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  •  REVIEW: HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

    House of Flying Daggers

    Knife is beautiful

    "House of Flying Daggers" outdoes even Zhang Yimou's previous swordfighting epic, "Hero," in its sheer visual sumptuousness.

    By LESLIE (HOBAN) BLAKE
    Offoffoff.com

    Ang Lee once said every male Chinese film director wanted to make at least one martial-arts film. For years Zhang Yimou had wanted to make his own wuxia-pian (heroic swordplay films), but it wasn't until Lee's success with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" that he felt the time was right. And in a recent, much quoted interview after the release of his martial arts duet — "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" — Yimou publicly thanked Lee for "the possibility."

      
    HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
    Original title: 十面埋伏.
    Directed by: Zhang Yimou.
    Written by: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou.
    Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Song Dandan.
    Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoding.
    Edited by: Cheng Long.
    Music by: Shigeru Umebayashi.
    Production design by: Emi Wada.
    Art direction by: Emi Wada.
    Costumes by: Emi Wada.
    In Chinese with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site | Sony site
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     Official site
    Ironically, Ziyi Zhang, the female star of Lee's "wuxia-pian" film is also the co-star of both of Yimou's swordplay epics, which were not only conceived and written at the same time, but shot back to back. And due to a colossal Miramax distribution screw-up, Americans have had the luxury of seeing them in closer succession than the two parts of Quentin Tarantino's overpraised kung-fooey double "Kill Bill" and "Kill Bill 2" (which suffer badly by the comparison).

    Wuxia endows its heroes (and heroines, also called heroes) with superhuman abilities, exemplified by fabulous acrobatic feats of wire-aided kung fu called "wire fu." Thus rigged, combatants can run up the sides of buildings, skip across treetops, fly from here to there and even walk on water.

    House of Flying Daggers  
    Most American audiences were introduced to this mythical aspect of kung-fu by Lee's action choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping, the action wizard behind "The Matrix" trilogy. For the average American non kung-fu fanatic, "Crouching Tiger" was the touchstone — either more than enough of the genre or merely an appetizer for Yimou's double header. Yimou utilized the talents of Siu-Tung Ching, another Hong Kong action choreographer, and was rewarded with two films of unparalleled beauty and magical feats of derring do-kung-fu.

    "Hero," with its "Rashomon"-like story and Kurosawa-esque elements of "Ran'"s epic battle scenes (already reviewed on this site more for its political stance, than for its extravagant beauty) was the 2003 Chinese nominee for Best Foreign Film Oscar. Color has always been Yimou's "thing" — think of the individual concubine's color schemes in "Raise the Red Lantern," the theatricality of the colors in "Shanghai Triad," or the dye colors in "Ju Dou." For "Hero," he color-coordinated the battle scenes among its four assassin protagonists.

    But all of these elements were mere warm-ups for "House of Flying Daggers," in which the director also borrowed the Hong Kong trope of "mole in the police who is also a double agent for the Triad," combining it with the Japanese "blind samurai" character (only here the blind warrior is a beautiful woman).

    Zhang takes us on a journey back to 859 AD China, during the decline of the Tang Dynasty. The land is in turmoil as bands of rebel guerillas threaten to overrun the toppling government. Most powerful is "The House of Flying Daggers," beloved by the people for their Robin Hoodish qualities.

    The local deputies have been unable to control them and now believe that the daughter of the old leader (whom the deputies killed) is a courtesan in the local "Peony Pavilion." She is Mei (Zhang Ziyi) , both beautiful and blind, and the two handsome policemen are Leo and Jin played by Hong Kong Mega star Andy Lau ("Infernal Affairs") and Kaneshiro Takeshi (a gorgeous half-Taiwanese half-Japanese, Johnny Depp-style pop idol).

      House of Flying Daggers
    To test Mei's blindness, Jin sets up a glorious "echo" game involving her mile-long silken sleeves and about a billion drums — none of them computer generated. (If I exaggerate, blame the director's eye for opulence and my being a sucker for it.) The plot, what little there is, has Jin posing as a rebel to trick Mei into leading him to the "Daggers." That a love triangle ensues goes without saying. Certain plot points are de rigueur in wuxia, though an actual plot is unnecessary and even counterproductive.

    For "House...," Zhang's work with color also assumes a characterological role. Once we leave the Pavilion, the color scheme gradually loses all primary colors until we are enveloped by muted forest tones of green and brown with every shade between. As for the fight scenes in "House...," while there's nothing of the scope of "Hero"'s finale (with its multiple views of thousands of archers and the various trajectories of their arrows), there is the epic final "House..." fight, so intense it brings on the change of seasons — color co-ordinated right down to the absence of color for the Winter snow storm.

    The facial and physical beauty of the stars is almost (but not quite) overpowered by the beauty and sumptuousness of the costumes and set designs. Both "Hero" and "House..." are two of the most costly films ever produced in China, but that cost is apparent in every frame on screen. The local joy palace alone makes Donald Trump's golden apartments look like some homeless guy's cardboard hovel. Reviewers (this one included) have thumbed their thesauruses to shreds looking for other ways to say "House..." is the most beautiful film of the year.

    "House..." is sheer sensory overload, so why not give yourself an early holiday treat, and just lose yourself in the visual grandeur of the film — forget about sense or even sensibility and just enjoy the pure cinematic wonder of it all!

    DECEMBER 17, 2004
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK


    Reader comments on House of Flying Daggers:

  • "GREAT COMBINATION OF LOVE AND KUNG FU"   from Zaheer Ahmah Khan, Jan 17, 2005
  • House of Flying Daggers   from Craig Jenkins, Jun 23, 2005
  • Takeshi Kaneshiro   from Anna, Dec 30, 2005
  • [no subject]   from Alicejoh, Feb 10, 2008
  • Saving an empire from collapse.   from sandrasores@ymail.com, Jan 30, 2009

  • Post a comment on "House of Flying Daggers"