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Saturday, April 8, 2017

21st Century Essentials: House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Ziyi
Country: China/Hong Kong

Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is the kind of cinematic feast that Hollywood used to churn out with semi-regularity but seems to have become disinterested in of late. Fortunately for viewers there are filmmakers working outside of Hollywood, like Zhang, who are there to pick up the slack and are still interested in making films with sumptuous production elements, epic narratives full of grand adventure, and with just a bit of romance. On a purely superficial level, House of Flying Daggers is a bold, visual masterpiece that truly goes for broke in its costumes, production design, and its cinematography. On a deeper narrative level, it’s a film that perfectly balances character work with ambitious action setpieces. An instant classic of its kind on its release in 2004, it remains one of the most beguiling and engaging films of the century so far.

The action is set in 859, when the government comes into conflict with a rebel group that calls itself the Flying Daggers. Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, the Daggers have gained the support of the common people and two police officers, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are given the task of finding and killing the group’s leader. In an effort to accomplish that goal Leo and Jin come up with an elaborate scheme for Leo to arrest Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind woman rumored to be the daughter of the Flying Daggers’ leader, and for Jin to “rescue” her from custody and pose as a rebel sympathizer who offers to help her get to the Flying Daggers’ headquarters. Things become complicated after Jin and Mei go on the run together and the military decides to join the pursuit, unaware that Jin is an undercover agent and believing that he actually is a rebel, attacking him for real. As they fight for their lives, Jin and Mei fall in love, but he soon learns that he’s not the only man with a claim to Mei’s affections and that he isn’t the only one who has been pretending to be someone that he isn’t.

Aesthetically speaking, House of Flying Daggers is a rich, colorful, and exquisitely put together film that seizes the viewer’s attention with its magnificent and very memorable action sequences. The most memorable is the Echo Game, which is sort of like the game Simon but with drums, beans and dancing, played here by Mei and Leo in a sequence that is visually dynamic and incredibly entertaining, depicting the two engaging in a game of mental chicken with each appreciating the acuity of the other while trying to gain the upper hand – until finally Mei exposes her supposedly true identity by attacking Leo and transforming the game into a battle. Second only to that sequence is a fight sequence that takes place in a bamboo forest with people flying in and out of the trees and Jin and Mei ending up boxed in by bamboo spears thrown into their path. The action that House of Flying Daggers depicts delivers so thoroughly that it doesn’t even matter that the climactic battle between the military and the rebels that the film has been building to doesn’t even make it onto the screen, its commencement suggested just before the film turns away and redirects its focus to the main characters.

But the beauty of House of Flying Daggers is more than skin deep; despite how convoluted the story may seem as a result of the many false identities employed and the turn arounds that result from the revelation of someone's real identity, the narrative is actually sort of simple. It’s built around a love triangle between a man and a woman who start out on the same side and a second man who is thrown by the first man into the orbit of the woman. The beats that the love triangle follows are not exactly original, but one of the very refreshing things about the film is that it manages to be, at heart, the story of two men fighting over a woman without robbing the woman of her agency or reducing her to the role of "prize." Mei is a very active character, fighting and scheming and engaging in deception right alongside the male characters, and the film contains a scene in which one of the male characters attempts to alleviate the rejection he feels by trying to punish Mei sexually, only to end up being punished himself for the attempt and being explicitly called out for what his actions. Given how often male characters in film are allowed to behave abusively to female characters without the films even seeming to be aware that the behavior is objectionable, it feels almost revolutionary for the film to directly address what he's done and stand up for the bodily autonomy of its female lead. While there are certainly things about Mei's characterization which place her firmly within the realm of the classic tragic heroine, she's well-drawn and allowed to be complex enough that she's never merely a trope. The film's keen attention to developing its central characters is what makes it such an enduring film because it's not just the fantastic martial arts sequences that you remember and enjoy in isolation, it's the characters and their story, too. Zhang is one of the great directors working today and House of Flying Daggers makes a great case for itself as his masterpiece.


Dell said...

I'm so on board with you. This is a fantastic movie, but underseen, at least in the states. I think the reason for that is it came after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and people assumed it was just a clone of that based on the trailers. They missed out. Great review.

Norma Desmond said...

That's a good point about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.