House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu)


Laura Clifford
Laura Clifford 
House of Flying Daggers  
Robin Clifford Laura Clifford 
In 859, China's declining Tang Dynasty has become corrupt, but two police captains are nonetheless determined to do their job and stamp out the underground rebels known as the "House of Flying Daggers."

Laura:
Director Zhang Yimou's (who again cowrote with Feng Li and Bin Wang, "Hero") delivers the second of his one-two martial arts punches with the gloriously melodramatic "House of Flying Daggers." While this film also features twists and a love triangle, the plot of "Flying Daggers" focuses on the love story and styles its kinks less like "Hero's" Rashomon-style storytelling than star Andy Lau's "Infernal Affairs."

Captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, "Fallen Angels") masquerades as a drunken customer at the Peony Pavilion to investigate the rumored housing of fallen Daggers leader's daughter as the new top showgirl.  When the beautiful, but blind, Mei (Ziyi Zhang, "Hero") is presented to him, he tries to have his way with her, but house madame Yee (Dandan Song, "Family Ties") and her girls intercede.  Police Captain Leo (Andy Lau, "Infernal Affairs") arrests both Jin and Mei.  This turns out to be a ruse as Jin reinvents himself as the outlaw Wind, who rescues Mei in order to get close to her and ferret out the new Dagger leader.  Jin, however, falls in love and when after many days on the run together, he once again rescues Mei, the two are overwhelmed by Dagger members and Jin discovers things are not as they seemed.

"House of Flying Daggers" is immediately given a distinct visual identity from "Hero" with the brilliant Bollywood turquoises and teals of the Peony Pavilion (production designed by Huo TingXiao, "Farewell My Concubine") .  As the action shifts out of doors, colors become more natural, although no less striking.  A field of 'flowers' is a neutral wash of beiges, yellows and greens, more striking for its restraint. The film's climax is an extraordinary three person battle that shifts from autumn to stark winter in one extended scene.  Cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, graduating from "Hero's" cameraman, finds Mei in the snow so magically, it recalls the poppy scene from "The Wizard of Oz." He even finds beauty by his composition of a shot showing the rear view of a horse and rider, still amidst a gathering of birch trees.  Emi Wada's costuming is noteworthy, not only for the beautiful robes of the Peony girls, but the military wear of the captains and the highly mysterious garb of the Daggers, whose bamboo hats hide identity.  The breathtaking imagery is given a highly romanticized score by composer Shigeru Umebayashi ("In the Mood for Love") with a theme sung by opera star Kathleen Battle.

Ziyi Zhang gives a terrific performance that showcases her dancing ability in an astounding scene where Captain Leo challenges her to a game of Echo Ghost, where she is surrounded by a ring of drums and must reproduce the sounds he creates by flinging dried beans with the extended sleeves of her gown.  She's believable as a blind woman and expresses washes of emotion over her face - watch her when she realizes Wind has returned after they have parted ways.  Takeshi Kaneshiro is a dashing romantic hero, but Andy Lau displays a wider range with his more complex character. All are adept with the wire work and moves required by Tony Ching's action choreography, although a couple of Zhang's landings are assisted by abrupt edits.

"House of Flying Daggers" is lush, poetic and soulful.  Zhang Yimou has created a real movie-movie to revel in.

A

Robin:
Set in 859 A.D., the once flourishing Tang Dynasty is in its waning years and rebel forces are banding together to overthrow the corrupt Chinese government. Two police deputies, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), are assigned to put an end to the most powerful of the revolutionary factions called “The House of Flying Daggers.”

Chinese maestro filmmaker Zhang Yimou entered the realm of Wuxia Pien (martial arts) filmmaking with his remarkable and beautiful 2002 masterpiece, “Hero.” He continues to delve into this most famous (to us westerners) Chinese movie art form with his equally beautiful “The House of Flying Daggers.”

The police have had some success in their efforts to eliminate the Flying Daggers faction by locating and killing its leader. But, his blind daughter, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), is under suspicion and she is tracked down to the Peony Palace, an exclusive brothel where the young woman performs as a dancer. Jin goes undercover, using the name Wind, infiltrates the house of questionable repute and insinuates himself with the beautiful blind girl. Leo arrests Mei, giving his partner the chance to spring her from jail and have her lead them to the lair of the Flying Daggers. Along the way, Jin’s feigned romance with the dancer becomes real and policemen’s plans start to unraveled.

The House of Flying Daggers” is much more than a Wuxia film. Besides the incredible fight choreography, wirework and impressive effects, there is a romantic triangle in the mix as we also learn the truth about Leo which lends to the complexity of the story’s intrigue, twists and turns. The triangle is not as emotionally deep as the socio-political aspects of the story by helmer Zhang, Feng Li and Bin Wang, but that’s understandable. After all, this is a martial arts movie. This isn’t to say that the romance isn’t interesting and well handled by the stars, it is just takes a back seat to the copious action. And, there is a whole bunch of action taking place and it comes in a variety of guises.

There is, of course, the first-rate fight choreography, led by martial arts coordinator Cai Li, which is captivatingly exciting to watch. But, there is also the artistic quality when the action turns to dance. One striking scene has Wind challenge blind Mei to a contest in a room of drums. He flings dried beans with increasing speed at on after another drum and she must follow suit with the long, flowing sleeves of her costume to duplicate Wind drum play. Choreography, editing, camera work, physicality, production design, music and sound all come together in a gripping scene of challenge, thrust and parry.

Techs are a marvel across the board. Cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao expertly captures the excitement and action while using light to striking effect. Colors, as usual in a Zhang Yimou film, are poke-you-in-the-eye vivid and used effectively by art director Zhong Han. CGI and wirework are well integrated into the live action and drama.

Acting, by the very nature of “Flying Daggers,” leans more to the physical than the emotional and, of the three stars, Zhang Ziyi stands out. The young actress has only been on the international scene for a few short years with her debut in Zhang’s “The Road Home” in 1999. Since then she has made two more films with the maestro, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with Ang Lee, and “2046” with helmer Wong Kar-Wai, as well as Rush Hour 2“ starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. The actress moves with grace and is a wonder to watch in both her dances and battles. She also puts the greatest nuance on Mei.

Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau’s characters, Jin and Leo, are not as fully drawn as Mei and theirs is more cat-and-mouse game as the story twists its way to its exciting conclusion. Both thesps are right up there with their co-star with their physically impressive performances. There is not much going on with support, though Dandan Song, as the madam of the Peony Palace (amongst other roles), is mistress of her own space in the film.

There is much comparison being made between “The House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and which is the better film. I think it is a matter of taste since each has its own unique qualities. In all cases, the incredible martial arts are tempered by thoughtful and empathetic romances that make each a world-class film. I give Zhang Yimou’s latest an A.

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