Our reviews of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (published June 5th, 2001) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Curse Of The Golden Flower / House Of Flying Daggers (Blu-Ray) (published July 31st, 2009) are also available.
Without Green Destiny, you are nothing, even if you do have a few extra bits!
It was just five short months ago that I reviewed Columbia's original release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was easily my favorite film of 2000, and I gave the DVD a glowing review—an average score of 89, and a judgment of 100. Our reviews at DVD Verdict typically focus most strongly on the film included on a disc, but in this case, I suggest you read my original review if you want to know more about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For this review, I would prefer to talk about the technical aspects of the Superbit release. Are Columbia's claims about Superbit true? Are the Superbit discs really that much better?
Facts of the Case
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon takes place in a fantastical version of 19th century China. Everything is very nearly the same as the real world, only here the laws of gravity don't quite apply to the fighters and warriors schooled in the martial arts. One such warrior, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is prepared to retire from the lifestyle to settle down. He gives his mystical sword, Green Destiny, to his partner in arms Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to entrust to a nobleman. Soon after, Green Destiny is stolen by a lithe young thief with knowledge of Wudan, the sacred, secret martial art of Li Mu Bai's sect. It turns out the thief is Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the provincial governor. Furthermore, it turns out that her governess and mentor is none other than Jade Fox, a legendary thief who murdered Li Mu Bai's master and stole his training manual. What follows is a tale not just of fighting and revenge, but also of redemption and love.
What is Superbit? To quote from the booklet included in the packaging: "Superbit DVDs utilize a special high bit rate digital transfer process to encode movies at double* the normal DVD bit rate. By converting the full physical space of the disc, Superbit DVD delivers the best picture and audio quality available on the market today." I should note that despite the asterix, there is no explanation of the qualification.
We will return to their claims in a moment after a crash course in digital media and DVD production. Digital audio and video consists of 0s and 1s (known as bits) that are decoded into the analog signals fit for human consumption. The author of the digital media can determine how many bits represent a time slice of the media, and generally the more bits per time slice, the higher the quality. The standard measure is bits per second (bps), or for larger streams, kilobits (Kbps—that's 1,000 bits per second), megabits (Mbps—that's 1 million bits per second), or gigabits (Gbps—1 billion bits per second). On DVDs, the audio and video streams are encoded separately. Audio bitrates are generally presented in kilobits per second, and video bitrates in megabits per second. As a reference, I am using Jim Taylor's DVD FAQ (look in the Accomplices section for a link). In section 3.4 he states two facts about DVD bitrates: "Maximum video bit rate is 9.8 Mbps" and "the track buffer feeds system stream data out at a variable rate of up to 10.08 Mbps." Mind you, the 10.08 Mbps rate that he lists is for all the data your DVD player decodes as you watch a film—video, audio, and subtitles. A subtitle stream accounts for 100 Kbps, and a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track at its highest bitrate is 448 Kbps. Figuring those in, a DVD producer isn't really going to be able to encode the video stream at a rate higher than about 9.5 Mbps, and that will be even lower if there is a DTS track. If these technical details float your boat, there are several books available on DVD production, and they make for interesting reading. Also, for those of you with DVD-ROM drives in your Windows computer, there is a freeware tool available called DVD Bit Rate Viewer (link at right) that will allow you to see a graph of the video bitrate on your discs, as well as an average across the entire program. I use it for many of my reviews, and I will refer to results from it extensively in my comments to follow.
So, back to Superbit and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Columbia claims its Superbit titles are superior based on two technical criteria: their higher video bitrates and their usage of the full storage afforded on a DVD. To test their claims, the prosecution presents the following table. It compares the Superbit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the original release as well as to several DVDs that have been reviewed by DVD Verdict. Most of these are excellent discs, but for reference I have included one budget title. For each title, I will present the average video bitrate as determined by DVD Bit Rate Viewer, the capacity of the disc as represented by a computer, the highest bitrate audio track on the disc, and the feature's running time.
As you can see, the Superbit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a 30% improvement in the video bitrate over the original disc—I may not be a rocket surgeon, but that is not even close to "double" (it is a noticeable difference though, as we will see in a moment). Furthermore, the 6.75GB used for the disc is only 85% of the available 7.95GB capacity of a DVD-9 single-sided dual-layered DVD. Compared against A-list titles from other studios, the margin of difference in the average video bitrates is even slimmer, and some other titles even surpass the bitrate offered by Superbit. Furthermore, it highlights the disparities in perceived value between the Superbit discs and high-profile products or product lines from other studios. I think the most revealing comparison is to New Line's Se7en Platinum Series release. It is of comparable length—seven minutes longer, in fact—and both include 754 Kbps DTS audio tracks. Se7en retails for $29.95, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Superbit for $27.95. Se7en is a two-disc set, while Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is only a single disc. The feature disc of Se7en includes a total of seven audio tracks: DTS 6.1, Dolby Digital 5.1EX, two-channel surround, and four commentary tracks, plus DVD-ROM features and a second disc packed with special features. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon contains only the film with DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The technical details of the two discs seem as close to an apples-for-apples comparison as you can get, yet the Se7en disc is clearly a better value for the consumer.
Turning our attention to the differences between the two Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon releases, you can see a slight though discernable difference between the two releases. Below are cropped, though otherwise unaltered, captures from the beginning of chapter 24 on each release. If you click on each one, you will be taken to a 2x enlargement. Here is the original release:
And here is the Superbit release:
If you look very closely, you can see improved details, particularly in the blue section of the tapestry in the background and in the creases and folds in Jen's clothing. The extra bits do make a difference; that fact is not in dispute. What is disputed are Columbia's claims that Superbit transfers are substantially better than other discs. It is a sad fact, lamented often at DVD Verdict, that Columbia's video transfers are on the low end for the major studios. Superbit may be a substantial improvement over their own titles, but compared to the best work of other studios (which oftentimes is not rare—it's their standard level of excellence), it's nothing to get you excited.
Other than the improved bitrate, the video transfers between the Superbit release and the original edition are identical, downconverted from the same high-definition transfer of the same film print. They both exhibit the same color balance, which is good, and source defects, which is bad. I noted in my original review that the transfer exhibits "more dust and speckles than you'd expect from a year-old film." Sometimes it can also exhibit the same digital defects; there is excessive shimmering in the calligraphy paper at the beginning of chapter nine on both releases, for example. On my 27" television, the two DVDs looked identical. On my DVD-ROM equipped computer, the Superbit version was sharper, but only when closely scrutinized.
The caveat to my review: my home theater receiver does not support DTS. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio sounds identical to the original release, but I could not test the DTS track. My humble apologies. The DTS decoder in my head says that you'll hear the same subtly better reproduction that makes DTS supporters love it so.
The Superbit release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does offer incremental improvements in the audio and video departments at the expense of the extra features available on the original release—a commentary track with director Ang Lee and producer/writer James Schamus, an English dub of the film, trailers (both international and domestic, which offers a nice look at how the promotion of the film was dumbed down for American audiences), a thorough making-of documentary, and an extended interview with Michelle Yeoh. The improvements in the video will be visible only to the small minority of DVD owners who have very large or high-definition displays, and then I'd be willing to wager that the differences would only be apparent under the closest of scrutiny and not while viewing the film for entertainment purposes. My recommendation on this title is to skip it if you already own the original edition unless you absolutely, positively need the DTS audio. If you don't already own Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, purchase the original release, because you are losing too much while not gaining much of significance. The Judgment score reflects not upon the film, because it is still excellent, but upon my recommendation for a purchase of this disc.
After having the chance to review one of the Superbit titles, my opinion of the line remains unchanged: it is little more than a marketing gimmick, a means of differentiating their product line from the premium lines of other studios. The marketing blurbs that the audio and video are substantially better may sound nice, but under closer inspection next to the facts of the DVD format and direct comparison to discs from other studios, the claims are spurious at best. In my humble opinion, it is not too late for Columbia to rethink their strategy. Please, for the sake of all DVD lovers, not just the ones who could've purchased a Lamborghini with the money they spent on their home theater equipment, consider making these two-disc sets. Fans are already crying foul that a two-disc set of The Fifth Element was released in Europe without redress for Region 1. Were Columbia to release two-disc sets, with the feature disc unchanged from their current format, and a second disc included with meaningful supplements, and the price point left unchanged, I think they would be releasing a product that would appeal to the wide buying public. I do not want it to appear that I am needlessly ripping Columbia, because some of the titles they are double-dipping are in need of re-release…but not like this! They had the right idea with their special editions of other films, like In the Line of Fire or The Mask of Zorro, but Superbit leaves too much to be desired for the vast majority of buyers. I understand that these discs are aimed at the hardcore technophile, but there is no reason why they cannot aim to please everyone…especially if they want their competing product line to be truly competitive.
The bailiff is instructed to fetch Green Destiny and hunt down the Columbia executives who sullied the honor of this excellent film with a bare-bones release.
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