Friday, December 4, 2009

Film Review: House of Flying Daggers

"House of Flying Daggers" **** (out of ****)

After reviewing John Woo's "Red Cliff" (2009) recently I mentioned other films in the martial arts genre which I felt were more involving films. Some of those movies were made by the director of "House of Flying Daggers" (2004), Zhang Yimou.

There was a time at the beginning of the decade when I was obsessed with Yimou's work. I would consider him one of the great filmmakers to emerge within the last 20 years. Ever since his first film was distributed in America, "Red Sorghum" (1989) he has consistently amazed me. I hadn't thought much of Mr. Yimou lately though. Mostly because he hasn't shared a vision with us in quite some time. His last film released in theatres was "Curse of the Golden Flower" back in 2006 (which I have also reviewed). Back then I included the film in my annual top ten list just as I have many of Mr. Yimou's films. In fact, he holds the honor of being the director which has topped my lists more often than any other filmmaker. He has done it on three occasions; "Raise the Red Lantern" (1992), "To Live" (1994) and "The Road Home" (2001), perhaps my favorite of his films. His other films are routinely placed near the top of my lists such as this film and "Hero" (2003).

Zhang Yimou started to branch out to mainstream audiences back in 2004 when this film and "Hero" were released in theatres. Prior to that art house and foreign film fans were most familiar with his films. At that time Mr. Yimou made historical dramas; "Raise the Red Lantern", "To Live", "Shanghai Triad" (1996). His films were visual poems with a heartfelt sentimentality to them. Sadly those films never caught on with audiences. But these martial art films surely did. Between the two released back in 2004 "House of Flying Daggers" was considered by some critics as the more accomplished film between his two releases. Personally, I'm not quite sure which was better. Both were well crafted, highly involving films which managed to find a blend between the action scenes and human drama.

I hadn't watched "House of Flying Daggers" since I saw it in theatres. Since that time I remembered the film differently. Before seeing the film again I remembered the sword fighting sequences, the lavish colors and small bits of the romance. Now looking back on the film, I realize the film is really a romantic film disguised as a martial art films. There are more tender moments than fighting scenes. This is what "Red Cliff" should have been, even in its condensed American version.

There are fights scenes in "House of Flying Daggers" but I never felt overwhelmed by them the way I did "Red Cliff". Pay attention and you'll notice Yimou doesn't film these sequences in a rapid manner. The camera is usually gives us long, unbroken shots. The viewer is allowed the soak in the landscape and all the action at once. These fight scenes aren't so much about the actual fighting as they are about how they make us feel. Listen to the somber music which plays in the background and the slow motion technique Yimou uses. For me, the fight scenes invoke a great sense of tragedy. A sadness came over me. Yimou has managed to romanticize these sequences.

The story takes us back to 859 AD. We are in the decline of the Tang Dynasty. The people have turned against the Emperor and the government which is viewed as corrupt. Instead many look up to a group of bandits known as the "Flying Daggers", a sort of Robin Hood group which steals from the rich and gives to the poor. However the police are not too fond of them. Two captains; Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) are in charge of finding out the new leader of the group. Because of mounting pressure from their superiors they are only giving ten days. Word has it that a brothel might be the hide out for one of the "Flying Daggers", so Jin, a self-proclaimed ladies man, is sent to do some undercover work.

At the brothel Jin discovers the newest girl, Mei (Ziyi Zhang). A blind girl who possesses great martial art skills. It is widely believed she may be the daughter of the old leader. So Jin is assigned to get her arrested and then pretend to help her escape from jail so she can lead him to the "Flying Daggers" hideout. But as the two travel across country a deep passion develops between them.

I think the most noticeable thing about "House of Flying Daggers" is the breathtaking visuals. The camerawork by Xiaoding Zhao makes the viewer think of John Ford. Yimou and Zhao show us the beauty of nature. The landscape is just as much as star of the film as the actors. The cinematography was even nominated for an Oscar. Giving the film its only Oscar nomination.

The second thing which will catch your eye is Ziyi Zhang. Besides being a talented dancer and actress she is also a stunning beauty. If you follow these type of films many may recall her from Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) which was a major breakout role for her. Since then she has appeared in other Yimou films like "The Road Home" and "Hero" and other critically acclaimed films such as "2046" (2005).

And finally I think the film's romance will carry you into its story. The viewer can almost feel the connection between these characters. Yimou has a great way of dealing with people and exposing their emotions. "House of Flying Daggers" could have easily worked as a pure romance without any of the fight sequences, where characters and swords defy logic. Swordsmen fly in the air, daggers and arrows zig-zag in mid-air hunting down their targets.

Several critics, A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert among them, have said the film resembles a musical with the fight scenes the equivalent of dance sequences. They cite a sequence referred to as the "Echo game" as an example of how the fighters move in an almost dance rhythm. In this scene Mei is put to a test. A pebble is thrown at drums which surround her and she must guess which one it is. Others speak of a sequence in a bamboo forest where the swordsmen dangle upside down on bamboo trees.

I don't think I would call "House of Flying Daggers" Yimou's best film. But it is top notch entertainment. The film has a delicate touch and managed to combine several genres into one. If you like this film I'd strongly recommend "Hero" and "Curse of the Golden Flower" as well. But don't avoid Yimou's period pieces and human dramas. Zhang Yimou is a master filmmaker. Any serious film lover should see all of his films. "House of Flying Daggers" is a rousing, sentimental, emotional, poetic, work of art