In the West among the more common folk (and lets face it, the not-so-common folk as well) China and its vast, long, and proud history, remains a mysterious land wrapped in a shroud of uncertainty. It goes without saying that the Chinese culture is as different from Western cultural norms as the light side of the moon is from the dark. And yet that is what makes the Chinese so intriguing, and their culture worth understanding. And that is what makes last years, House of Flying Daggers, the latest film from acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou such a treat to watch, and dare I say, a visual, and emotional experience to be savored.
A Word or Two about the Director
Though not widely known in the West, Zhang Yimou is a name widely recognized in his native China and by art-house film lovers. The first film of Yimous I remember seeing was Raise The Red Lantern, a movie I saw as part of my BA degree program. The film starred Yimous lover, and acclaimed Chinese actress Gong Li, whom he also made five other films with: Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live, and Shanghai Triad, all of which drew high critical applause. Hero, released in 2002, and House of the Flying Daggers, are Yimous venture into the world of martial arts filmmaking, in which he fuses his pension for melodrama with stunning visuals, cascading colors, and the beauty of human movement, be it in the form of dance or martial arts.
The Story Line
The fabled and largely successful T'ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) is in decline and several powerful sects are trying to bring it down, among these, the House of Flying Daggers, so named because it members are very proficient in the art of dagger throwing and manipulation. The leader of the sect has been killed by local T'ang police officials and the House has vowed to avenge his death.
Rumor has it that a blind performer (girl) at a local prestigious bordello, the Peony Pavilion, might be the daughter of the dead House of Flying Daggers leader. The T'ang police send in the very handsome Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to observe and possibly capture her. The police she can lead them to the elusive House of Flying Daggers headquarters and the new leadership.
Jin goes to the bordello and pretends to get drunk in order to get next to the girl named Mei portrayed by Zhang Ziyi (Hero, Rush Hour 2, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). He causes a disturbance which attracts the police led by Leo (Andy Lau) who orders them both arrested. But after the owner of the Peony Pavilion extols Mei's dancing abilities, Leo asks to see a demonstration. So begins the first of a long line of visually stunning acrobatic and martial arts performances, only this one ends in Mei being captured by Leo.
Leo and Jin scheme to have the latter rescue Mei and for Leo to then trail them to the House of Flying Daggers forest stronghold; and so the story unfolds
House of Flying Daggers is at its very core a love story, and in telling that story it works and works well. The central theme took a little while to unwind its emotional tentacles, but oh when it did, bits and pieces that seem to float above the landscape of the script suddenly came together to form a coherent and heartbreaking story. Though the dialog was in Chinese, the actors did an excellent job of relaying to me (and my wife) the depth of the feelings through facial expressions and a modicum of tears
Some have compared this film the Hero and in many respects the two movies do share a common bond and rightly so since they share the same director: they are both visually stunning with eyes popping colors and visual affects that leave one gasping and wondering how they did that. Yimou has an eye for spectacular beauty down to the smallest detail, and that is another similarity this movie shares with Hero; everything and everyone is plain beautiful; the people, the customs, the settings, the dances, the fights sequences, the landscape, everything is bursting with beauty. One cant help but fall in love with the movie in its entire because it is just so beautifully conceptualized and shoot. And finally, both movies deal with deception, betrayal, and ultimately love, but each deal with the subject in its own unique way.
One of the first things that struck me about House of Flying Daggers was how colorful each frame of the movie is. Bright sharp colors burst from the screen and make love to the eyes; at first there is a virtual kaleidoscope of color, but then as the movie progresses single colors take center stage: vivid shades of green, striking orange punctuated by yellow, bright reds blending with blues, and finally starkly sorrowful white. Yimou weaves the colors together with the story in order to enhance the visceral pull of emotions in the viewer. How could there be good and evil in a film so beautiful, so emotional evocative?
And the there are the daggers, the wonderfully deadly, beautiful daggers that become an extension of the throwers hand and mind, landing with such precision as to become a work of art, a skill to be envied and admired. Oftentimes the daggers seem to come from nowhere to strike their targets down without mercy. The camera sails along with the daggers as they journey from hand to target, somersaulting through the air, gliding it seemed with a will of their own to their appointed prey. The effect was dazzling, graceful, and certainly not something I am used to seeing in an American film.
There is little gore and blood in House of Flying Daggers and while this may disappoint some it worked for me. Gore, killing, and death were not the purpose of the film; they were just incidentals along the way that helped to tell the story. It was the human tale that took center stage, and rightfully so.
As the film closed and the credits rolled, I was sorry it was ending; indeed there were a few loose ends the movie left untied much to my disappointment; I wanted more. At least I have the DVD so I can, at my whim, watch the movie again, and again, and again House of Flying Daggers is a visual and emotional treat. Yes it is different and there are subtitles which always take away from the total enjoyment of a film, but it is worth the effort.
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12
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House of Flying Daggers (Chinese: 十面埋伏; pinyin: shí miàn mái fú), is a 2004 action-romance filmdirected by Zhang Yimou. House of Flying Daggers differs from other wuxia films in that it is more of a love story than a straight martial arts film.
The use of strong colours is again a signature of Zhang Yimou's work. Several scenes in a bamboo forest completely fill the screen with green. Near the end of the film, a fight scene is set in a blizzard. The actors and blood are greatly highlighted on a whiteout background. Another scene uses bright yellow as a colour theme. The costumes, props, and decorations were taken almost entirely from Chinese paintings of the period, adding authenticity to the look of the film.