Once a Thief comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p resolution, encoded using the
AVCcodec and framed within a theatrically correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The disc itself is locked to region A.
This was never the best looking film, and on
DVDit certainly had its problems so expectations are to be tempered when viewing this. The good news is that though there is still print damage, there are no major instances of hairs or scratches reaching halfway across the screen. They are your usual array of minor specks and the like. The cry of “upscaled” is often shrieked by fans, but all too often with scant evidence. If you have to argue whether or not it may be upscaled, it may not be a great sign, but it is also not a damning condemnation. Some may question certain Blu titles in Kam and Ronson’s output, but Once Upon a Time in China this isn’t. Once a Thief was never pin sharp, like a lot of Hong Kong cinema, and the delineation here, when in bright light, easily beats the standard definition iterations of the film.
Unfortunately it still struggles in lower light and scenes can become murky, smudged and drained of much detail. However, fine detail is never that strong anyway, it may sound like a backhanded compliment but it actually lessens the blow to some degree. There appears to be some sharpening and edge enhancement applied to give a sense of dimensionality to the frame and it probably works far more than it doesn’t. Facial detail in close-up is good and when combined with the even skin tones, makes this an impressive upgrade when the camera moves tight in.
Distance softens to varying degrees and if there is a concrete criticism to attach to the picture it is the lack of consistency. This is, as ever, in part due to the fast production time and lack of reshoots that occur in the industry but the disc itself must also shoulder some of the responsibility. On the plus side, the colour palette looks more stable than I have seen it, with perhaps a bit of the red push still there, and skin tones are far superior to previous versions. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but when viewed in direct comparison to the previous attempts to bring this to the home market, it is definitely an upgrade, even if it doesn’t shine.
There are three audio options – Cantonese Dolby TrueHD 7.1 and Mandarin and Thai Dolby Digital EX. Obviously I opted for the lossless track for the sake of this review.
It’s a pity that with the extra storage of Blu-ray we are not given the option of the original mono track, but to some degree that disappointment is curbed by a fairly good 7.1 mix. There’s nothing stellar about it, but it is as you would expect a matrixed orchestration to be – added dimensionality complete with flaws.
To start with, the volume is not the most consistent, in the earlier scenes the sound knob needs a good crank and towards the end, when thankfully the fairly lifeless LFE finally wakes up, it seems to remember that an action film needs to be loud! As mentioned, the integration of the bass is not the best, gunshots are weak and can even be more potent when represented as discreet and emanating from the rears than when projecting out of the fronts. If you’re going to short-change an audience on the original track, it is imperative that the replacement at least uses the tools at its disposal.
Thankfully the extra channels are utilised in some of the action sequences to good effect, if in spits and farts. Ricochets are as light as they ever were in Woo films but the pinging of gunfire from different angles creates a nice effect, if a tad underused. The rears are mainly used to bleed music through but the catchy score by Violet Lam is well catered for with regards the high frequencies and the handling of the accordion in particular.
Dialogue is locked to the centre channel but wavers in quality somewhat, with the English language sections still noticeably different in overall tone, being slightly tinny and lacking warmth. The Cantonese dub is perfunctory, but the subtitles still make for an odd and strangely funnier than intended viewing (“It takes turn to tango”).
It’s a pity that there is such a disparity between when this track works and when it doesn’t, as a lossless mono offering would have sufficed. 7.1 channels may seems more apt for action cinema, but when you have a large storage medium such as Blu-ray at your disposal, it shouldn’t be a case of “either/or”. The real blessing is the absence of hiss and pops, but as it stands, this track is lossless, 7.1 and does a reasonable job, no more no less.
Trailer – 1080p – 1:24
Satisfyingly played out to Carl Orff’s O Fortuna.
Tsang Kong Interview – 6:59
Otherwise known as KentTsang/Kenneth Tsang. No English subtitles.
Once a Thief is one of several departures of Woo’s from the easy path of grandiose macho shoot-outs, but it still comes back to that stable ground when all other avenues have been explored or the story may start to lag. It is Woo’s true North and what he does best, but the interweaving of comedy and action, though sometimes lessening the impact of either, generally works well. The emphasis is on charm and a playful atmosphere with slapstick and the occasional dramatic moment to please the fans. Chow Yun Fat is, as ever, a solid lead actor, whether lounging, shooting or even clowning he adapts and oozes charisma.
The region A locked disc is a fairly bare-bones BD25, with the picture and sound likely to be the subject of some debate. Should you fall into the camp of “it’s an upgrade” then this will likely please you, but if you view Blu-ray purchases as something only necessitated by a wholeheartedly wonderful presentation then this may be one to skip. That the original mono track is nowhere to be seen will probably be more of a sticking point for aficionados but it is still sad to find it missing.
This is an upgrade, but still far from definitive.
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