DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME blu-ray review

Hong Kong Region A blu-ray

1080p Widescreen 2.35:1

Cantonese: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Dolby TrueHD 7.1 (original)

Mandarin: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Mandarin: Dolby TrueHD 7.1 (dub)

Subtitles: English, Mandarin (traditional), Mandarin (simplified)

IMDB

 

MOVIE: 9

VIDEO QUALITY: 9.5

AUDIO QUALITY: 9.5

ENGLISH SUBTITLES: 10

EXTRAS: 6

 

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is the best mainstream Hong Kong film of 2010. I didn’t think it would be as good as my other favorite Hong Kong film of 2010 – Gallants – but it is. Tsui Hark has gone back to what he does best – making extremely creative, fantasy, period-piece action films. After setting the bar for Chinese action movies with Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain, Once Upon a Time in China 1 & 2, and The Blade, he has added another great film to his resume. Furthermore, he made this movie for something like 13 million dollars when this film looks like it cost 80 million dollars. Tsui Hark is creativity on tap – he knows how to spend his budget!

Detective Dee is a mystery movie so it’s best not to talk about the story, but let me say this – the problem with most Hong Kong mainstream action movies is that they forget to hire a good writer. I don’t think I can take another screenplay of “whoever finds the Golden Dragon Lotus martial arts ancient manual, that person will become the most powerful fighter in the world and will rule forever..different martial arts schools fighting each other to gain respect…etc.” It may be traditional in Hong Kong cinema, but enough is enough – the Shaw Bros. films went a bit overboard with this. It’s called overkill. So it is such a relief to get a Chinese action movie with a good story such as Crouching Tiger, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Kung Fu Hustle, Ip Man, Gallants, and now Detective Dee. Tsui Hark is a smart man – he got a good screenwriter. Detective Dee is a totally entertaining, engrossing mystery movie that moves at such a graceful pace. The non-action scenes are just as intense as the action scenes. There is not one boring scene in this film. The camerawork, cinematography, costumes, sets, editing, acting, and story are all integrated together as a perfect mystery film. People have called this an Agatha Christie-type film. Maybe so, but I was thinking more along the lines of Young Sherlock Holmes (the only good Sherlock Holmes movie) mixed with Ridley Scott’s Legend. Tsui Hark is an amazing filmmaker. Dee may be considered a mainstream film, but this film is much more than that – it’s totally unique.

All the actors in this film are bad-ass as well. Andy Lau has gotten better and better as he ages. He is so believable as Detective Dee – I didn’t see him as an actor – he really was his character. Carina Lau was powerful as the emperor (she’s aged…but in a good way). And Bingbing Li was really impressive – showing an intensity and acting range that I hadn’t expected (certainly didn’t see it in The Forbidden Kingdom). The actor playing the albino was really good as well. All three of these actors have some crazy weaponry in this film. I don’t want to give it away though.

Detective Dee is the first Hong Kong movie I’ve ever seen in which I would want to see sequels. I’ve never craved franchises when watching Chinese movies, so this was the first time I ever had that feeling that I want more – Andy Lau should do one Detective Dee movie per year. His character is so interesting and entertaining, I want to see Tsui Hark do more of these.

The Hong Kong Region A blu-ray video and audio quality is almost perfect. What else is there to say? It’s a great blu-ray. And the English subtitles were excellent! The only extras are a 1080p English-subtitled trailer and teaser, as well as 4 short making ofs (non-subtitled).

Detective Dee is an original, totally entertaining mystery film. I usually don’t like buying mystery films, because they aren’t that exciting the second time around, but this movie is so visually entertaining, it’s totally rewatchable.

SINGING BEHIND SCREENS dvd review

Italy PAL DVD

Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1

Italian DTS 5.1, DD 5.1

Subtitles: English, Italian

IMDB

 

MOVIE: 8.5

VIDEO QUALITY: 8.5

AUDIO QUALITY: 9.5

ENGLISH SUBTITLES: 9.5

EXTRAS: 8

 

Cantando dietro i Paraventi aka Singing Behind Screens is a very special, dreamlike film about Chinese pirates. I know how people like to say that Pirates of the Caribbean are the best pirate movies, but there have been others over the years which are just as entertaining, such as Roman Polanski’s Pirates, The Goonies, Muppet Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Planet, and The Black Pirate. Singing Behind Screens can now be added to any respectable pirate movie list. This film, directed by Ermanno Olmi (famous for Il Posto and The Tree of Wooden Clogs) is basically about a beautiful Chinese woman who becomes one of the most terrifying pirates after her pirate husband gets killed. But that’s just on the surface. Imagine a pirate movie co-directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, Yimou Zhang, and Julie Taymor – this is Singing Behind Screens. Over the years I have seen a bunch of movies that try to combine theater into cinema, usually unsuccessfully, but in this film, the theatrical elements blend perfectly. From the opening scene, you know you are watching a unique film. I have never seen anything quite like this film, which could almost be considered an art-house film, but it’s more than that – Singing Behind Screens is like a work of art come to life. Movie directors, such as Terrence Malick, that are good at mixing poetry and visuals into one entertaining, unpretentious way are rare. Ermanno Olmi has created an entertaining pirate movie with a very dreamlike pace, good acting led by Bud Spencer and Jun Ichikawa, unique music, and some intense pirate ship scenes. For anyone that thinks that the coolest ship is the Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean, wait till you see the main military ship pimped up with cannonry in this film.

The 2-disc Italian PAL DVD is quite a package. The anamorphic widescreen video quality is really nice –  sharpness and detail are good, with all day and night scenes very well-defined and crisp, with fine details often apparent. The picture otherwise appeared smooth, with no instances of pixelation and a print that appeared in first-rate shape, with no dirt or debris. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones appeared accurate. Although this isn’t a big-budget action movie, you will be impressed with this very active Italian DTS 5.1 mix. Even during dialogue scenes, there is always some type of music creating a great experience for the audience. Surrounds are almost constantly alive with the sounds of water, nature, cannon fire, pirates screaming, and other sound effects. Whether calm or intense, there always seemed to be some background details present in the film’s sound mix. I’ve been spoiled with blu-ray sound for a while, but the DTS 5.1 track on this DVD is as impressive as any DTS-HD 7.1 track of a blu-ray. The movie and extras are all English-friendly – everything English subtitled! The extras are plentiful – with a trailer, interviews, and making ofs. The English subtitles for the film are excellent as well with maybe one spelling mistake. This is a complete package for a very unique film.

Fans of pirates should certainly check out this cool film. While the movie is very poetic, don’t expect to be too moved. The film may be lacking emotion, but it makes up for it by the creative direction and overall dreamlike experience of watching this film.

A CHINESE GHOST STORY blu-ray review

Hong Kong Region A blu-ray

1080p Widescreen 1.85:1

Cantonese: Dolby TrueHD 7.1 (original)

Mandarin: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (dub)

Subtitles: English, Mandarin (Traditional)

IMDB

 

MOVIE: 8

VIDEO QUALITY: 7.5

AUDIO QUALITY: 8

ENGLISH SUBTITLES: 6.5

EXTRAS: 2

 

A Chinese Ghost Story is a well-made fantasy movie that is considered a Hong Kong classic. I like this film, but I prefer more the horror-comedy and/or fantasy Hong Kong films such as Spooky Encounters, Zu Warriors on the Mountain, and Green Snake. This is a highly entertaining and surprisingly charming film thanks to the chemistry and acting skills of Leslie Cheung and Joey Wang. It’s almost sad watching this movie – even though I was never a Leslie Cheung fan, he just seemed like such a nice modest guy and it’s hard to watch him now knowing that he killed himself. The chemistry between Leslie and Joey is really great, it really seemed like they loved each other in this film. This movie is like a wacky romantic, martial arts version of The Evil Dead. I definitely prefer this movie over The Evil Dead though. The special effects are just awesome in this film. The more I see the overkill of CGI and the lack of actually building sets in current movies, the more I appreciate older films with dated special effects. I would have never thought that the “datedness” could be reversed thanks to the technology-reliance overkill in today’s special effect films.

I have never seen previous DVD versions of this film, but this K & R blu-ray seems like the best video version out there with English subtitles. For an old movie from Hong Kong and in comparison to other older Hong Kong movies released on blu-ray, the video quality on this blu-ray ranges from fair to excellent. The day scenes are bright, clean, eye-popping (for a HK blu-ray). Since this movie has a lot of night scenes, I was worried that the video quality would be a distraction, but the dark scenes are handled fair to good. Once in a while, the scenes can be extremely grainy (probably as it originally was) and then jump back to no grain. The video itself is pretty much clean with no scratches or weird hairs popping up (as were on the Forbidden City Cop blu-ray). As I was watching this film, I’m thinking to myself, “yeah, the video quality is excellent if this was a typical well-made DVD,” but then I reminded myself that most DVDs of older Hong Kong films, whether it be a Hong Kong NTSC Region 3 DVD, a cut & dubbed USA NTSC DVD, or a UK Hong Kong Legends PAL DVD, usually had distracting video and audio problems. Once I reminded myself of the way those DVDs used to be, I realized that this K & R blu-ray of A Chinese Ghost Story is great and probably the best it will ever look. If it weren’t for all the dark scenes in this movie, I would rate this equally to the video quality of the K & R blu-ray of Armour of God 2, but it’s probably just a tiny step below that blu-ray. The main thing to remember is that you know you are watching a blu-ray when ever there are close-ups of the beautiful Joey Wang. Her face just glows on this blu-ray. That’s how I can really test the video quality of a blu-ray if I’m not sure about the video quality – be impressed with the detail of a beautiful woman’s face. I never experienced that when watching other attractive actresses in older Hong Kong films on DVD. This blu-ray really flatters Joey Wang. So that’s one way of realizing this blu-ray is a big upgrade! The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio should not disappoint purists, because this blu-ray does sound like a mono soundtrack with subwoofer action aka “1.1 Dolby TrueHD”! I hear “1”, but I’m not sure where those other “6” are coming from for it to equal a 7.1 audio! I don’t think the K & R company has ever studied a Criterion blu-ray. If they did, K & R wouldn’t be so embarrassed with labeling their blu-rays with mono or stereo soundtracks. I’m assuming that it would be shameful for one of their blu-rays to be labeled with a LPCM Mono, a LPCM 2.0, or a Dolby TrueHD 2.0 soundtrack.
The extras are two interviews and a trailer. The English subtitles on this blu-ray is Chinglish at its finest. It would be nice if Hong Kong hired some native English speakers to do their subtitles already. You can understand the gist of the film, but the English subtitles are the most distracting thing on this blu-ray.

A Chinese Ghost Story is a very cute film for the horror-comedy genre. The love story is actually more exciting than the wacky choreographed violence in this flick. The wackiness is just a bonus that keeps things moving along. So this is another respectable blu-ray of a Hong Kong classic from K & R, the only blu-ray company that actually is doing more positive than negative with older Hong Kong films as compared to other blu-ray companies that release old Hong Kong films on blu-ray.