The only thing better than a three-pack to Judge Adam Arseneau is a six-pack.
Our reviews of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (published June 5th, 2001), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Superbit Edition (published October 29th, 2001), Curse Of The Golden Flower (published March 19th, 2007), Curse Of The Golden Flower (Blu-Ray) (published August 2nd, 2007), and House Of Flying Daggers (published May 2nd, 2005) are also available.
Three movies for the price of…well, more.
A beautiful and somewhat befuddling box set, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Curse of the Golden Flower / House of Flying Daggers Trilogy (Blu-ray) combines three totally unrelated films into a single, overpriced slipcover to gouge consumers into parting with their money.
Normally, we frown on such bundling, and certainly this title would be easy to dismiss, were it not for two nagging points. All three films are incredibly good in their own way, and worth having prominent placement in your library. Secondly—and perhaps most importantly—as of this writing, this set is the only way for consumers to land their greasy hands on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Blu-Ray. The plot thickens…
Facts of the Case
In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, legendary warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow-Yun Fat) is preparing to settle down for a well-deserved retirement. He passes ownership of his legendary blade, the Green Destiny, to his longtime partner Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) for safekeeping. To their dismay, the sword is stolen by a brash and inexperienced girl, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who is the daughter of the local governor. She has no formal training save for guidance from a merciless thief and murder, Jade Fox—the very Jade Fax who murdered Li Mu Bai's master. The two partners pursue Jen and try to recover their sword, but also redeem the young warrior-in-training, recognizing her skills as having great potential. However, Jen does not want to devote years to the discipline of Wudan—she just wants to fight!
In Curse of the Golden Flower, the Royal family of the Tang dynasty prepares themselves for the annual Chrysanthemum festival and the return of Emperor Ping (Chow-Yun Fat) and the middle son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou) from the battlefront. Unbeknownst to but a few select in the Emperor's employ, the Empress (Gong Li) is being dosed with a slow-acting poison, designed to render her senses incompetent. She and the Emperor have no love lost, and she has been carrying on an affair with the Emperor's son, Price Wan (Le Yiu), who was born from a previous marriage. For no reason anyone can understand, she spends her days sewing and embroidering endless chrysanthemum emblems. As the festival approaches, family demons and dark secrets threaten to tear the kingdom apart, as the Empress refuses to be dealt such a powerless hand.
In House of Flying Daggers, a weak Chinese government has created endless levels of corruption and chaos at various levels. A malicious group called the Flying Daggers emerges to overthrow the government and protect the downtrodden. The local militias are tasked with finding the leader of the gang and killing them at all costs. Two captains, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) devise a plan to infiltrate the group on hearing rumor that a local brothel houses a member of the Flying Daggers. Disguised as a civilian, Jin finds evidence that blind dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi) is the agent, and engineer an arrest and daring escape of Mei from the local authorities—all in the hope she will take Jin back to the Flying Daggers headquarters. As Jin and Mei flee across the country from the authorities—most of whom are in on the undercover operation—Jin finds himself developing genuine feelings for the beautiful woman. As deception gives way to love, he must decide who he is and what his feelings truly are. However, Jin is not the only one harboring a secret about his identity…
On the surface, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Curse of the Golden Flower / House of Flying Daggers Trilogy (Blu-ray) is a straight-up cash grab; a box set that bundles three Blu-Ray DVDs into a slipcover and sells it as a standalone product. Two of the films are already available on Blu-Ray, identical here to their standalone counterparts. So why bother with such a set, especially one with such a high MSR? The inclusion of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Blu-Ray, a title announced by Sony two years ago and then mysteriously pulled from the release docket—that's why! For if you want a copy, this bundle is currently the only way to get it in North America. Devious indeed!
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Widely hailed as the first genuine crossover wuxia film to appeal to North American audiences, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a co-production between United States, Chinese, and Taiwanese studios earned an amazing $128 million dollars in the U.S. market alone, an unheard of amount easily making it the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American history, nominated for ten Academy Awards and winning four. For director Ang Lee, a Taiwanese filmmaker who studied at NYU and known only for his dramatic work (Sense and Sensibility), this was a rare opportunity; a chance to fulfill a childhood dream. The appeal to Western audiences came something as a surprise to all involved, kick-starting the popularity of wuxia films, Ang Lee, and actress Zhang Ziyi in Hollywood.
For many, martial art films were not particularly foreign; drive-in classics and late-night television filled our cultural senses with ridiculous notions about Shaolin monks and ninjas, and figures like Jackie Chan and Jet Li had already crossed over into Hollywood. Where audiences had little experience was in the wuxia, the historical martial art epic of Chinese cinema so integral to the cinema of Asia, yet relatively unknown at the time in North America. These are works of a sprawling and dramatic nature, full of chivalry and honor, of romance and swordplay, of martial arts and magic. North American audiences could appreciate Jackie Chan leaping onto a hovercraft in New York, but had little appreciation for quiet, introspective masters who flew from wires and deftly battled from high atop bamboo trees. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon certainly would find appeal to the art house and foreign cinema lover, but it was a surprise hit for everyone—audiences were mesmerized and amazed at the quality of the storytelling, the lush cinematography, the stunning action, and fight sequences choreographed by renowned master Yuen Woo-Ping. No one had seen anything like it before, and it opened the eyes of many.
Now ten years later, the film still stands up as a masterpiece, as a triumph of narrative and cinematography and swordplay, ethereal in its beauty. At its core, it is a sophisticated narrative about love and honor, of duty and submission, intermingled with breathtaking action sequences so effortless, so graceful as to defy Hollywood logic. There are no obnoxious deaths or explosions, little blood or gore, no violence beyond the artful dance of bodies and swords twirling and pirouetting, more dance than combat. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh perform double duty here, offering surprising acting range and depth while pulling off some of the most outrageous and sophisticated fight sequences ever put to film. Newcomer Zhang Ziyi is heartbreakingly beautiful and fiercely obnoxious, a firebrand of defiance and rebellion with a sword to match. It is so rare to find a film that is so perfectly conceived and executed as to deflect almost all criticism and defect; a decade later, I still can't find a dang thing wrong with it. A beautiful film without peer, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a sumptuous feast for the senses and the heart.
Originally announced on Blu-Ray way back in early 2007, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a title long missing in action from Sony's catalog. The 1080p image is clean and soft, almost excessively so; black levels are deep and rich, color saturation is natural but muted with strong earth tones. Compared to the Superbit DVD version, previously the standard in quality for this title, the Blu-Ray picture is softer and much more filmlike, with subtle grain running throughout and far less artificial and saturated. It takes some getting used to, but this is a much more accurate and natural-looking transfer. Depth and detail are slightly hindered by the softness of the film, but skin tones and textile details are easily noticeable. It is an accurate and sophisticated transfer that will delight heavy technophiles with high-end systems, but one that admittedly lacks the pop and razor-sharp clarity many have come to associate with Blu-Ray transfers.
Bewilderingly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has downright false technical specs listed on the packaging that make no sense; it announces the presence of an uncompressed Cantonese PCM 5.1 track and no Mandarin language track (which is the film's native language). Throw it into your Blu-Ray player, and a "Chinese" TrueHD track is available, which is in fact Mandarin. To make matters even stranger, it lists a myriad of subtitle options, none of which appear on the disc, and incorrect region coding information (the title is region-free, not A). One theorizes that Sony had the packaging material written up back in 2007, and then pulled the title indefinitely, with nobody bothering to update it for this box-set release. If it were any other studio, this kind of nonsense would seem unthinkable, but Sony has been known to do this kind of thing, unfortunately.
The TrueHD tracks are sumptuous and detailed, rich with environmental details and fantastic in their constant use of all channels to envelop audiences during fight and action sequences. Bass response is rich and throaty, with clear dialogue. The Mandarin track is the track of choice; the English dub sounds near-identical in all aspects save for the corny quality of the dubbing, which should be avoided. During quieter moments, the rear channels go into hibernation mode somewhat, but this is a minor complaint. The score alternates between classic Chinese instrumentation and pounding, rhythmic drums, perfectly matching the film.
Extras are near-identical to the standard definition release of the film; we get a commentary track with director Ang Lee and producer/writer James Schamus, "Unleashing The Dragon," a short making-of featurette, an interview with actress Michelle Yeoh and a photo gallery. One observation is that the English subtitles have been reworked since the previous standard definition and Superbit DVD releases, and have lost some of their sophistication and formality in favor of casual conversational style. Whether they are better or worse now is a matter of interpretation—but different they are.
Curse of the Golden Flower
The most expensive financial undertaking in Chinese cinematic history, Curse of the Golden Flower belied many expectations on inception. Director Zhang Yimou, hot off the heels of Hero and House of Flying Daggers began receiving serious international attention to his work and amassed a magnificent cast and elaborate set designs for his latest film, all to the tune of $45 million. Fans eagerly awaited his new martial arts magnum opus, but found instead a film surprisingly introspective and moody; a violent and confrontational film to be sure, but one dealt in vitriol and bile, not arrows and swords. Curse of the Golden Flower is sumptuous and elaborate in its costume, its set designs and artistic endeavors, but compared to his previous work, noticeably less action-packed. This is a dance not of swords and battles, but of words and machinations, a family drama taken to poisonous levels.
Far more Shakespearian than wuxia in tone and devices, betrayal and deception are the prevalent themes as audiences watch a royal family implode from the inside out. A soap opera of epic magnitude, betrayals beget further betrayals, coups give way to retaliation and retribution, all under the confident smirk of an Emperor confident in his superiority and place in the natural order of the universe. As with all Zhang Yimou's work, the cinematography, use of color, and sumptuous artistic work in set and costume are dazzling in their intricacy, a feast for the eyes, ears, and soul. Certainly there is swordplay and violence, action sequences choreographed with thousands (literally) of extras, but it is secondary to the dramatic battles between family members.
The surprising focus on internal struggle and the downplay of the sumptuous, epic martial arts film that many were expecting give Curse of the Golden Flower a somber, melancholy tone. For a film this vibrant in design and direction, so amazingly assembled and intricate in visual detail and art, the heart and soul of the film often tastes rotten and sour. Make no mistake; this film is kind of a downer, laden with Oedipal themes and bitter struggles between family members. If there was any love in the royal family, it left long ago. It is a tragedy through and through, inspiring in its own way, certainly worth the spectacle and grandiose attention paid to it. Still, one cannot help feel taken aback by the cruelty of the tale and of its final message.
Gong Li gives a knockout performance as the embittered Empress, maligned and marginalized by her arrogant Emperor, who now finds herself aware of a deliberate (but totally unprovable) plot to render her slowly poisoned by royal decree. Her hands are tied; she cannot openly defy the Emperor, but nor can she refuse to take her "medicine." She is trapped; a disposable pawn, but one who will not go down without a fight. Her performance is noteworthy and impressive. Chow Yun-Fat plays the aforementioned Emperor with cocky swagger and effortless arrogance, a despicable character full of petty jealousy and cruelty. It's a great role for him, insofar as we don't often see him in this light. Actor Ye Liu as Wan gives a particularly animated and crazed performance—it is almost too much for the film, but surprisingly enjoyable and effective.
A handsome and colorful Blu-Ray presentation, Curse of the Golden Flower exhibits immaculate detail and color saturation; vibrant and dynamic without ever saturating skin tones or affecting contract. Black levels are solid and rich, with sharp and crisp detail throughout. Some small amount of grain and the tiniest indications of print damage are noticeable, but you really have to go looking for them to see them. Every piece of fabric, every delicate nuance and gilded piece of metalwork are perfectly rendered in fine detail. Facial close-ups show every bead of sweat, every tiny detail in perfect realization. Reds and yellows leap from the screen with electric vibrancy. The only less-than-perfect sequences are the nighttime battles, which are a muddle of gray tones and difficult to perceive.
Audio comes in the way of an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track in Mandarin. The track is detailed and nuanced, full of strong bass and clear dialogue. Ambient details are perfectly realized throughout side and rear channels; every rustle of fabric is perfectly audible. Sequences in the castle sound cavernous and reverberate pleasantly through the sonic space. The score is as maudlin and moody as the film, full of throaty orchestral singers, and suits the tense drama perfectly. Legacy tracks include Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround presentations (both in Mandarin and English) and are serviceable in a pinch if one lacks the hardware to appreciate the uncompressed audio. They lack the sparkle and resonance of the PCM track, but this is to be expected. The dub isn't great, but it's better than most.
Extras are slim; we get a small making-of featurette "Secrets Within" and footage from the Los Angeles premiere of the film, barely 20 minutes of footage total, and some trailers.
House of Flying Daggers
Lush and ornate, House of Flying Daggers is a pure cinematic composition, a masterful stroke of visual flair and unsurpassed physical beauty, so much so that one even forgives its less-than-memorable plot. It is a martial arts epic, a flying wheel of swordplay and intrigue that lops the heads off of audiences who dare set foot in its domain; a profound technical achievement of martial arts beauty and aesthetic brilliance. Sure, the plot is a bit goofy, but who can complain with all the gorgeous eye candy?
For director Zhang Yimou (Hero), a filmmaker who normally composes films of profound historical accuracy and importance, House of Flying Daggers feels like a pet project worked on during days off; a silly dalliance into pure visceral filmmaking without the burden of meaning or relevance. There is no satire, no cultural criticism, no meaning behind the film beyond the pure art of the craft. The plot, such as it is, has gaping conceptual holes in it so large as to be laughable. No energy goes into closing these holes, and every iota goes instead into creating the most visually striking and magnificent-looking martial arts adventure possible. There is no complex wuxia plot here, only a simple Romeo & Juliet love story set in between massive battle sequences. It is a film calculated and devised to make money, to impress Western audiences and cross into Hollywood with the force of a hurricane, full of CGI trickery, flying knives, and battle sequences in bamboo forests.
Striking in imagery and execution, this is a film for the eyes and ears, not the mind. Costumes and battle choreography are all heightened and intensified through diligent and repeated application of slow-motion cinematography and CGI enhancement, making arrows fly impossibly through the sky and the eponymous flying daggers rain down like a hailstorm of death. It is all utterly impossible without any semblance to reality, but such great fun that one barely notices. Zhang Ziyi plays her role well, with emotion and marvelous physical prowess and sells her performance easily. Takeshi Kaneshiro is a charming blend of ham and genuine charm, a perfect leading man for a martial arts film. By modern Hollywood standards, some of (but not all) the CGI look a bit transparent and artificial, but not enough to detract from their enjoyment.
House of Flying Daggers was of the original flagship titles in the Blu-Ray catalog, and this same version appears in this box set. The high contrast and color saturation in the source print, elements that make the film so striking have the unfortunate consequence of making it near-impossible to create a consistent Blu-Ray experience. Color use in the film is resplendent; each sequence dominates the color palate in tone, creating amazing compositions of contrast and saturation. The vibrancy of the color saturation leaps off the screen here, but artificially so, and not without consequence. Be it a stylistic decision, a side effect of the unnatural color saturation and CGI adjustments made throughout, or an early example of Blu-Ray mastering, the image suffers from abnormal levels of softness, one that gets more noticeable and problematic as the film progresses. Early sequences, like the Echo Game are near-perfect in fidelity and vibrancy, but later sequences (especially in the green bamboo forest) shimmer and muddle, full of distortion and wild contrast. Close-up shots of faces lack the meticulous detail, the skin tone, pores, and hair follicles that one becomes accustom to seeing on high-definition transfers. The Blu-Ray presentation certainly is an improvement over standard DVD, and its idiosyncrasies never detract from the cinematic experience as a whole, but a film this visually splendid demands from audiences a detailed and rich technical transfer.
On the plus side, the audio is tremendous, an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track that perfectly encapsulates every nuance and detail with perfect accuracy. The track sparkles and sings with crisp highs and magnificent lows. Some of the fight sequences like the bamboo tree attack come perilously close to being reference quality. Even minor details, like the rustle of fabric or the swish of a sword blade are immaculate in detail. Throwing dried beans has never seemed so amazing—and if you've seen the movie, you know exactly what I mean. Dolby 5.1 Surround dubs are also included (one in English) that lack the same tonal detail and sparkle as the PCM, but certainly usable in a pinch for those of you who fear subtitles.
Extras are embarrassingly slim; we get only a short "Creating the Visual Effects" featurette and some storyboard comparisons, losing the commentary track and other features present on the standard DVD release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The biggest complaint with this bundle is the unavailability of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Blu-Ray in North America outside of this box set. If you want Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Blu-Ray—and many, many people have been clamoring for it—you have to pony up and buy two other films to get it, ones that have been readily available as standalone Blu-Ray releases for quite some time, and no doubt already in many people's collections.
With no announced street date by Sony for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a standalone release, this is a pretty jerky maneuver by the studio. If you check out the Amazon review page, fans are making their opinions known by dropping one-star reviews every which way. Hopefully, Sony takes the hint. As it stands, this is a pretty lousy way to introduce a new product to market.
What exactly constitutes this pack as a "trilogy" anyway? There's no narrative correlation between any of these films, except that they all have Mandarin dialogue.
Sony adds insult to injury by finally releasing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Blu-Ray by bundling it with two unrelated films that fans of the martial arts genre will no doubt already have in their collection. On the plus side, they're great films all; there isn't a bad one in this set, but the grouping represents little value to consumers unless all three titles are new to your collection on Blu-Ray.
The MSRP for the set is embarrassingly overpriced (almost $100) but savvy shoppers can easily find vendors selling the set for less than half this amount. For Blu-Ray aficionados looking to score Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Blu-Ray only, either seek out an import or wait until Sony comes to its senses and releases the title singly.
Three fantastic films are not guilty, but Sony is guilty of putting them in one overpriced and inconvenient bundle.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
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Review content copyright © 2009 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.