House of Flying Daggers
Review Date: 1.17.05
House of Flying Daggers is Zhang Yimou's latest import (it was made in 2003), after the recent successful Hero, and, in a different vein, Raise the Red Lantern. This movie is a martial-arts melodramatic epic and love story with sumptuous settings, beautiful cinematography, eye-pleasing actors and inventive battle and dance scenes.
It is ninth century China and the Tang dynasty is in decline, fault of corruption and decadence. An underground army forms called the House of Flying Daggers. The plot begins when government officials hear that one of these rebel soldiers is hiding out at the Peony Pavilion, an erotic entertainment venue and high-class brothel. So we are immediately informed-as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-that at least one of the martial arts practitioners will be a woman. It turns out to be the by-now-familiar Zhang Ziyi, as Mei. There are more gender surprises in store, which is, I venture, one of the things that delights and thrills American audiences about this genre of nouveau martial arts movie (in addition, of course, to the high production value and state of the art special effects). There are other surprises too-we learn that none of the major characters is who he or she seems to be.
I said epic love story-for much of this film it's hard to tell which it's going to be: a clash of armies or a romance quest. The three main characters are Japanese actor Kaneshiro as Jin, a government soldier who pretends to rescue Mei from capture as part of a plot, until the two predictably-or so we think-fall in love. Then there's Andy Lau as Jin's army buddy Leo, who assists him in his plan to have Mei lead them to the Flying Daggers' headquarters . . . until we find out who he is.
The movie takes a sort of strange turn at the end, staging a battle that resonates allegorically but finally seems more to be about what it looks like it's about (two men and a woman) than anything else-at least it's hard to make sense of it any other way. Except, perhaps, that there's a song that plays in the background that's about a great beauty that divides nations-shades of Helen of Troy and all. If it is allegorical, then what it suggests is that rebel armies ought to be segregated because otherwise folks who should be on the same side get pitted against one another. Or, given the main demographic composition of the House of Flying Daggers (hint, hint), it suggests that the business of war should definitely not be left up to men. In any case, except for the language which, I hear from my Chinese speaking friends, is better than those other martial arts films I mentioned, the point of House of Flying Daggers is not its storyline. Rather, it's the spectacular, and spectacularly beautiful, inventive and awe-inspiring scenes of fightingŠor is it dancing? One scene near the beginning demonstrates just how fine the line between the two actually is, for Leo makes Mei perform something called the Echo Game that involves the dancer martial artist imitating the soldier's pattern when he throws dried beans against a circle of drums that surrounds the two. The dance is breathtaking. Another fabulous moment in the film involves the by-now-totally-ubiquitous fight scene in a bamboo forest. There's sunlight glowing through the green of the forest while soldiers dance atop flimsy stalks and fashion projectile weapons from the very same branches, hurling them down in intricate patterns on the fleeing couple, finally trapping them. These two scenes, as well as several others, contain enough beauty, skill and dazzle to keep even a narrative junkie like me absorbed in the movie.
So, if you like the genre-even as an outsider-and appreciate spectacle, whether it's in the décor or the action, and are willing to relinquish the desire for a good story-go see House of Flying Daggers. Oh yeah, the flying dagger trick is great, too.
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.