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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Bill Hunt and Jeff Kleist of The Digital Bits

HERO (Blu-ray Disc)

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2002 (2009) - Elite Group Enterprises/Miramax (Disney)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 15th, 2009
Also available on DVD & a 4-film Blu-ray box set

DTS-HD MADolby Digital

Film Rating: A-
Video (1-20): 18.5
Audio (1-20): 17
Extras: D

2,000 years ago, China was a land divided into seven separate states gripped in a constant state of war. Among their leaders, only the ruthless King of Qin held the goal of uniting these states into a single, great nation. But the sole path to this future lay in many years of conquest and bloodletting, and the King was hated throughout the land.

Many attempts had been made on his life, by ruthless assassins from the other states - assassins known by names like Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. Then one day, a warrior with no name is given an audience with the King. It seems he has single-handedly defeated all three of these great assassins. Nameless tells the King how he defeated the assassins, but does he speak the truth? And why did he defeat them? As the answers to these questions gradually unfold in a series of flashbacks, the mystery and beauty of HERO is revealed.

HERO is a remarkable film. This is certainly an actioner, of the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it goes well beyond that film in audacity and scope. HERO is a stunning meditation - a kind of epic ballet of love, honor and loyalty, told through a near perfect blending of movement, color and meaning. Jet Li stars here as Nameless in a role that elevates him above the ranks of the simple action star. Other standouts in the cast include longtime HK familiar Donnie Yen (known to American audiences for his role in Blade II), Zhang Ziyi (whom you'll recall from the aforementioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Maggie Cheung (previously seen in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love). But it's the film's stunning production design and cinematography that will leave you breathless. This is visual poetry, pure and simple. Directed by Zhang Yimou (of Raise the Red Lantern fame), HERO probably isn't to everyone's taste, but it remains one of the best films of the genre I've seen to date.

Thankfully, Miramax's new Blu-ray presents the film looking as good as I've ever seen it, even in theatres. Color and contrast are generally very good, if a little faded occasionally due to the condition of the negative. Overall clarity is excellent, with few print defects visible (dust, scratches, etc), and the level of detail is particularly pleasing. The subtle grain texture visible here gives the image a lovely, film-like quality. The image is certainly not up to the level of more recent fare, but for this film, the transfer is terrific. It's also a VAST improvement over the previous Miramax DVD, which was just riddled with MPEG-2 compression artifacting.

Sadly, the film's original Mandarin soundtrack is presented only in Dolby Digital 5.1. A DTS-HD lossless track is available, but on the English-dubbed audio only. Ugh. This is one of those oversights where you just scratch your head, because it makes no sense. Still, the Dolby Digital soundfield is smooth and natural, with tremendous ambience and good low frequency reinforcement. Listen for the subtle dripping of water all around in the "House of Chess" scene, for example, or the pounding beat of war drums when the Qin army attacks. The sounds of swordplay are crisp and airy, just as they should be. Lossless Mandarin would have been even better, but what can you do? Marks off on the audio score, but only a couple. Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in French and Spanish is also available, along with English, French and Spanish subs and English captions.

The extras on Miramax's BD are the same as were included on the previous DVD. There's a fairly straightforward "making of" featurette (HERO Defined) that runs about 24 minutes. It's moderately interesting, but just as it's starting to really get to the meat of what you want to know about... it moves on to the next topic. It amounts to interview clips with the director (and a few of the cast and crew), intercut with quick glimpses of generic production video - just superficial stuff. There's also a 13-minute "conversation" between Quentin Tarantino and actor Jet Li, in which Tarantino gushes about Li's work and the HK/action genre, while Li occasionally reveals an interesting bit of information. There's also a short set of four storyboard-to-film comparison videos and a TV spot shilling the film's soundtrack CD. New to the Blu-ray is D-Box compatibility and a Digital Copy. Nice, but neither is really necessary. The film deserves more in the way of actual bonus content - at least a commentary or something. Oh well.

HERO was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film several years back, and it's just a wonderfully cinematic experience. I'm pleased to say that, at long last, it looks terrific on disc thanks to this new Blu-ray. It's just a shame the lossless audio is dubbed. In any case, of all the recent Miramax Ultimate Force BD releases, the high-quality transfer here makes this the one to own. Recommended.

Bill Hunt, Editor
[email protected]

Iron Monkey (Blu-ray Disc)

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Iron Monkey
1993 (2009) - Media Asia/Miramax (Disney)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 15th, 2009
Also available on DVD & a 4-film Blu-ray box set

DTS-HD MADolby Digital

Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: D

We've reviewed the DVD version of Iron Monkey previously here at The Digital Bits, so let's get right to the Blu-ray quality and content.

As with Miramax's other Ultimate Force of Four Blu-rays, the video upgrade on Iron Monkey is a revelation. Deeper blacks and better contrast bring out pretty much everything the movie has to offer. There's hardly any print damage present at all, and the image appears natural, film-like and warm. In an unusual move, director/choreographer Yuen wo-Ping (The Matrix) bucked the traditional scope aspect ratio used in Hong Kong and this film shot flat instead. The extra height the 1.85:1 ratio provides allows for unique fight choreography for this genre, with tighter shots and higher-than-usual flying. The result is a good stylistic contrast to the other Ultimate Force titles.

Unfortunately, the original Cantonese dialog is relegated to a 640kbps Dolby Digital track, though it still offers some excellent punch. For some reason, Miramax decided to give the English dub lossless treatment, but the end result is only a slight improvement over the accurate but unspectacular lossy Cantonese track.

Even when watching the subtitled version of the movie, the viewer should be forewarned that extensive alterations have been made to the story and dialog. Some 5 minutes of the film have been cut from the original version, which results in character traits being obscured and large amounts of dialog inserted that bear no resemblance to what is being said in Cantonese. More details on this are available at IMDB and Wikipedia.

The question has to be asked, why did Miramax (whose quality record on Blu-ray has been fairly stellar thus far), let this subpar version of Iron Monkey get through? Some will be quick to assign malice, but I suspect two far more likely possibilities. The first is licensing. Now that we're all one big happy Blu-ray region, Hong Kong (and especially rental-priced Japanese) distributors have real concerns about protecting their home markets. By denying the lossless track to the U.S. release, they make the Blu-rays less desirable for reverse importation. The second possibility (and most likely one in my opinion), is simple ignorance. Miramax had these assets on hand, their default authoring configuration assigns lossless audio to English language, and so they ran with what they had, assembled it and shipped.

Whatever the case, I hope that Disney takes notes of the preferences of Hong Kong fans in the future, and revisits all of these films with more accurate subtitles, original language lossless audio and original cuts... or licenses them to someone who will. When the Weinsteins left Disney and Miramax, they took much of their Hong Kong catalog with them. Thanks to the influence of Quentin Tarantino and others, they've started to undo some of their previous sins with their recent Dragon Dynasty line. One can only hope Disney follows their example.

Jeff Kleist
[email protected]

The Legend of Drunken Master (Blu-ray Disc)

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The Legend of Drunken Master
(a.k.a. Drunken Master 2)

1994 (2009) - Golden Harvest/Dimension (Disney)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 15th, 2009
Also available on DVD & a 4-film Blu-ray box set

DTS-HD MADolby Digital

Film Rating: B
Video (1-20): 16.5
Audio (1-20): 13
Extras: D

Most Americans' first exposure to Drunken Master was almost subliminal - a half second flash as Neo assimilates the fighting style during the training montage of The Matrix. A year later, one of Hong Kong's greatest action films was finally released in the United States... and now it's available on Blu-ray Disc.

When corrupt members of the British Consulate (here referred to as "foreigners") are caught shipping Chinese national treasures out of the country, a local hero names Fei Hung (Jackie Chan) uses his unique martial arts skills to stop them, while at the same time battling his disapproving, pacifist father.

Miramax has done a nice job prepping the video master for this Blu-ray. I've seen Drunken Master 2 in 35mm within the last few years, and this Blu-ray blows the prints away for color and fidelity. This is a top notch presentation of a film that, like many out of Hong Kong, doesn't have a lot going for it on the negative. (The lower video mark reflects the negative issues, not the HD mastering.) HK films are, by and large, shot very quickly and on a very tight, low budget, and it's amazing that they manage to get as much as they do out of so little. This film has looked grimy and soft pretty much since day one in the theaters, so I don't think an extensive restoration would do much to improve the look and feel beyond what we see here. Yes... the video looks soft, slightly faded and contrast is lacking. But while The Legend of Drunken Master won't win any awards for eye candy, this is definitely a major upgrade over previous DVD versions.

I wish the same could be said for the audio portion of our program. While the disc sports at DTS Master Audio lossless track (marked on the menu as Dolby TrueHD), it's dubbed English only. While it's ironic that Jackie Chan dubs himself - something he didn't do for the original production as HK films were not shot with sync-sound until very recently (and many stars would not voice themselves in post) - the result is so awkward it's almost unbearable. Combine this with a completely new score (which sounds more "Chinese" - replacing one of the best HK scores of the 90's) and foley effects, and the mix is enough to drive anyone who has seen Drunken Master 2 in its original form batty. What's worse, unlike its companion Ultimate Force BD titles, no original language option is provided at all. MAJOR points off for that.

The only extra included on the Blu-ray is a 5-minute video clip of Jackie Chan saying how glad he was to finally get the movie out in America, and explaining some of the art of Hong Kong filmmaking. That's all - no trailer, nothing else.

When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made it big in America, Harvey Weinstein finally found a use for all of the Hong Kong film rights he'd been collecting for years - titles from the Shaw Bros, Fist of Legend and others. Armed with the knowledge that Hong Kong cinema was hot, he launched a series of HK classics onto the silver screen that should have made fans go CRAZY. Well, they did... but not in the way fans would have hoped. Weinstein-era Miramax would usually cut up to 20 minutes from the run time, remove any historical context from the film (the British rule of Hong Kong, etc) and anything else that might be found "tasteless" by unknowing American audiences, in this case the ending of the film which features a brain damaged Fei Hung.

So as a longtime fan of Hong Kong film, Jackie Chan and Drunken Master 2, it's emotionally impossible for me to give this disc a thumbs up. If you've already acquired a taste for the Miramax version, then this is definitely a worthwhile upgrade on the video, even if the audio improvement over the DVD is minor. But given the lack of supplements and $40 SRP (especially when the DVD is often found for $5), I'd wait for a seriously good sale.

Jeff Kleist
[email protected]

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