spots, a music video for the "Lovers" song performed by Kathleen Battle, and a short clip of Andy Lau working in the dubbing studio, recording dialogue for the Cantonese soundtrack. These easter eggs are found by highlighting the "Cast & Crew" option on the main menu and pressing the Down arrow. This selects the headcap of the leftmost figure. Pressing Enter brings up a menu for the hidden extras.
Inside the box set is an excellent 144-page full colour book entitled "The Making of House of Flying Daggers" which, despite the fact that the text is entirely in Chinese, should still be of much interest to customers regardless of their native tongue, given the wealth of high quality photographs and production artwork on display.
Also included is the Soundtrack CD, featuring Shigeru Umebayashi's excellent score in its entirely. This CD is presented in an attractive cardboard cover wrapped in transparent paper.
The rest of the box's contents is a bit gimmicky, although most of what is included is of a high quality. Four rather fetching bookmarks are provided, as well as an individually number certificate. The only slightly tacky inclusion is a bamboo pen. Personally I haven't opened the package containing the pen, but I strongly suspect that it is just a standard ball-point pen in disguise.
The whole thing really is a very nice package, and I highly recommend it, not just because it looks great as a display trophy, but also because the materials it contains are of a very high standard.
House of Flying Daggers is hardly a groundbreaking film, and it lacks the epic scope of Zhang Yimou's previous entry into the martial arts genre, but it is an extremely accomplished effort and one that should entertain without being much of a stretch on the mind. Presented in a very nice package by Edko, this limited edition is well worth tracking down, particularly if you enjoyed the film. Sorry it took me so long to review it!