House of Flying Daggers
2004Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau
ouse of Flying Daggers isn’t so much a martial arts movie as much as it is a melodrama disguised as a Shakespearean tragedy besieged by excessively meditative sequences involving martial arts. Here is a film that shimmers with vividness in isolated moments, but grows ever more tiresome and repetitive when taken as a whole.
The story opens with two Chinese imperial officers discussing the presence of a rebel spy working in a nearby brothel. The spy belongs to a resistance group known as the House of Flying Daggers. They orchestrate a scheme to capture the Flying Dagger agent by infiltrating the brothel in disguise. However, they discover that the rebel girl named Mei, played by the lovely Zhang Ziyi, is totally blind.
Upon her capture they formulate a new plan, allowing Mei to escape along with an undercover agent named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who poses as her companion and guardian. Since Mei is blind she will not be able to identify him as a member of the Emperor’s army and, if she trusts him, will lead him back with her to the location of the resistance group.
During their journey, Jin devotes a great deal of time toward seducing Mei. He passes it off as nothing more than a game to his captain (Andy Lau), who follows closely behind the two, charting their progress. Yet, as the journey continues, Jin’s feelings grow more sincere and it becomes clear that his betrayal will be much more complicated than initially anticipated.
"I'll wax the cars and paint the fence, but I can't for the life of me figure out this part of Mr. Miyagi's training."
For most of the film we plunge heedlessly into one battle after another. The plot advances only occasionally and almost plays a secondary role to the lavish fight sequences that essentially drive it along.
This is where I feel torn between praising the graceful choreography of these sequences, and criticizing the way they drag on endlessly until one no longer feels any exhilaration. True, not a single fight scene fails to demonstrate Yimou’s sense of visual splendor and poetic martial arts; however, as with Hero, every scene overstays its welcome. To make matters worse, since Yimou resorts far too often to slow motion, everything becomes more tedious than it needs to be.
I find it necessary to contrast this film’s sense of pacing with that of another martial arts epic: Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, which snuck into some American theaters around the same time as Hero. Unlike Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Blind Swordsman approached its showdowns with a fierce quickness that left the viewer reeling simply because of their brevity. No battle lasted more than a few seconds, yet each was more effective than any one of the gaudy fights present in House of Flying Daggers, mostly because the quick deaths in Zatoichi added a sense of immediacy to their setup and a fragile mortality to its characters.
You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen...
Of course, this is a personal preference of mine and I expect that most people walking into House of Flying Daggers will welcome the extended fight sequences since, after all, they are quite stunning on their own. The Echo game dance scene in particular is brilliant both for its ornate structure and over-the-top absurdity. Likewise, an intensely tragic undertone permeates the final battle between two warriors in love with same woman, evoking some much needed emotional appeal, and no review would do this film justice without mentioning the fight amongst the bamboo stalks which represents the most visually striking sequence in the entire film.
Yet, I also suspect that those same people who came for the dazzling martial arts may be turned off by the melodrama of the film. House of Flying Daggers is basically a love story with echoes of Romeo and Juliet which at times treads a bit too close to being trite and sappy.
Much of this probably would have been more effective had one of the romantic entanglements not hinged on a plot twist. Without revealing too much, like Hero, House of Flying Daggers holds a few surprises, but some of its twists feel a bit contrived and others are far too predictable.
Still, despite its flaws, the film serves its intended purpose of exhibiting audaciously orchestrated martial arts. While it may not be quite the critical darling many have made it out to be, it should entertain a fair amount of the people who see it. A good way to gauge your own appreciation is to ask yourself this: ignoring the inherent camp value, could one still approach Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Magnificent Obsession sincerely if in that film Rock Hudson used martial arts to protect his aging, blind lover?