House of Flying Daggers on Blu-ray Disc
by Johnny Bray
With the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon several years ago, the world of martial arts movies was forever changed.
Gone was the typical Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan-style punch-kick-bang-crash type of fighting, to be replaced by a more fantastic, graceful, "gravity defying" type of fighting. The stories suddenly became more compelling, no longer sticking with the tried and true "nice guy gets wronged and seeks revenge" approach. CGI was used more prominently, as well as a much wider array of weapons, rather than just hands and feet and the occasional ladder.
Hero upped the ante. House of Flying Daggers ups it again. It is a glorious movie in every sense of the word, gripping and breathtaking from minute one to minute 119.
We meet Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a beautiful blind dancer, at the Peony Pavilion (some sort of ancient mix between brothel, hotel and music hall). She's brought in to dance for Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police officer, but people begin to get suspicious due to her unmatched abilities. Plus, the leader of the House of Flying Daggers happens to have a blind daughter who reportedly ran away, so it doesn't take long to put two and two together.
Jin and Leo (Andy Lau) devise a plan to infiltrate the House of Flying Daggers and hopefully put a stop to their rebellious tendencies. They play on Mei's vulnerabilities and use her as bait. But perhaps, just like everybody else, she's not exactly who or what she would have them believe.
The film is a series of glorious action scenes strung together by a series of glorious story-oriented scenes. Unfortunately, the story can barely be mentioned, due to so darn much going on. And at the exact moment when things start getting predictable, everything turns around and gets as unpredictable as all get out. And the action scenes, including a wonderful sequence featuring a dash through a bamboo forest, are some of the finest ever put on film.
Not bad for a love story.
Some folks may have a hard time with the whole anti-gravity, flying around thing. "That's completely impossible," they might say. But such points are meant to signify (metaphorically, of course) the grace and discipline that their training has allowed. Obviously these people can't fly through the air and balance on flowers, but we'll be gosh darned if it doesn't look great.
A quick mention must also be made to Zhang Ziyi. Not only is she a great actress who can portray the depth and emotion necessary for her character, but her grace and skill as a martial artist is simply mind-boggling. It's hard to imagine how successful the movie would have been with a different actress in the lead.
House of Flying Daggers uses every cinematic trick in the book. Its use of color, effects, action, story, and extremely talented actors make it possibly the greatest martial arts movie ever made, and quite possibly the best movie of its year (although it would be hard pressed to unseat Shaun of the Dead). It is glorious from start to finish, and unlike Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, doesn't waste valuable time with seemingly endless boring-as-heck desert scenes.
For all fans of martial arts, House of Flying Daggers is as good as they come.
A movie such as this cries out for top-notch Blu-ray presentation, and Sony has delivered the goods. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and 1920x1080p of course, the picture is stunning. Bright, vibrant colors leap off the screen and the beautiful backgrounds are lush and breathtaking. Detail and skin tones are perfect, with not a trace of dust or grain anywhere on the print. It is as glorious as the film.
Audio is available in Chinese PCM 5.1 uncompressed, and Chinese, English French and Spanish in Dolby Digital 5.1, and since the only true way to watch is in the original language with subtitles, we're glad they lavished that track with the PCM. And it's great as well. The movie's wonderful score always stays in the background (though always audible), while the dialogue and sound effects that make up the bulk of the audio come through beautifully. Bamboo spears whiz past your head, swords clash, and arrows "whoosh" out of their respective bows like they were coming from the kitchen, and the bells in our dancer's hair tinkle with gorgeous realism.
There aren't a lot of extras on the disc. While the DVD included an audio commentary by director Zhang Yimou and Zhang Ziyi, all you get with the Blu-ray disc is a short visual effects featurette and storyboard comparisons which are presented in standard definition without captioning.
House of Flying Daggers, from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.