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March 23, 2005

House of Flying Daggers - Zhang Yimou

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

House of Flying Daggers
Directed by Zhang Yimou
certificate 15, 2004

Since the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a succession of wuxia films have been released in the West. Wuxia is an ancient genre in Chinese writing and theatre, and therefore naturally been represented in Chinese cinema. It involves adventure stories set in a heightened, mythologised world, in which physically impossible feats occur regularly and indeed are part of the whole magic atmosphere. House of Flying Daggers is directed by Zhang Yimou, whose career has deviated from the meditative Raise the Red Lantern to glossy wuxia epics such as 2002's Hero and the film under discussion.

The film is set in 859 A.D. After years of prosperity, the Tang dynasty is petering out into corruption and waste. A number of secret revolutionary societies have sprung up around China, the most popular of which is the 'House of Flying Daggers'. (I must admit to some slight disappointment when I realised that the film's title did not refer to an actual house). The 'Flying Daggers' are a Robin Hood-like bunch, robbing from the rich to give to the poor and so forth.

The action begins with two police officers, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau). Having recently assassinated the leader of the Flying Daggers, Leo reports that the authorities have ordered them to discover the identity of the new leader within ten days. Jin is sent, undercover, to the Peony Pavilion, where a new showgirl, the blind Wei (Zhiyi Zhang) has began work.

Jin, who is less than devastated by having to accept this mission, drunkenly lolls around the Pavilion, making Wei do an exquisite dance, before suddenly trying to rape her. Twice in this movie sudden bursts of attempted sexual violence – uncomfortably at odds with the overall prettiness of the film – occur. This allows Leo and his men to burst in and 'arrest' Jin, while also taking Wei – after a long, exquisitely shot and rather baffling sequence depicting the 'Echo Dance' – into custody.

During the 'Echo Dance', Wei has been revealed as one of those superhuman fighters familiar to anyone who saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However in the local lockup she cuts a bedraggled, rather sad figure – who, in another scene of uncomfortable sadism, is thrust against a torture machine to intimidate her further. At Leo's suggestion, the two policemen embark on a scheme to capture the supreme leader of the Flying Daggers.

Or so it seems. For this is one of those films in which the twists pile up in the final reel – but rather than being satisfying, elucidating twists, they simply devalue the emotional impact of what has come before. Perhaps, before all the pompous theorising, I should simply say that it's a pretty good date movie. There are lots of spectacular fights, a big, primary-colours-intense, love triangle and beautiful landscapes aplenty. Something for every couple then. Overall, however, there is something profoundly unsatisfying about the film.

Firstly, the obvious political and social issues that arise are simply ignored. Hero was described by one reviewer as:

a Sino-fascist propaganda vehicle, an adoring paean to the Führerprinzip and the importance of recovering 'lost' territories.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Hero involves an assassin who is assigned to kill an unpopular, corrupt emperor. However in the end he decides not too, as destroying an authority figure would plunge the kingdom into chaos. "The importance of recovering 'lost' territories" refers to the thinly-disguised subtext of reunifying Taiwan with Mainland China.

In The House of Flying Daggers, one wonders if such an interpretation is possible. The Flying Daggers, as an organisation, are barely portrayed at all, and while we are told of the corruption of the Tang Dynasty, our sympathies are with Leo and Jin. In the final reel, we see one shot of the Imperial troops approaching for what one presumes is an apocalyptic battle with the Flying Daggers. And that's it – for the rest of the film, we see the love triangle burn itself out. The House of Flying Daggers simply disappear from the film that bears their name.

Secondly, style over substance is sometimes not such a bad thing, but only when style is synonymous with a certain lightness of touch, not with the pompous heaviness of this film. It is a beautiful piece of work, and in this world we need to recognise beauty wherever it is found – but there's something hollow and artificial about the whole that detracts from the beauty. Just as the plot twists cheapen rather than enhance the action, the beauty of the film is so ostentatious, and so ostentatiously the point, that one becomes glutted with beautiful shots. And one certainly becomes glutted with tricksy shots.

For Yimou is addicted to tricksy shots – and as with the work of Guy Ritchie who is similarly congenitally incapable of simply observing with a camera, one becomes irritated by this. Like CGI, the 'bullet time' shot should only be used when absolutely necessary. This film is set, of course, in a heightened, mythologised landscape, and by the rules of wuxia, one should expect the improbable and indeed physically impossible. Yet for me at least, what was fresh and novel to Western eyes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon now seems silly and distracting. When the main characters are all superhumans apparently able to perform any feat of martial arts at will, suspense dies.

Of course, all action movies force us to suspend our disbelief as – repeatedly - physically unlikely circumstances occur. There's a difference, though, between physically unlikely and physically ludicrous.

The emotional drama – although often one feels cheated by the twists – is at times rather affecting. Yet it never really coheres and convinces one of its internal reality. I burst out laughing too many times – at moments that were clearly not meant to be comic relief – for Yimou's film to be judged a success.

What makes it work, insofar as it does, is the human element. The acting is uniformly good. Zhiyi Zhang's beauty (justifying Jin's repeated description of her as a "rare beauty"), Andy Lau's grimness and determination, and most of all Takeshi Kaneshiro's evolution from louché playboy to a serious moral force all anchor the film. Takeshi – who was also in Hero, but also outstanding in Wong Kar-Wai’s very non-wuxia Chungking Express – has a wonderfully charismatic presence. He resembles a less physically imposing Torisho Mifune to some degree, or a character in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. How ironic that in such a film that seems at first a triumph of the cinematographer and fight choreographer's art, actually belongs to the human figures who stalk its landscape.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a contributor to Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005).

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It's true that "Flying Daggers" is tricksy, and perhaps it is laughably so. Only, I didn't find myself laughing, but luxuriating. I vaguely remember "Crouching...Dragon", and not with the warmth with which I recall "Daggers". Firstly, lots of the fight scenes (and the opening music scene) were purely balletic: the figures made shapes and patterns which were lovely. Secondly, I have never seen colours, and especially coloured fabrics, handled so beautifully. "Eight Women", "The Hours", "Far from Heaven" and Umbrellas of Cherbourg" were all wonderfully good in this way, but "Daggers" kncoks them all out of the ring.

I'd add that I liked the lead couple in "Daggers": they engaged me in a way these other New Wave martial movies haven't.

Posted by: Richard D North at March 24, 2005 02:38 PM
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