HOUSE OF QUENTIN, HOUSE OF DAGGERS (‘Hero’ / ‘House of Flying Daggers’ article for Impact magazine)

Of all the films to top the US box-office in recent years perhaps the most startling background story belongs to Zhang Yimou's Hero, champ for a fortnight from the end of August. Hero's success was yet another reminder that its distributor Miramax – the "mini-major" studio owned and run by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein – is perhaps the savviest and most enterprising operation in any branch of showbiz. It's hard to imagine any other company reaping similar rewards from a subtitled period-piece which seemed to have been gathering dust on the distribution 'shelf' for over a year – Hero was shown in Shenzen, China in October 2002, and lost out to Germany's Nowhere In Africa when shortlisted for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar at the Academy Awards five months later.

Hero's belated box-office triumph also confirmed that Miramax is, as Harvey Weinstein often puts it, 'the house that Quentin built' – Quentin being Mr Tarantino, whose Pulp Fiction propelled Weinstein's company to fame a decade ago. Although he had no involvement in Hero's production, Tarantino was crucial to the film's global success: "Quentin Tarantino presents Hero" proclaimed the marketing materials, the word "presents" in this context being Hollywoodspeak for "doesn't mind his name being used to promote". In addition, eyepopping trailers for Hero were attached to both sections of Tarantino's delirious ode to his beloved martial-arts influences, Kill Bill. These also reminded audiences that Hero starred Jet Li – one of the very few 'foreign' stars with a proven recent track-record in America's multiplexes.

By the time Hero finally made it into such popcorn-palaces, Zhang Yimou's followup had already made a major splash in the more rarefied arena of the world's film-festivals. twisty tale of love, deceit and political intrigue in 9th-century China, House of Flying Daggers – as previously reviewed in these pages – stars tireless Hong Kong legend Andy Lau, mainland beauty Ziyi Zhang (who's adopted the western-style 'surname-last' form of naming since her breakthrough in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Takeshi Kaneshiro, the Japanese-Taiwanese hunk still best known for his mid-90s collaborations with Wong Kar-Wai on Chung King Express and Fallen Angels.

This combination of director and actors proved predictably catnip to Chinese audiences – the picture edged out Return of the King to become 2004's highest-grossing movie with 153 million Yuan ($18.5m or  £10m approx). Advance press screenings in the US attracted mostly ecstatic praise: "It's as thrilling and lushly beautiful a movie as has been released all year, matched only by Zhang's epic Hero. And I think this film is the more powerful", raved the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington. Across the street at the Chicago Sun-Times, influential Roger Ebert was no less impressed: "combines excitement, romance and astonishing physical beauty. To Pauline Kael's formula of 'kiss kiss bang bang' we can now add 'pretty pretty'".

Although not everyone was entirely convinced ("though the picture is full of ecstatic, swirling motion, it is not especially moving" – A O Scott, New York Times), there was clearly going to be no problem filling posters and trailers with positive critical quotes: "Great, fantastical fun." (David Sterrit, Christian Science Monitor), "Zhang weaves in both thrilling martial-arts set-pieces and stunning studies of period silk tapestry and costume" (J R Jones, Chicago Reader), "This is the most intoxicatingly beautiful martial arts picture I've ever seen" (David Edelstein, Slate), "The most gorgeous movie of the year – this smashing martial-arts romance… is stunning in other ways too, like the eroticism that ripples just beneath the surface" (Jami Bernard, New York Daily News), "Forget Hero – that cult hit was just Zhang's warm-up for this martial-arts fireball" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone).

Hero wasn't exactly just a "cult hit", however – unless the definition of "cult hit" now encompasses a fortnight stint atop the box-office pile. Wowing the critics was one thing – translating Flying Daggers' financial success to the international arena was another matter. Lau, Kaneshiro, (Ziyi) Zhang and Zhang (Yimou) may all be known to American and European aficionados of far-eastern cinema, but none are exactly "marquee" names with the pulling-power of a Jet Li. Hero came out in the dog days of late summer – Flying Daggers would have to jostle for room with other awards-season candidates also appearing in early December. And there would be no Tarantino leg-up this time: rights for Flying Daggers had been secured not by Miramax, but by Sony Pictures Classics.

Sony did have plenty of "form" themselves, of course, having handled Crouching Tiger to its record-breaking US box-office tally and its Academy Awards success. And Ang Lee's picture had followed the established "platform" release-strategy traditionally employed for foreign-language titles in the USA: New York and Los Angeles first, slowly expanding into other major cities as word-of-mouth builds, then finally arriving on the multiplex circuit. With Hero, Miramax had blazed an opposite trail – immediately going "ultra-wide" and appearing on more screens than Crouching Tiger had ever reached, even at the height of its exposure.

Initially, Flying Daggers posted rousing numbers. According to top box-office analyst Gitesh Pandya (www.boxofficeguru.com), "The film started out of the gate with a bang. However subsequent weeks have seen the film lose steam.  It hasn't remained a strong contender upon expansion into newer markets.  Since it is only playing in limited markets, it will not reach the levels of films like Hero or Crouching Tiger. Flying Daggers got very good reviews and acclaim from end-of-year lists. But it really is super-competitive right now with all the Oscar hopefuls so it's difficult to stand out.  I presume they will still add some screens after the new year, but it's not certain how wide they will be able to go."

Flying Daggers may yet see an upswing in its US fortunes – the film obtained a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film, and must surely be among the main contenders for the Oscar in the same category (especially as two of its four Globe rivals, A Very Long Engagement and The Motorcycle Diaries, aren't eligible for that specific Academy Award). But it seems likely that, rather than heralding a new dawn of multiplexes heaving with foreign-language hits, Hero was the beneficiary of freakish circumstances that will probably never recur – though only a fool would bet against the Weinsteins rewriting the rule-book in some other gloriously unexpected and successful way in the very near future…

Neil Young
31st December, 2004

article written for Impact magazine and reproduced with permission