House of Flying Daggers

dir: Zhang Yimou
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What a truly beautiful film, in all the senses that the word can encompass. And if you think about just how important beauty is to those of us with eyes and ears and hearts, you might know how it is that I can forgive the shortcomings of a film solely for its sheer visual splendour.

Film, being the most complex of the visual mediums (well duh), needs beauty like homeless drunks need booze: fiercely, deeply, utterly. For those of us that try to watch much of the new stuff that comes out at the cinema, it’s the knowledge or the conceit that seeing a film on the big screen is somehow ‘right’ or inherently ‘better’ than waiting to see it on your television screen that is a driving force. In truth most of the time it’s a complete delusion. My life and my experience of film is none the better for having watched Blade III, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing or Cabin Fever on the big screen, in fact I can say that in some ways it’s probably worse off. I’m sure that watching bad films on the silver screen causes brain cancer or genital warts or something.

But all the same, even if none of the great visually splendid films I’ve ever seen really added that much to my life by being watched on the big screen (Lawrence of Arabia, Himalaya, Baraka, 2001, The Duellists, Barry Lyndon, Once Upon a Time in the West, the Lord of the Ringpiece films), then I will still choose to believe they added something even if they didn’t. If I cease to be entranced by beauty then there ceases being a point in me ever watching films ever again. Which is to say the point of my continued breathing and drinking is also gone.

The day watching the eternal beauty of something like House of Flying Daggers on the big screen leaves me nonplussed is the day I know that I no longer need my eyes. It is entirely stunning from beginning to end, with nary a break for the eyes for its entire two hour length. There are so many scenes of such gorgeous sumptuousness (trying saying that with a few tequilas in your system) that I thought my little retinas were going to be scorched out from the colour overdose. And whilst I’m canny enough to understand how colour maximisation and alteration of scenes occurs in post-production, it was clear that with the majority of scenes the crucial choice had been made with the location selection and the set design right from the start. It’s heartening to know that places like that exist in the world (Lviv, in the Ukraine), and others can be created by very talented people (the gaudy treasure box like appearance of the Peony Pavilion for starters).

The story itself is pretty simple even with the plot twists that are included: it’s a love story. That is, it’s pretty much a period piece romance set during the Tang Dynasty, around the 8th century. Of course, this being a Chinese wuxia (martial arts) story, everyone knows how to fight like a whirling dervish and tens of thousands of people have to die before the end credits can roll.

And why not. It can be such an entertaining genre. And since its resurgence in the West with the critical and (modest) box office acclaim of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, it seems there’s a growing audience for these films that until recently either languished in art houses or played in Chinatown cinemas dirtier than your local porno theatre. Not that any of you classy people ever frequent such places. Work in them, sure. But you’re never there as customers. Surely not.

With Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Zhang Yimou’s previous effort Hero and his current one here, we see a growing trend of Chinese films being made specifically with a non-Chinese audience in mind. Which is fine by me. When they start making the films even more focused, as in, specifically with me in mind, then I’ll know that the system has achieved perfection.

Hero and House of Flying Daggers represent an incredible double bill. They’re very different films, linked by more than their stunning visuals and the name of the director, but they’ll of course still have to be lumped together because of the dire human need to pigeon-hole. Neither film is perfect, but together in a weird way they almost make up for the shortcomings of the other.

Where the driving force in Hero, the impetus behind the motivation of the main characters, is duty, or a sense of the ‘common good’ goal of civilisation, the central motivation in Daggers is much simpler: love. The characters in this story do what they do ultimately out of love. Though that doesn’t mean the film has any profound depth to it, it does add some complexity since both the self-sacrificing and the selfish acts committed by the characters are all motivated by love. As those of us who have done both great good and great evil in our lives motivated by what we think is love can attest, like booze it can bring out our best and our worst. It’s also usually the central plank of the plot of every good and bad story written over the last fifteen thousand years.

Two government officials of the Tang Dynasty, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), both like their jobs of upholding the thin blue line that separates an orderly society from chaos. They’re also keen to find out who the new leader of a rebel group bent on destroying the dying Tang Dynasty is. The House of Flying Daggers refers to this group of rebels / insurgents / terrorists, whose calling card is, surprisingly enough these nifty daggers that they throw at people.

The cops had previously killed their leader, dealing a serious blow to the rebels. Hoping to nip any further uprisings in the bud they hope they can recapture that loving feeling by doing the same to the new leader as well.

As if that kind of thinking ever solved anything. Regardless, working on a tip from presumably someone doing the ancient Chinese equivalent of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, they go undercover to check out a new working girl at the local knock-shop, who may be connected to the fearsome revolutionaries in some way.

Of course they’re all so classy, so instead of being dead-eyed, burnt out smackies, the girls at the Peony Pavilion are all so cute and giggly and don’t actually seem to have to fuck anyone. The plot introduces Mei (Ziyi Zhang), an exotic Northern blind dancer / fuck-puppet who stares off to one side at all times and can do incredible things with her hands. Her hearing is extremely precise, to the point where the exuberant Echo Game set piece can occur. And what a joy for the eyes and ears it truly is.

One’s expectation in films of this ilk is for nothing more than wall to wall arse-kicking action. This ‘echo game’ sequence, like the ending of Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi samurai film from last year shows that you can do more with a story than just have people whacking each other. It’s all about the choreography.

Choreography can be grand. It can be scary, too. Look at the old footage of German soldiers goosestepping down the promenade back when Hitler was the flavour of the month, or the even scarier recent footage of North Korean soldiers goosestepping higher than Vegas showgirls in perfect unison, a hundred thousand at a time. It takes discipline, dedication and possibly the threat of death to get that level of precision. When we the lazy viewers see it, we respond, not necessarily Pavlov’s Dog style, but we respond all the same.

Be it a well thought out fight sequence or a Fred Astaire musical routine, when the film makers get it right it can result in a powerful and transporting sequence that makes us forget our mundane lives for at least a few moments. This movie has those kinds of sequences in abundance.

The echo game, fun as it is, results in an arrest, like most things that are fun these days. Damned public decency laws! And completely unlike the times when my unchoreographed exuberance in public results in arrests, someone helps the accused flee from captivity after taking out the guards. That’s taking out the guards as in knocking them unconscious, not as in taking them out for a dinner and a show, and maybe a giving a tit-squeeze and getting a blowjob.

The blind girl and her liberator begin a northern journey, ostensibly seeking the headquarters of the Flying Daggers. They don’t really have adventures along the way of the Enid Blyton variety, it’s more that guards keep trying to kill them and the situation gets progressively worse and worse as they find themselves growing closer.

As they travel north the scenery also transforms, as they flee through gorgeously filmed forests, a field of wildflowers that goes on as far as the eye can see, a bamboo forest so deep and misty that it almost looks like it is underwater, and even more goddamn forests on fire (in terms of the vividness of its colours, not actual flame) with the powerful and melancholy colours of autumn. Utterly gorgeous. Eye-fuckingly stunning, I could go on but I think you’ve got the gist of it.

I’ve seen the plot described elsewhere as being full of twists, trickery and curve balls, and I have to wonder how simple the holders of these opinions are. The plot is very straightforward. There’s no need or desire for complexity in the plot, it’s essentially a love triangle between three people, with the political intrigue serving merely as a framing device. By the time the story reaches its apex the political stuff is completely abandoned, in another example of Zhang Yimou deliberately subverting audience expectations.

They should have, as suggested at the ending of Kevin Smith’s movie Chasing Amy, all slept together to solve the problem, but there, like here, no-one was willing to take the plunge. Instead, in a way that surprised me somewhat, the plot goes the long way around to get to a traditional ending.

It’s debatable whether there is a genuine deeper connection between audiences and the characters here as opposed to the ones in Hero. In Hero I never really connected with the characters except for Nameless and the King of Qin, so their fates didn’t really concern me. Mostly for me the fault lay in the fact that they were perpetually filmed and moved / acted like they were in a perfume commercial or a car ad, and didn’t really do much of anything for me to care about.

I think I cared a bit more about the characters here. Although the question of what’s going on in Mei’s head is still a bit of a mystery to me, I definitely cared more about what happened to her character, and I think that Ziyi Zhang did a wonderful job with the character. I’ve seen her in a bunch of stuff over the last few years, and this is definitely her best work since Crouching Tiger. The character of Jin has an interesting (if modest) character arc, describing himself as a playboy type who likes being as free as the autumnal breeze, playful and inconstant. Much of the dialogue (as translated, which probably mangled it) seems quite poetic as opposed to colloquial or run of the mill. Jin is also very well played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, displaying a decent range between being charming and steadfast.

Leo (played by Hong Kong veteran Andy Lau, not to be confused with director Andrew Lau) is also an interesting character. Though all three actors have been in a ton of stuff, Lau has been in something like a billion films made over the last twenty five years. Some of those films are great, some are okay and most are bad. He also sings woeful Cantopop, so he’s like some super-ubiquitous Asian superstar who is also popular on the record charts. Kind of like William Shatner.

He’s good here. I don’t always like his performances, but he’s better than decent here, though you could argue he doesn’t have to do that much. He has a few stand-out moments, involving fighting and screaming his lungs out which I thought worked well.

The climax of the film occurs during a snowstorm, where events are brought to their natural and essentially Chinese conclusion. It’s all beautifully filmed (of course), and the use of CGI is pretty seamless, and concludes the story on a genuinely emotional note.

Throughout the film the fightwork is excellent, and mostly constitutes more ‘grounded’ types of fights, eschewing the overuse of wirework which many ungrateful fucks now claim is passe. I was happy with it all, but it’s definitely not wall-to-wall action, in fact there is far less fighting here than one would except.

See it if you like this kind of stuff. If you loved Hero, and love Asian cinema in general then you may get some enjoyment out of this, because at least visually this represents one of the pinnacles that the genre and cinema itself is capable of. It also goes well as a complement to Hero, in the way that drinking beer after you’ve done a shot of whisky is enjoyable. If you’re expecting something identical to any of the other films I’ve mentioned in the review then you’re going to come baying for my blood. Which will be bad for you, let me tell you that for free. Because my girlfriend can beat the crap out of you.

8 times you wonder whether Ziyi Zhang really is that goddamn gorgeous in real life out of 10

‘Keep it in. You look more convincing with a dagger in your back’ – House of Flying Daggers