This is a English production of a Shaolin monks stage spectacle. I cringe when I see the word 'Shaolin' as I have visions of David Carradine kicking cowboys all over the American West.
In any case, this is a big budget production of the Shaolin monks and it is in two parts. The first is a dramatisation of the story of the Monks and their formation and their relationship to Chinese royalty. It is a very Western style stage production with shades of ballet and opera. Their betrayal by a treacherous Chinese royal family member is especially florid and stylised.
The second part is the 'spectacle' part and that's the bit we're used to seeing - that is monks standing on their fingertips and breaking bars over their heads. To me this is rather freakish although I can see their skill and why it is important to their spirituality. There are also various weapon demonstrations that will please the enthusiast.
On the whole, it's a very complete disc however the way it is presented leaves much for personal taste.
The video can be split in two directions - the physical quality and the artistic direction. It would be hard to discuss each in isolation. The only grevious sin I could see is a fairly constant video noise throughout the whole production which tends to 'gauze' over the dark black shadows but it also affects other large shades like the blues and greens of the background.
The second is the strange editing, stage and post production. Firstly this is an overproduced and overeditted production. There are numerous jumps, wipes, dissolves. I was reminded of a some directors who used to be MTV music video staff. In some sections there are 15-20 cuts in the space of 30 seconds with no continuous tracking shots more than five seconds long (!). In my opinion this goes against the grain of the Shaolin philosophy and tends to make it a spectacle.
Colours are strong as is contrast. However they monks have bright orange jumpsuits like the ones you see on FBI prisoners (strange link but you get the idea) and this goes badly with the dark stage and the sometimes bright white or blueish stage lights. The orange is matted out and loses texture. It also 'jumps' off the screen in a 'dayglo' fashion. The production suits a darkened room as well to mimic a theatre.
In contrast to the picture, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is close to flawless. It is at 448k/s and it complements the visuals accordingly. Vocals which are limited to a very English sounding voiceover (John Hurt!), are commendably clear. There is excellent instrument fidelity with the strings and especially percussions being of excellent timbre. The subwoofer is used to good effect for the kettle drums. The use of artificial stages sounds (eg. birds chirping, water rushing, wind effects) are exceedingly well placed in the surround field. Audience participation is strong. I would also note that the soundstage is extremely immersive. You hear vocals, instruments, stages effects very effectively layered and in perfect unison to stage position. The highlight of this disc is the excellent quality of the sound and the expertly recorded scoring.
The extras are limited but of good quality. There is a long documentary of the English production team and their travels to China. It is of TV quality and captures the work and vision of the staff. There is a positions gallery which will help martial arts types. There's a set of productions notes but I guess that you hate reading text off a TV screen as much as I do. There is also a multi-angle setup however it is not technically 'multiangle' but rather a branching type technology that lets you view a stunt in various angles which can be rather strange at times (ie. view from the lighting gantry directly above, view from under the transparent stage etc.)
What you do is hit the 'enter' button at the appropriate moment (indicated on screen) and it skips to a short bit of video (say 30 seconds), plays it, and resumes from the original time. Quite possibly the best use of multiangle outside of the old staple (pornography) however it is possibly overdone here (there are sometimes lots of angles). However better too much than not enough.
As a whole the direction really put me off. So much so that I recommend a rental before purchase as it drags the whole disc down. By the way, the 156 minutes on the box is for the whole stage and documentary.