Okay, I'll be honest and say I wouldn't be reviewing 'House of Flying Daggers' if it wasn't my job. It is not that I have anything against the "martial arts" genre, it is just not the type of film I have ever really taken much of a liking to.
Like the western or old screwball comedies, the sight of people flying around in forests attacking each other with swords just doesn't speak to me in any sort of profound way. Of course, I realize this is a gross simplification of the genre, and that there is indeed much more at work both intellectually and emotionally in a film like 'House of Flying Daggers' than just your standard chop-socky exploitation film. But I still can't deny that going in I couldn't help but think this film wasn't going to be my cup o tea.
Yet even after going in with so many prejudices, I must say that after watching 'House of Flying Daggers,' I came away suitably impressed. Not only because it is an incredibly beautiful film, but because I was perhaps expecting at best another 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' knock-off, or at worst, some sort of big-budget version of 'Kung Fu Hustle.' Instead I witnessed a film that is indeed a wonder to behold. I'm not usually prone to superlatives, but the images here rival the breathtaking visual stylings of such auteurs as Ang Lee, Terrence Malick and even vintage David Lean. Imaginative and ethereal, impeccably produced and bold in its use of color and texture (the production and costume design are staggering), with 'House of Flying Daggers' director Yimou Zhang (who also helmed the recently acclaimed import 'Hero') proved he stands firmly besides the top filmmakers working today on any continent.
Admittedly, I was not quite as captivated by the film's narrative as I was by its visuals. 'House of Flying Daggers' deals with the fairly standard themes of its genre -- loyalty, honor, courage and romantic betrayal. But even here I was pleasantly surprised -- there is a genuine joy, even whimsy, in how Zhang tells his tale that simultaneously respects the story, yet is never weighed down by heavy-handedness or pretension. Zhang is also aided by a very strong cast, including tremendously forceful performances by Takeshi Kaneshiro and especially Ziyi Zhang (who finally earned notice from American audiences with her breakout role in last year's 'Memoirs of a Geisha'). Though I can't say I've been converted to a fan of the genre by 'House of Flying Daggers,' my respect for films of its type has grown exponentially after having seen it.
Alas, as beautiful as 'House of Flying Daggers' may look on film, this high-def transfer just doesn't do it justice. This is my last review of Sony's initial crop of Blu-ray releases and I had hoped to finish them off on a high note, but the poor source material here torpedoes any hope I may have had.
Presented in 2.35:1 and encoded at 1080p, the big problem is consistency. About half the film looks little better than the standard definition DVD release, and even the other half only occasionally delivers the kind of striking images I expect from HD. The weak quality of the source print would seem to be the culprit. While black levels are fine, contrast is too blown out, which is especially problematic during nighttime scenes and dark interiors. Colors are a bit better, but even there I noticed some slight smearing and noise. Detail suffers the worst -- there were moments when the picture was far too soft and flat, which is a real shame, because there are some beautiful landscapes in 'House of Flying Daggers' and the image should have been three-dimensional. Granted, there are moments that really deliver -- on some shots you can make out details as minute as the shape of a leaf on a tree or the pattern on a piece of fabric -- but such isolated moments of brilliance only make this uneven presentation that much more frustrating.
The transfer may not be up to snuff, but I can't say enough great things about this excellent uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track. Presented in the film's native Mandarin (additional Mandarin, English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are also offered), it has moments so good it rivals the best reference-quality soundtracks produced for home theater that I've heard.
What makes 'House of Flying Daggers' so special is its exemplary sound design. Not only in its pronounced use of directional effects, but also subtle music cues and rich atmospherics, which combined deliver the kind of enveloping presence that makes you to really feel the movie, not just hear it. From the razor-sharp high-end sound of clanking metal swords to the rich mid-range oriental harmonies of the score to the thumping low bass, the expansive dynamic range is among the best I've ever heard on video. It is never too bombastic -- even minor sounds like the rustling of leaves in the wind or the delicate sound of fabric along skin are clear and distinct. Imaging is also transparent, with pans between channels seamless. Really great stuff -- and certainly the best soundtrack I've heard on Blu-ray so far.
Like most of Sony's initial Blu-ray releases, the majority of extras from the standard DVD release of 'House of Flying Daggers' have not been ported over. Gone is the original disc's commentary track and most of its making-of featurettes, which were the bulk of the standard DVD supplements.
What we do get is the pithy four-minute "Creating the Visual Effects" featurette, but it is far too short to go into any depth. There are also a few Storyboard Comparisons, but they are presented with little context, making them feel simply tacked on. Given the visual beauty of this film, the lack of extras here is particularly disappointing.
'House of Flying Daggers' is an undoubtedly beautiful film with exquisite photography and production design. Though I've never really taken a shine to the martial arts picture, even an ignoramus like myself can't deny this is a great example of the genre. Unfortunately, the transfer on this Blu-ray release is subpar, though the soundtrack is excellent. Also missing are most of the extras from the standard DVD release, so ultimately this rates as another disappointment from Sony.