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House of Flying Daggers /

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Andy Lau, Anita Mui, Dandan Song, Feng Lu

Directed by: Zhang Yimou

Produced by: Zhang Yimou, Bill Kong
Written by: Feng Li, Bin Wang, Zhang Yimou
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics



     With this year’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Chinese director Zhang Yimou has proven himself to be one of the great working action directors. Filling his frames with aesthetically beautiful landscapes and positioning perfectly choreographed fights in their foregrounds, Zhang’s passion for imagery is obvious. The awe-striking visuals in his films—particularly those in House of Flying Daggers—instantly immerse the viewer and enhance their senses. If the scene takes place in a sprawling field on a beautiful day, the luminescence of the sun seeps out of the screen and the sweet fragrance of the surrounding flowers penetrates the noses of audience members. If, instead, the characters are occupying a snowy locale in a time of desperation, the bleakness of the moment is psychologically daunting and the atmosphere of the theatre transforms from butter-flavored air-conditioning to a crisp and biting wind.

     Even without a character saying a word or the musical score of the film sounding, Zhang is able to capture the viewer and transfix them with his enlightening vision. House of Flying Daggers opens in Han-ruled China in 859 A.D., in the Peony Pavilion, a brothel, where the supposed blind daughter of the assassinated leader of a rebel group, which the film was named after, works. Her name is Mei and she is played by the wonderful Zhang Ziyi. She dances for officer named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and his co-worker, Leo (Andy Lau). Both of these sequences are downright beautiful, especially the latter, in which she performs the marvelous Echo Dance. The officers are at the Peony Pavilion to capture her, as the members of The House of Flying Daggers are wanted by the Chinese government. However, after she is taken prisoner and threatened with torture, Jin decides to help her escape, and forms a partnership with her. They head for refuge with The House of Flying Daggers. However, what Mei does not know is that Jin is still working as an officer, and their escape is all part of an elaborate plan to crack down on her and her father’s former group.

     The plot description that I have just provided actually turns out to be entirely untrue, by the end of the film. There are many plot-twists in House of Flying Daggers, each one more shocking than the next. However, these are not revealed in a way that is reflective of cheap thrills, but, rather, in one that builds a strong emotional resonance. As the plot progresses, Mei and Jin develop a love that each questions, but never breaks. With every twist, the audience is forced to think of their relationship in a new light, as the real situation of the plot changes, to an extremity. For these twists to function effectively, their being surprises is crucial. To prevent viewers from predicting the outcomes of the plans of both the Chinese empire and The House of Flying Daggers, Zhang simply enraptures them action sequences that are both thought-provoking and mystifying. In these, deep symbolism and, of course, scrumptious eye-candy are discovered. Not one sane viewer will be concentrating on the film’s broad plotline when watching them; they will be far too involved in the material of the moment to do so.

     House of Flying Daggers is melodramatic, but not in a bad way. When moviegoers discuss American cinema, this trait usually has a negative connotation, but only because of flawed technique. In exaggerating many situations, the material of this film becomes much more triumphant than it would’ve been, had Zhang taken a more realistic approach in its execution. If viewed out of context, the final fight in the film, which takes place during a freezing, redeeming, seasonal snow, could seem silly and clichéd. However, as a conclusion to House of Flying Daggers, succeeding the rest of the scenes film, it serves as a heartbreaking finish, where much is learned about the three central characters. Even with an abundance of action, this picture’s human side is its most prominent. As daggers fly, swords bend, and fists clench, poignancy is still omnipresent in its content. How often does a film of such nature come along? Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the moon has looked a little bluish lately.

     I could talk about the metaphors in the film which commentate on relationships, government, and warfare, but I think it would be a pointless endeavor. The point of House of Flying Daggers is not to dissect it, but to be affected by it. Outside of action, Zhang is a minimalist. He uses simple lines of dialogue which provoke an abundance of thought, as well as many quick plot-twists which change the story in colossal ways. When combined and merged with the gorgeous sites captured by his camera, these elements fuse and ignite in a profound reaction. With House of Flying Daggers, Zhang has birthed a classic film for the ages and certainly one of the best movies of the year. For a director that virtually no American moviegoer had heard of until earlier this year, he sure is quite the master worker.

-Danny, Bucket Reviews (12.24.2004)

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