PictureTwo words spring to mind on this anamorphic 2.35:1 print: Oh. Dear. It's a crying shame, because while the movie is an example of careful craftsmanship, the video transfer is not. Right from the opening moments, some horrendous video compression becomes apparent; in particular, if you pay close attention to the Chinese text as the credits roll, there are artefacts that wouldn't be uncommon on a pirate DVD, or a backup that's had something like 40% compression applied to it. Yes, it's THAT bad, and though never quite as obvious as at the start of the movie, it's still apparent throughout the running time, and especially on fast pans and busy shots with lots of trees and foliage.
Another big gripe is the apparent inconsistency in other areas of video quality; for example, chapter 2 sees a crowd of onlookers gather on a balcony to witness the “test”, and there's a significant level of softness to the image, that shows faces to be blurred with indistinct edges and a noticeable loss of detail. Coupled with the compression issues and with plenty of scratches thrown into the mix, I cannot help but think this is unforgivable for a modern release.
In other ways, however, the video holds up well. In lots of scenes, images come across as crisp and detailed, with well saturated colours across the whole spectrum, and only a few scenes where the colour balance looks wrong (some of the forest scenes are deeply saturated in green, but I assume this was the film-makers intention). Detail and black levels hold their ground too, and whilst this isn't the sharpest transfer around, a passing nod is deserved for the absence of edge enhancement. Contrast levels vary widely, with some scenes possessing an almost palpable sense of depth (especially the forest scenes) while others contain overblown levels of contrast that sometimes bleaches the images; I'm not sure here if that's down to the DVD mastering or because it's what the director intended.
Overall, this is a bitter disappointment; a wonderful movie and as you're about to find out, a sublime soundtrack. Shame about the visuals...
SoundWell we really are spoilt here, for not only is there is a 448kbps Dolby Digital soundtrack, but also included is a full bitrate (1536kbps) DTS 5.1 track, both in Chinese. And wow...are these corkers!
I apologise in advance if I start to sound a little gushing about the sound, because this is one of the most satisfying soundtracks I've heard in a long time, and certainly different to many others out there. The entire soundstage is fulsome, possessing excellent dynamics and a wonderful, transparent clarity. Imaging across the front is exceptional, with accurate placement of effects and a deeply layered soundtrack that picks up on minute detail. The sound mixers have amplified the smallest of sounds, so that even the smacking of lips as characters eat food, or lightest footfall in a field or forest, are all perfectly audible and presented with such a striking clarity that even without the biggest bangs puts it firmly in the “reference” category, and there's no sense at all of it sounding overblown.
High frequencies are rendered with a scintillating fizzle that'll make every tweeter out there sing, and the swing in dynamics from these highs down to the lowest lows can only be described as stunning. And speaking of lows, whilst never containing the deepest levels of bass out there - it doesn't quite plummet into the bottom octaves that make most subwoofers cower - the low frequency action is executed with weight and authority, lending a massive sense of scale. Witness chapter 2 - “Blind Dancer's Test” - where the drums will pound your listening room; the bass here is bass on a [b]big[/b] scale, with tremendous depth and power which attacks the room effortlessly, not to mention the eardrums.
Of note, too, are the surround channels, and in this same chapter the flying pebbles will pepper your whole room, showing how wide and expansive the soundstage is. The surrounds are actually used well throughout, and add effectively to the ambience of the movie.
As to how the Dolby soundtrack compares to the DTS, well the DTS certainly has more weight about it, and gives the overall impression of more substance. There's actually not as much in it as you might think, for the Dolby Digital soundtrack is also stunning, with just as much detail present (I played back numerous scenes a dozen times to compare). Either way, you're not really going to be disappointed.
Overall, this is a surround sound feast: solid, expansive and as a crisp as cool mountain air, they don't come much more cinematic as House of Flying Daggers. Reference.
ExtrasDisappointment is the name of the game here; all we have is a theatrical trailer in 2.0 that sports a poor picture, a photo gallery and a selection of cast and crew Bios. In Chinese. Joy.
VerdictThis is one of the most difficult DVD's I've had to rate so far, because while the movie is superb and the sound worthy of the “reference” banner, this Region 3 release suffers from horrendous video problems and a severe lack of extras. Taken as the sum of its parts, the overall score may look low, but if you can live with the flaws as I've mentioned, then you should pick up a copy with no hesitation. The film itself is a stunning example of how good Asian cinema can be. Recommended.
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