Neil Young’s Film Lounge – House of Flying Daggers

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

7/10

Shi mian mai fu : China (China-‘HK’) 2004 : ZHANG YiMou : 119 mins

There’s no actual “house” in House of Flying Daggers, but flying daggers abound. Not to mention flying arrows, spears, darts, bamboo… In fact, any throwable implement soon finds itself projected through the air at a rapid rate in this wildly enjoyable and spectacular martial-arts romance from a director who enjoyed enormous success with his last picture, Hero. Director Zhang may have reaped great financial benefits from Hero‘s success, but the film attracted no shortage of flak from observers who detected dodgy modern-day parallels in his tale of period political intrigue: the oft-repeated “all under heaven” mantra was widely interpreted as a not-so-subtle endorsement of the current Chinese government’s policies towards breakaway areas such as Tibet.

Flying Daggers sends out rather more mixed messages: the film dramatises the struggle faced by individuals who feel torn between duty and liberty – a struggle which Zhang himself has clearly yet to reconcile. The government (of 859 AD) is repeatedly referred to as corrupt and unworthy of office, and the main underground opposition movement – the ‘House of Flying Daggers’ – is presented as principled and glamorous. But despite a relatively tiny number of major roles, there are sympathetic and unsympathetic representatives of each side – and loyalties are constantly shifting as cross gives way to double-cross, and multiple games of deception are played out.

As with Hero, it’s crucial that audiences don’t know too much about these convolutions beforehand – suffice it to say that we begin with two policemen, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, the mute from Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels, etc) and his superior Leo (Andy Lau, from Infernal Affairs, etc). They are given ten days to track down and eliminate the mysterious new leader of the House of Flying Daggers, and receive a tip-off that a certain show-girl at the Peony Pavilion brothel run by Madam Yee (Song DanDan) is a Flying Daggers operative. Jin visits the Pavilion in mufti and demands to meet blind dancer Mei (Ziyi Zhang). Jin forces his attentions on the demure Mei and after a scuffle both are arrested by Leo. Mei is freed from prison by a masked insurgent – their pair escape, and Mei’s liberator reveals himself as Jin. The couple flee into the countryside, pursued by Leo. Needless to say, however, nobody is quite what they seem…

The title of House of Flying Daggers is clearly – perhaps too clearly – calculated to lure in English-speaking fans of cheesy ‘chopsocky’ epics – fans of whom Quentin Tarantino (who “presented” Hero to US and European audiences) is perhaps the most famous personification. The original Mandarin translates as “Ambushes from Ten Sides,” – according to Variety magazine, the name of “a classic pipa virtuoso solo, which describes a battle between two ancient warlords”.

While undeniably virtuouso in certain aspects of its execution, the film itself is no solo effort – this House is the construct of many diverse hands. Zhang handles directing duties on his own, but shares story and screenplay credit with Li Feng and Wang Bin. Crucial technical roles are filled by Zhao Xiaoding (cinematography), Cheng Long (editing), Shigeru Umebayashi (music), Huo Tingxiao (production design), Han Zhong (art direction), Emi Wada (costumes), Tony Ching Siu-tung (action director) and Li Cai (martial arts co-ordinator). It all adds up to a sumptuous, often opulent package – even the subtitles look flawless and expensive.

In a couple of areas, House of Flying Daggers falls a little short of its predecessor Hero – though it often looks very good, no-one is going to accuse this picture of being “the most beautiful ever made”, and Zhao’s cinematography isn’t really in the same league as Christopher Doyle’s. In other areas, however, Flying Daggers hits the mark with a surer aim: the story is rather less nightmarishly tricky to keep straight (especially as western audiences are getting the full two-hour version, whereas we had to decipher a radically chopped-down Hero which often risked elliptical opacity). Zhang and his fellow scriptwriters, meanwhile, foreground the romantic elements of the story – even more so than Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the wuxia (swordplay & chivalry) crossover which kicked open the door through which Zhang has so confidently bounded.

Crouching Tiger also served to introduce many audiences to a youthful Ziyi Zhang (the actress has recently adopted western name-order, with surname last), who managed to upstage her older co-stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh in a performance which many reckoned deserved Oscar recognition. Though confined to a relatively peripheral role in Hero, she’s front and centre this time and has developed into a woman of impressive abilities and gifts – luminously beautiful, she gets to show off her skills in dance, martial-arts and acting as the convincingly blind Mei.

The talents of actress Zhang (no relation to director Zhang) are crucial to the success of House of Flying Daggers, as her character is the apex of a love-triangle that takes on increasingly epic dimensions as the story sweeps to its tragic conclusion on a snowy meadow – filmed, for reasons which aren’t exactly clear, in Ukraine. The three main protagonists have the action to themselves – quite a relief after two hours in which our heroes and heroine have, time and again, found themselves surrounded by countless armed opponents.

The structure of these ‘peril’ set-pieces is virtually identical: one or two valiant fighters are cornered and surrounded; as their enemies move in for the kill, they are picked off by reinforcements who turn up at the very last second (it’s an identical format to that deployed by Peter Jackson throughout the Lord of the Rings movies). Likewise, while Jin and Mei are relentlessly accurate shots, their cannon-fodder opponents have consistently lousy aim.

But this kind of thing goes with the territory – and House of Flying Daggers is emphatically striving to be mainstream, crowdpleasing, fantastical entertainment. Zhang’s style is somewhat old-fashioned – he’s rather too fond of slow motion – but he does achieve a handful of genuinely ecstatic moments along the way, though it’s a shame he saw fit to include harrowing footage of horses stumbling painfully to the ground. We also get numerous examples of the classic “waiting warriors” syndrome, in which a single individual is able to take on a dozen foes because only one of said foes moves in to attack at any one time – his pals hang back for no good reason other than to ensure the individual under attack is able to live on to the next scene: always outnumbered, never outgunned, as they say on the terraces.

2nd November, 2004
[seen 28th October 2004 : Odeon West End, London : press show – London Film Festival]

by Neil Young