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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents
House of Flying Daggers (2004)

"China, 859 A.D. The once-mighty Tang dynasty is in decline. The emperor is weak and incompetent. His corrupt government no longer controls the land. Unrest sweeps the country. Village by village, an underground alliance forms: The House of Flying Daggers."
- Prologue

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: June 24, 2005

Stars: Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Ziyi Zhang
Other Stars: Dandan Song
Director: Zhang Yimou

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of stylized martial arts and some sexuality
Run Time: 01h:58m:43s
Release Date: April 19, 2005
UPC: 043396091788
Genre: martial arts


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ BA-A B-

DVD Review

I don't know how the filmmaker behind powerful, quiet dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home wound up making two of the most beautiful martial arts action spectacles ever filmed, but I'm not complaining. Whatever inspired celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou to make Hero and its strikingly similar follow-up, House of Flying Daggers (be it other martial arts films or, if you're one of those conspiracy theorists, pressure from the Chinese government), both films stand as impressive artistic achievements and marvels of cinematography, visual design, and choreography.

That said, the latter won't seem quite as impressive to anyone who saw the former, Yimou's international box office blockbuster that made $60 million in America three years after it broke records in Asia. Though markedly different in terms of tone (Hero is a Rashomon-style mystery, House of Flying Daggers a tragic romance), both films share a common characteristic—battle scenes that defy the laws of physics, filled with explosions of color and elaborate art design. The fighting style, which makes frequent use of wirework to send actors flying through the air, is no doubt familiar to fans of the genre. But Yimou has turned it into art, placing as strong an emphasis on painterly visual flair as the elaborate choreography.

That said, the story, set in China during the waning days of the Tang dynasty, is no slouch either, though it follows a fairly classic, slightly stodgy melodramatic structure, with a heavy emphasis on disguises, mistaken identity, double-crosses, and unrequited love, all centered on a mysterious group of rebels known as the House of Flying Daggers. The group is bent on overthrowing the rule of the Emperor, whom they feel is corrupt. Two policemen, Jin (Andy Lau) and Leo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are tasked to infiltrate the group and discover the identity of its mysterious leader. They capture a young blind woman, Mei (Ziyi Zhang), who they believe is a secret HOFD operative, and the fact that she can take down five trained assassins without, er, blinking an eye is a good indication they're right. Jin decides to pose as a HOFD sympathizer and orders Mei to lead him to their secret hideout (the House of the House of Flying Daggers? The International House of Flying Pancakes?). But of course, along the way, sparks (and arrows, and swords, and several hundred bamboo spears, and, obviously, a few daggers) fly between the two, and before long Jin isn't sure he’ll be able to carry out his mission.

The plot is a little silly, but I liken the movie to a classic Hollywood musical—it's the songs and dances we care about, not so much the story filler in-between. House of Flying Daggers features fight sequences even more elegant and beautiful than those in Hero. The most memorable isn't really a fight at all—early on, the blind Mei performs a dance in the center of a circle of large drums, throwing out the weighted sleeves to hit each one in a frantic tempo. Equally striking is an ambush from the treetops of an emerald bamboo forest, which relies as much on sound design as visual flair as bamboo spears whistle through the air from every direction (my favorite moment: Jin and Mei manage to avoid the first volley, but are pinned to the ground and can only watch helplessly while their attackers in the trees cut down more shoots). I am somewhat remiss to call these mere "action sequences," as they strive for more than simple visceral thrills—I'd call them visual tone poems. If that didn’t sound totally boring.

Despite the high flying stunts, House of Flying Daggers is unquestionably a Yimou film—despite the action, the pacing is more suited to a traditional drama, and the impressive visuals are more meditative than visceral.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: If you read internet DVD forums, you doubtless know there is some disagreement on the quality of the video transfer for House of Flying Daggers, with opinions varying across the board, from "top-notch" to "one of the worst transfers I've ever seen." Since I don't own a 100-inch screen, I can't say my opinion is definitive, but if you, like most people, will be watching on the average TV (50 inches or less), I think you'll be pleased. Colors are bright and saturated and detail is good, despite a slight softness. There is a bit of digital artifacting visible here and there, but nothing unusual, and I noted no instances of edge enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
English, Chinese, Frenchno


Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 soundtrack is presented in French, English and the original Chinese, but live-action dubs make me ill, so I sampled only the original mix. It's a good one, with strong surround use, frequent directionality through all the channels, and a rich presentation of the score. Dialogue is fine as well, anchored in the center channel and strong and clear.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Steamboy, Mirrormask, The Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Storyboard
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Zhang Yimou and actress Ziyi Zhang
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Lovers music video
  2. Photo gallery
Extras Review: Zhang Yimou and Ziyi Zhang provide a commentary for the film that is presented with subtitles, so you can watch the movie and treat it like a trivia track if you like (though that makes it difficult to tell who's talking sometimes). They both provide some good information, but the chat wanders from substantial discussion to surface description.

The other substantial extra is a 45-minute making-of piece subtitled in English. It's got some good interviews and behind the scenes footage, but also irritating narration that sounds like PR fluff.

Other extras include a brief special effects featurette that illustrates the different CGI elements composited into filmed footage, storyboard-to-film comparisons, a photo gallery, the trailer, and the music video for the closing credits song Lovers.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

A fine compliment to Hero, The House of Flying Daggers is another breathtaking piece of martial arts eye candy from Zhang Yimou.

 


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