House of Flying Daggers
aka Shi mian mai fu

House of Flying Daggers

Mandarin language. China/Hong Kong, 2004. Not rated. 119 minutes.

Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Ziyi Zhang, Andy Lau Tak Wah, Song Dandan
Writers: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou
Original Music: Shigeru Umebayashi
Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoding
Producers: Bill Kong, Zhang Yimou
Director: Zhang Yimou


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

It is 859AD, and the Tang Dynasty, one of the most enlightened empires in Chinese history at its height, is in decline. The Emperor is incompetent and the government is corrupt. Unrest is spreading throughout the land, and many rebel armies are forming in protest. The largest, and most prestigious, is an underground alliance called the “House of Flying Daggers.”

The House of Flying Daggers operates mysteriously, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Thus, they have earned the support and admiration of the people and expanded quickly. Based in Feng Tian County, close to the Imperial Capital, the House of Flying Daggers has long been a thorn in the side of the local deputies, their hated rivals...

...B lah, blah, blah. Talk about unnecessary setup. The setting is irrelevant. The historical context is irrelevant. Here's the deal: Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers is a rote melodrama-cum-martial arts film, where each successive revealed secret is less believable and yet somehow more obligatory than the last, because, after all, this is an old-school Asian melodrama. If you can't think of enough reasonable obstacles to the star-crossed lovers being together, you better damn well make some up. House of Flying Daggers is about a romantic entanglement between people with diametrically opposed loyalties, and it ain't ending up in a happy place.

What a change from Hero! Zhang Yimou's previous film opened in the United States just this August, and spent its first two weeks in release at the top of the box office. Now that was a film with teeth. It had melodrama and self-sacrifice up the wazoo, to be sure, but the plot revelations came within a complex Russian-dolls structure of alternate scenarios, each discovery leading to a revised flashback, until the film finally reaches the truth. Moreover, Hero had a philosophical dilemma at its crux that is still relevant today. Is it better to have peace under a tyrant, or freedom that comes with constant warfare and killing? In contrast, the most challenging question posed by House of Flying Daggers is, “Wait, what was the relationship between these characters again?”

Ben Kingsley
Takeshi Kaneshiro and Ziyi Zhang star in Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers.

Don't get me wrong, House of Flying Daggers is a gorgeous film, almost as striking as Hero, one of the most visually stupendous films you will ever see. Avoid getting too distracted trying to keep track of the characters' changing agendas, and enjoy the production design, the costumes, and the landscapes (Ukranian, many of them). All are sublime. Then there are the action sequences. Crafted by choreographer Tony Ching Siu Tung, the fights are amazingly precise ballets, and a far cry from the grainy, sped-up Hong Kong films of yesteryear, with their absurdly cheap sound effects. However, it would be nice to see something new—something other than stunts performed with the help of digitally erased harnesses. What was breathtaking in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is getting old very, very fast. If your heroes can literally do anything (defy gravity, move faster than the speed of sound, perform an oil and filter change in under five minutes), that tends to suck the tension out of their confrontations with mere mortals. It also leads to unintentional laughs, as in the bizarre case of a character who won't stay dead. How many death scenes is one person allowed, anyway?

The House of Flying Daggers also has star quality—Asian star quality, anyway, which unfortunately means most audiences here won't know these actors from Adam. Captain Jin, the deputy who goes undercover to get close to the secretive rebels of the House of Flying Daggers, is played by half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese Takeshi Kaneshiro of Chungking Express and Returner. Captain Leo, his commander, is noted Hong Kong action star Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, Fulltime Killer). The woman who comes between them, Mei, is a slightly more familiar face to Americans—Ziyi Zhang of Hero, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Rush Hour 2. Noted Asian theater and sitcom actor Song Dandan rounds out the principal cast. These impossibly beautiful people (particularly the doll-like Ziyi Zhang, whose looks contrast sharply with her ability to kick butt) fit right into their impossibly beautiful surroundings.

For Zhang Yimou beauty is not just a means to tell a story, but a goal in itself. Aesthetically, House of Flying Daggers is an impressive achievement—reason enough to fork over ten bucks to see it on the big screen, as it just won't be the same on your television. But the achievement is a superficial one, because House of Flying Daggers lacks substance. While Hero leaves you pondering meanings for days, House of Flying Daggers doesn't leave you with anything more than, “Swords are sharp. Ziyi Zhang is pretty. There sure is a lot of bamboo in China.”

Review © October 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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