House of Flying Daggers (2004) / Adventure-Romance
aka Shi Mian Mai Fu
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and sexuality
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, Dandan Song
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou
Review published December 20, 2004
After the success of the visually stunning and critically acclaimed Hero, one can only expect great things to come from the mind of writer-director Zhang Yimou, after raising the bar for kung fu movies seeking mainstream acceptance in theaters in the United States, and worldwide. House of Flying Daggers shouldn't disappoint anyone who comes into it expecting breathtaking landscapes, fantastic costumes, well choreographed battles, and sumptuous cinematography, because in that respect, it is almost everything that Hero was in that department. It is also more easily accessible, with a simple to follow storyline (although there are some nifty twists), as well as less emphasis on the art and history that formed part of the story of Hero, which left many viewers somewhat perplexed as to exactly what was going on.
The story takes place in the waning days of the Tang dynasty, where two "police officers" working for the emperor, Jin (Takechi Kaneshiro, Lavender) and Leo (Andy Lau, Dance of a Dream), are enjoying a visit in the local brothel for the company of the ladies. They are introduced to Mei (Zhang Ziyi, Rush Hour 2), a blind but beautiful woman of the house, who piques their interest with her dancing abilities, as well as her affinity for martial arts. They suspect that she is a member of the rebel faction opposing the emperor, the elusive House of Flying Daggers, and so they devise a plan to find out their whereabouts, as well as who is the leader of this band of outlaws. Being the ladies man of the two, the plan is for Jin to phony a break out from the prison that holds Mei, and with their newly formed friendship, he hopes to be led to the secret location of the House of Flying Daggers, but there are dangers along the way, including the emperor's own men, who aren't quite in the know when it comes to the clever scheme.
If there's anything you can come away with after viewing House of Flying Daggers, it's that you definitely have been whisked away into a beautiful period piece full of lush imagery, and viscerally impressive locales. On a purely technical level, Yimou's film does merit a look for its mesmerizing beauty and graceful action pieces. The cinematography and stuntwork probably won't do much justice on the small screen of a television, so do try to catch this in a theater, if possible. It's a satisfying treat for the eyes.
If only the emphasis on the look of the film could transcend to the character development, we might have a masterpiece on our hands. Alas, it is not to be. For all of its magnificence in the background, the story and characterizations are never able to match the richness of the photography, and just as with Hero, we are left with more of a feeling of admiration for the craftsmanship of the film than for the elements of the tale itself. Devoid of much feeling, the tug-of-war love angles fail to grip us like they should in the climactic final scenes, where overwrought melodrama takes center stage. As major events unfold in the lives of our heroes, we watch in silent indifference as weapons fly, snow falls, and bodies interact in a mournful ballet of anguished combat.
Yimou is a master craftsman when it comes to delivering on action and mood, but expends too much energy on the bells and whistles, while neglecting the humanity that should lie at the core of this love story. It's clear he wants us to feel fear and pity for these characters, but no amount of spinning kicks, flying daggers, or moments of slow reflection can make us feel that these characters aren't just a means by which Yimou can teleport us into a time and place of great beauty and honor. While it is definitely worth the time and effort to visit, the aloofness in feeling when the action is most critical can only be seen as a failure on a fundamental storytelling level. At least we can look at the majestic trees and the falling snow all around when the dialogue fails to inspire us to take an active interest in this simple story of love on the run disguised as a martial arts epic.
©2004 Vince Leo