Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

House of Flying Daggers

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 21, 2005

Directed by Zhang Yimou/written by Yimou, Li Feng, Wang Bin/starring Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau/Sony Pictures Classics

If you read this site at all, or even look at the list of reviews on the main page, you may have noticed that I watch a fair amount of Asian films. I don’t see as many of them as I would actually like, but whenever I get the chance I make a point of checking them out. Some people may interpret this as some sort of cultural snobbery, or a dislike of American films, or even a misguided attempt to be “cool” and “edgy” in some way. None of that is the case. Truthfully, I don’t really care about any of that stuff. I don’t like Asian films because they’re “important” or “culturally significant”, even though some of them are. That really doesn’t necessarily motivate me to see a film.

No, I like Asian films because they KICK ASS. I like movies that kick ass. No, I take that back. I LOVE movies that kick ass. And House of Flying Daggers kicks ass all over the place. If you need a reason to go see it, that’s the absolute best one I can possibly think of. What, you’d rather see a movie that DOESN’T kick ass? Be my guest, but you’ll be missing out on a really cool film here.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the movie for you, so I’ll sum up the story quickly. It’s essentially a love story between Jin (Kaneshiro), a deputy for the royals in the ancient Tang Dynasty, and Mei (Ziyi), a blind dancer who may be an undercover agent for the House of Flying Daggers, an anti-government revolutionary faction. With the help of his friend and mentor Leo (Lau), Jin breaks Mei out of jail in hopes that she’ll lead him to their secret headquarters. Unfortunately, not everyone they encounter is in on this plan. Sparks fly between the two, and things become more complicated than they initially seemed.

Oh yeah, there are a lot of impressive fight scenes along the way. And yes, there are daggers, and they do fly (after being thrown). Just in case you were wondering.

That’s the basic story, boiled down to its essential elements – a cop and a criminal fall in love while on the run. Sounds simple enough, right? I’m certainly no expert on Chinese history, but thankfully you don’t have to be to follow what’s going on here. As long as you get the general idea, you’ll be fine.

But then about halfway through something happens that completely changes our perceptions of the whole movie. Of course I’m not going to tell you what that is. Then the movie becomes much more complex and interesting than it seemed at first, yet it all feels completely natural. It doesn’t come off like a contrived “plot twist” designed to throw us off or make us scratch our heads in puzzlement. As in the best films, everything seems like it’s happening exactly the way it was meant to happen.

Yimou is an acclaimed veteran director whose films have only recently begun to achieve major commercial notice in America. That’s partially because House is only his second martial-arts film, after the recently released (here, at least) Hero. You can certainly tell that Yimou’s been making movies for years, as the film looks incredible and practically sparkles with the kind of visual splendor and storytelling virtuosity that only a master filmmaker can pull off. But you wouldn’t know that it’s only his second martial-arts film. While Hero was certainly impressive in that department, House’s action scenes are absolutely stunning in a completely unselfconscious way. Where some directors feel the need to announce how cool their action scenes are, Yimou just goes for it here. The results may seem effortless, but Yimou and his team of action choreographers top themselves and just about everyone else who’s made this kind of film. We may have seen scenes like these before, but we’ve never seen them done better.

However, there’s a lot more to recommend here than just the action. Zhang Ziyi is just a monumental talent, and her performance here confirms that she’s one of the most beautiful and amazing actresses on the face of the Earth. She’s an absolute force of nature, a hurricane of physical grace and skill that simply cannot be denied. Her dancing scenes early in the film are just knockout incredible to behold, and you’ll completely understand Jin’s reaction to Mei after she performs for him. But it’s the “Echo Dance” that’s just knock-down, drag-out stunning. Ziyi puts all of Hollywood’s “girl power” wannabes to shame, and makes them look like the pampered little poseurs they really are. Even Uma’s Bride takes a back seat to what Ziyi pulls off here. If you’re not riveted by Zhang Ziyi, it’s time to get a seeing-eye dog.

Takeshi Kaneshiro is almost her equal as the carefree playboy Jin, and I say “almost” because no one on the planet could actually be her equal. Suffice it to say that he’s sufficiently charismatic enough that she doesn’t blow him off the screen, and that’s a pretty impressive achievement. Andy Lau is also quite good as the stalwart Leo, who progressively becomes more complex and interesting than he initially seems.

In fact, I’d say “deceptively simple” would be the perfect two-word description for this entire film. Yes, we’ve all seen love stories like this before, and we’ve all seen Chinese martial-arts films like this before. But Yimou knows that it’s not just WHAT you do, but the WAY you do it that matters. There will be inevitable comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon here, and there are similarities on the surface. But House of Flying Daggers is its own beautiful, brilliant beast, a badass, action-packed film with a thundering heart.

It seems that this movie isn’t doing that well in its national release, and I think that’s a real shame. I know that there are lots of people who just won’t see subtitled foreign films under any circumstances. But I can’t imagine why the same people who lined up to see Crouching Tiger and Hero wouldn’t go to see this. I assure you, it’s worth your time and effort. But don’t go see it because it’s “important”. Go see it because it ROCKS. Hard.

**** 1/21/05

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