Ultimate Force of Four Collection (US - BD)
Gabe enjoys four great movies, but isn't happy about the audio on the discs...
Following an assassination attempt the Emperor of Qin (Chen Daoming) spends his time alone in his palace, constantly dressed in his battle amour. Visitors are forbidden from coming within one hundred paces of his throne. A nameless officer (Jet Li) earns the right to kneel within ten paces of the Emperor by killing three of his lordship’s most wanted enemies. Nameless displays the weapons of legendary assassins Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Long Sky (Donnie Yen), and is given audience to recount his story. But at the end of the story the Emperor suspects Nameless isn’t telling the whole truth, and that perhaps his intentions are less than benevolent.
I admit that there isn’t a whole lot of plot to hold on to while watching Hero. The politics are oversimplified (even shockingly irresponsible), the characters are quiet and understated, and the ‘true’ story could’ve been told in less than thirty minutes had director Zhang Yimou not opted for the Rashomon gimmick. But the gimmick requires the audience to experience the internalized emotions rather than the plot, which is mostly predetermined before it is told. Most of the gorgeous on-screen battles are either entirely played out within characters’ minds, or likely didn’t even occur due to Nameless’ untrustworthy narration. The film’s value is found almost exclusively in the overwhelming visuals, which feed the internalized drama in a dreamlike sense. Hero is a painting come to life, a series of images that beg the viewer to crawl into the screen, and dance among the colours. Save the political bits (which stand in harsh contrast to all previous Yimou films) the real story is told without words. It belongs in a class of otherwise unrelated films ( Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria, Ran, Django, etc.) that achieve greatness through the pure punch of imagery (very different imagery in many cases, obviously). And in the end it is the simplicity in the storytelling that sets Hero apart from Yimou’s follow-up Wuxia epics. House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower both suffer from entangled plot twists that constantly push and pull with the stunning visuals.
By day herbalist Yang Tianchun (Yu Rong Guang) provides healthcare to the poor, and by night he dons a black mask and robs rich landowners and corrupt government officials as the Iron Monkey. Tianchun’s nocturnal habits draw the ire of the local governor, and a massive manhunt is instigated. A young Wong Fei Hung (Angie Tsang), and his herbalist father Wong Kei Ying (Donnie Yen) arrive from Foshan just in time to get into a skirmish, and be counted among the accused. Kei Ying is allowed to leave to personally hunt the Iron Monkey. Until he succeeds, his now ill son will be held prisoner.
Iron Monkey is a frontrunner for my favourite pre- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, non-supernatural wire-fu flick, set among the Once Upon a Time in China trilogy, Fong Sai Yuk (aka: The Legend), and director Yuen Woo Ping’s own follow-up Tai Chi Master (aka: Twin Warriors). I know this sounds like an incredibly specific categorical system, but following Ang Lee’s first (and as yet only) shot at Wuxia, wire-fu got really serious, and the budgets started to balloon until the genre was all permanently changed. Things changed for the better in most cases, but one sometimes misses the more quaint pictures, the ones not made to play to the broadest possible audience. Also, the supernatural tinged wire-fu flicks, like A Chinese Ghost Story, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and Mr. Vampire, really belong in their own category, as they’re largely incomparable to other wire-fu Wuxia in so many ways.
Iron Monkey’s narrative is a bit of a novelty in the sub-genre because it covers a much earlier period in the legendary Wong Fei Hung’s life, but is largely familiar to Western audiences as a loose adaptation of the Robin Hood myth. There aren’t many surprises as the plot unfolds, but Woo Ping finds a surprising balance between the comedic, dramatic, and action aspects of the film. Often, era (late ‘80s to mid ‘90s) Wuxia skewed more towards either comedy or melodrama, and Hong Kong filmmakers seldom took time to blend between the extremes. The characters here aren’t particularly subtle, but they’re more natural than usually found in the sub-genre. The comedy bits aren’t the strongest, and some of the straight up hijinx stop the momentum, but the levity offers an important antidote to the constant ethical dilemmas. Being a Woo Ping film, however, it’s the action that holds precedence over everything else. Iron Monkey’s fights are of a more consistent quality than usual, meaning there aren’t any huge standout sequences, but there aren’t any weak links either. The fisticuffs are among the more graceful in the director’s oeuvre, and are among more physically believable in modern wire-fu, where physics often go to die. The heroes achieve impossible feats throughout the film, but they do them with a relatively natural sense of weight and impact.
Legend of the Drunken Master
If we were to use our imaginations we could pretend that Legend of the Drunken Master (originally known as Drunken Master 2) was a sequel to Iron Monkey. Jackie Chan plays a slightly older iteration of Wong Fei Hung, who is still a bit of a rascal being raised under the strict thumb of a well-meaning, but creatively oppressive herbalist father (this time played by Ti Lung, who is only eight years older than Chan). Fortunately Fei Hung now has the support of his loving stepmother Ling (played by Anita Mui, who was nine years younger than Chan), who cleverly defends her well-meaning stepson when he gets into trouble. After a luggage mix up aboard a cross-country train, Fei Hung is accidentally thrust into an international incident involving an evil British Consulate. The unlikely hero is forced to utilize his secret fighting weapon—the aptly named Drunken Boxing.
LotDM is probably Chan’s best period film, and probably his third best film all around, behind Police Story 3 and Armour of God II: Operation Condor. Like many of Chan’s films (and the other films in this set), LotDM is a clear case of style of substance. The plot follows the lines of about a gazillion other Wuxia period pieces, concerning itself with the oft-adapted Wong Fei Hung myth, and the usual Evil Colonialist politics (which kind of lost their punch in 1997). The story is there to serve the kung fu set pieces and the jokes, not the other way around, and that’s the way we like it. The steel mill is a gigantic example of Chekhov’s Gun, not a valuable plot point. This basically defines the entire film. The intricate and energetic fight scenes are among the most incredible one is ever likely to see without the aid of trick photography, wires, or special effects. It’s also still quite funny, in both the physical sense (Buster Keaton meets Bruce Lee) and in regards to the dialogue, which is wittier than a lot of Chan’s more dated comedy. Anita Mui arguably earns even more belly laughs than Chan as his supportive step-mother (a role similar to the one she plays in Jet Li and Corey Yuen’s Fong Sai Yuk).
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
One of these things is not like the other, says I, noticing that Zatoichi isn’t a Wuxia movie, but a modern, art house take on the Samurai epic. This fact aside, I suppose it’s still a good addition to the collection. I don’t find the film as eternally re-watchable as the other three, but it succeeds in living up to every on-paper promise it sets forth. The character of the Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman had already appeared in twenty six original films (from 1962 to 1989), and had a four season run on Japanese television by 2003. The (then) latest film saw the character was back to his old tricks—wondering the Japanese countryside, feigning invalidism, discovering kindly people with Yakuza problems, gambling, fighting armies of Samurai gangsters, and facing off against equally masterful Ronin. This time he is joined by a pair of Geisha siblings (one of whom is actually male), a widowed farmer with valuable land, and her gambling addict nephew.
Writer, director and star Takeshi Kintano (aka: ‘Beat’ Takeshi) seems an unlikely choice to bring the popular Blind Swordsman back to the big screen, but once one accepts his participation, one knows exactly what to expect. A former comedian, turned game show host, turned actor, turned writer/director, Kintano is a definitive cinematic brand. His films have all the trimmings of the mainstream, but are freckled with oddball humour, art house visuals, focused pacing, graphic violence and wrenching emotional tragedy. Zatoichi utilizes all of the director’s trademarks. The overall film is a little on the patch-work side, and begins to lose focus about halfway through, but mostly remains true to the majority of the Zatoichi series’ most defining elements. In addition Kintano takes Altman-esque interlacing character approach to a re-introduction to the character. Unlike most series reboots Kintano assumes his audience doesn’t need any major back story on the title character, and almost turns him into an afterthought. Assuming the audience has seen any other Zatoichi films, or any of Kintano’s films, the only real surprise is the use of sound, which inventively forces the audience to experience a blind man’s aurally based world. The strange ending this rhythmic sound inspires remains the film’s most lasting impression.
Hero is one of a couple of dozen movies I’ve personally been craving in HD ever since I got the Blu-ray player. I’ve owned the film on HK import, Miramax release, and now Blu-ray, and I’ve slowly watched the image quality improve up to this point. This is as close as I can ever get to that initial theatrical experience, where I was virtually drowned in intense and ever changing colours. The colours are the transfer’s best asset, and the 1080p finally puts a damper on many of those compression artefacts that have bugged us over the years, not to mention the DVD releases lack of brightness. The first story Zhao school scenes were the biggest problem for standard definition, and their impossibly bright reds were swimming with blocking and noise. In HD the colours aren’t only free of the majority of these artefacts (there is still some noise related to film grain), but they are now much purer, and the transfer even reveals slight variations in the red hues. Unfortunately, the green-laced scenes are far noisier, and at times a bit distracting, specifically Leung’s battle with Ming amongst the green banners. The blue and white ‘stories’ faired decently on DVD, but are still clearly richer here, and the blacks are much, much deeper.
I’m sure there will be some complaints concerning the transfer’s overall grain, but this is exactly how I recall the film looking in theatres, with the possible exception of the green-laced throne room fight. The transfer’s possibly avoidable problems include occasional edge enhancement, and a lack of detail in long shots. The second issue is the larger problem, and is most apparent during the widest shots of Li’s interrogation, Cheung and Ziyi’s leaf fight, and Li and Cheung’s desert fight. Yimou’s films are usually more like paintings than photographs. His focus on overwhelming pallets and shallow depth of field during close-ups doesn’t too reveal many super-sharp details, so even the close-ups aren’t exactly swimming in minute textures. This probably isn’t the last word on Hero, but I don’t expect a whole lot more detail any time in the future.
Iron Monkey looks as I would expect it to look. It’s an older movie, and featured a relatively low budget. The print is pretty grainy, some of the brighter and warmer colours dance with noise, and there are flecks of white print damage and dirt peppered throughout. Like many HK films of the era the focus is a little soft, and contrast is a little muddied, so the overall detail isn’t as sharp as some fans may prefer. In addition, black levels are a little on the grey side. Details are sharper than standard definition can achieve, and the sharpness is consistent throughout the film, unlike the newer films in this collection, which lose definition outside of close-up. The Blu-ray transfer’s advantage over the old Miramax DVD is in the lack of edge-enhancement, both of the white line and compression noise varieties. The colours are distinctly brighter, but not exceedingly so. The red highlights don’t really pop, but the cyan only flashbacks are sharp and clean.
Legend of the Drunken Master is the weakest of all four transfers, but more for reasons of age and generally lack of upkeep. All said it’s still an upgrade, assuming you’re ok with the missing bits. The print is dirty and effective by quite a bit of noticeable artefacting, like dirt, scratches and tracking lines (though grain remains relatively even). The colours are a bit washed out, and not as bright as the format can support, but they’re relatively clear of compression noise. Contrast is a little dull, and both blacks and whites are rarely pure, but there isn’t a lot of compression noise despite some sort of fuzzy edges. The image clarity is inconsistent, but pretty randomly so, apparently more due to mistakes made during filming rather than during the transfer process (four cinematographers are credited, usually a sign of a speedy production). Detail is never fantastically sharp, and occasionally downright blurry, but mostly better than the DVD versions I’ve rented over the years.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is another relatively weak entry in the collection. The transfer is pretty sharp, but the only real advantage over simply upscalling your old DVD copies is finer grain (I assume, having not seen the DVD in years). The details are inconsistent, often defaulting to downright muddy in wide shots. The most brightly lit days shots are relatively flawless, and feature some pure whites, but any darkness leads to heavy grain. The print’s occasional colour flourishes, which are most commonly either a cool blue overcast, or bright red highlights (splashes of blood and the Geisha’s outfits), are brighter than most DVDs could manage, but the hues aren’t pure, or clear of compression noise. And then there’s the matter of the edge enhancement, which is an offender throughout the entire film, decreasing slightly in close-up, but not enough to really make anyone’s day.
Did you hear that sound? That was the dull thud of Miramax dropping the ball in the audio court. Even with the Weinstein Brothers out of the picture it seems that the people at Miramax simply don’t care about these movies. They’ll put the minimal effort into the video transfers, but there isn’t any love concerning original cuts, or the original language audio tracks.
Things begin a slightly higher note with Hero. If you’re willing to listen to the film in dubbed English you’ve got yourself a pretty impressive, lossless DTS-HD track to look forward to. Unfortunately, those of us that appreciate the original Chinese, and prefer reading subtitles to watching our favourite Chinese actors dubbed by Americans that sound nothing like them, are stuck with a compressed Dolby Digital 5.1 track. If I didn’t have the two tracks to compare I probably wouldn’t have found a lot to complain about, as it is a generally impressive DD track, but there are some key differences. The volume levels are almost identical, as is the overall impact of the bass, but there is some clear compression in the details. The DTS-HD track is clearly crisper and warmer, and features more clearly defined stereo and surround effects. There’s also a lot of echo missing from the DD track. Ironically enough the clarity makes the out of place English dialogue stand out even more as being unnatural and clearly not a part of the original production, while the Mandarin of the DD track is well integrated. There’s still plenty to enjoy on even the compressed track, like swishing weapons, clanging swords, tromping soldiers, galloping horses, screaming arrows, swishing water, and chattering warriors. Tan Dun’s soundtrack is the most impressive aspect of either mix, including unstoppably aggressive tycho drums and mournful strings. It’s sad to note in post-script that the original Miramax DVD featured a DTS Mandarin track.
Iron Monkey was already twelve years old by the time Miramax re-released it in American theatres, and not a huge amount of effort went into remixing the available sound effects into surround channels. Most of the minimal exertion went into changing the existing smack effects into more ‘Americanized’ and brutal punch effects, and into creating a new soundtrack that was more in-keeping with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. These changes apply to both the English and Cantonese tracks on the disc. The vocal effects (which are too loud on the English track) are clearly different, and there is a slight difference in compression (again, most of the differences are in general clarity, and the impact of the bass), but sound effects and directional work is the same on both tracks (and the Spanish dub track, for those that care). The changes in music go beyond my notice, because I don’t remember the original score well enough to make the comparison. Ideally speaking the Cantonese track wouldn’t only be presented in a lossless format, but it would be the original tracks, even if that meant mono was the only option. Likely the minor cuts made to the film itself made this more trouble than the Miramax people thought the effort was worth. Too bad.
Legend of the Drunken Master is not only a presented in a slightly cut form, but there is positively no original language option available, not even in a lossy format. Not even a mono track. Personally speaking Chan’s films usually work alright dubbed (this is actually the way I originally experienced most of them in the days of VHS), but the lack of language options on a post-DVD format is ridiculous. As if to add insult to injury French and Spanish DD dubs have also been included. The lip-sync is awful, of course, but the acting is better than usual for dubbing, especially the actress that dubs Anita Mui, and Chan, who dubs himself. The American theatrical remix for 5.1 (which is presented here in lossless DTS-HD 5.1) doesn’t feature a lot of surround channel work, but occasionally something will move from front to rear, and the stereo channels are pretty consistently active. The LFE is quite busy with the soundtrack’s drums, flaming, uh, fire effects, and just about every impact in the film (even a simple toe-stomp results in a bassy thud). I haven’t seen the uncut VHS version of Drunken Master 2 in such a long time that I cannot recall any musical differences between versions, unfortunately.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is the one film in the set with a definitively weak DTS-HD track, which is good enough news for viewers. Besides having no real volume based or clarity advantage over the compressed DD track, the mix itself is very weak. It’s not just that the English language cast is excruciatingly miscast and flatly mixed, but many incidental sounds are entirely deleted. The major effects are still there, like the sounds of sword fighting, spraying blood, and all the other cause and effect elements, but simple things like the wind through the trees, the swish of clothing against clothing, or pouring liquid are missing. And even when these incidentals aren’t deleted, they’re often muffled. On the DD track things are clear, relatively natural, and directional effects work quite well. The storm sequence affords a realistic representation of a torrential downpour, complete with LFE rocking bass. Keiichi Suzuki’s score sounds gorgeous electronic and rhythmic score sounds solid whichever track you pick, as is the film’s most aggressive audio element—the tap dancing wrap-up.
Miramax misses out on a chance to really please fans by including the alternate cuts of the three Chinese films. In most cases the notorious Weinstein Brothers re-cut these films with mass appeal in mind, Hero being the major exception. The theatrical version of Hero is apparently the director’s preferred version, but there is an extended version that runs something like eight minutes longer (I’ve personally never seen it). The changes made to Iron Monkey were pretty subtle, and mostly tonal (such as cutting some of the comedic elements, and toning down the political subtext via the subtitles), making them minor but no less artistically demeaning. Legend of the Drunken Master is less cut than I thought it was, but is trimmed, and altered slightly for tonal reasons (strangely, it still got an R-rating upon it’s US release).
The actual extras are all found on the previous Miramax DVD releases. Hero features ‘Close-Up on a Fight Scene’ (09:00, SD), a glance at the Li/Yuen fight, ‘ Hero Defined’ (24:00, SD), a somewhat informative, EPK style featurette, a storyboard comparison (5:00, SD), ‘Inside the Action’ (14:00, SD), which features Quentin Tarantino interviewing Li on his career with focus on the martial arts, followed by another EPK, and an ad for the soundtrack. Iron Monkey features an interview with Tarantino (09:20, SD), who supplies us with one of his most heartfelt and thought out speeches he’s ever given, and an interview with Donnie Yen (06:20, SD). Legend of the Drunken Master only carries an EPK interview with Chan (06:30, SD). The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi features a relatively informative behind-the-scenes special (40:00, SD), made up of a press conference, on-set footage, fight choreography, tap dance practice, release and awards, etc, and a collection of interviews (21:30, SD).
Three great movies, and one very good one, all for a fair price? Why wouldn’t everyone want to own this set? Let’s ignore the lack of new or particularly interesting extras, the films should speak for themselves. Let’s ignore the middling transfers too. Aside from Hero how much can be expected from the material, right? It’s still worth the price tag. But what about those Miramax cuts? If Dragon Dynasty can find room for both the US release and original release cuts on their standard DVDs, why can’t Disney do it with the infinitely roomier Blu-ray disc space? And how about the lack of lossless original audio tracks, or in the case of Legend of the Drunken Master, any original audio track at all? All in all I find it very hard to recommend the collection, but wonder how Disney will read the sales figures. Do we stand to get better releases through a boycott, or would consumer interest bode as better proof that there is a paying audience for uncut versions? I’ll leave it up to the readers, and hesitantly recommend the solo release of Hero. Also a warning: the ‘Special Edition’ DVD release of Hero features only two brief extras, and has done away with the DTS Mandarin track.
I’m trying to figure out why these four films are still owned by Disney, whereas so many of the other Weinstein backlog are being released by the Weinstein owned Dragon Dynasty label. At first I thought it was related to theatrical release versus straight to video release, but I recall that Supercop saw a US theatrical release. I hope that Dragon Dynasty has some Blu-ray releases planned sometime in the future (assuming the studio doesn’t fold), and hope that Disney doesn’t go anywhere near Fong Sai Yuk (aka: The Legend), even though I’d love to see it in HD.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 15th September 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Mandarin, Dolby Digital Japanese, Dolby Digital French, Dolby Digital Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, English, French, Spanish
Extras: Close-Up on a Fight Scene, Hero Defined, Inside the Action, EPKs, Star Interviews
Easter Egg: No
Director: Zhang Yimou, Yuen Woo Ping, Lau Kar-Leung, Jackie Chan, Takeshi Kitano
Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Daoming, Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Tony Lau, Yu Rong Guang, Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy and Drama
Length: 403 minutes
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