Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Zhang Yimou

Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of stylized martial arts violence, and some sexuality)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 12/3/04 (limited); 1/14/05 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Zhang Yimou's follow-up to Hero oddly feels more like a warm up. That idea serves better here in the United States, where both films were released within months of each other, whereas two years separated the releases in Zhang's native China. On that level, it's also difficult to separate the two films, and the desire to compare them is almost too strong to ignore.  House of Flying Daggers is in a similar but, at the same time, different spirit to his last film, with Zhang and fellow screenwriters Feng Li and Bin Wang dismissing the political intrigue of the material in the final act to concentrate on a love triangle. The imagery here is equally stunning to Hero, but Zhang and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao concentrate more on the beauty of the natural world than the ethereal quality of Hero's simplistically gorgeous color palette. Enough with the comparisons, though. House of Flying Daggers is a beautiful spectacle that stands on its own for breathtaking imagery and intense fighting sequences, but the film eventually stumbles in the final act, when the central conflict between lovers takes focus without enough development to satisfy emotionally.

During the Tang dynasty in China, the emperor is inept. A band of revolutionaries called the House of Flying Daggers is working to overthrow the government.  The old leader was assassinated by police forces, but deputies Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) believe that the leader's blind daughter is working in a brothel as a dancer. Jin goes undercover to the house of disrepute to investigate but is enamored with the girl named Mei (Zhang Ziyi). After a dance display, he takes things too far, and Leo arrives with other officers to test Mei with an echo game, involving beans, drums, and the tassels on her sleeves. Leo arrests the girls anyway, and Jin and Leo discuss how their plan to discover the location of the Flying Daggers can come to fruition. Jin disguises himself as a mercenary and breaks Mei out of prison. The two head through the forest, encountering officers under Leo's command who are in on the plan. Mei may or may not lead Jin to the hideout, and more problems arise when a military general learns of the escape and sends his own soldiers, unaware of the ruse, to capture the two fugitives.

One of the film's greatest assets is in the way Zhang subtly raises the stakes for his heroes. After enticing us with the opening echo game sequence, in which no danger lurks at all, Zhang sends in the guards to fight Jin and Mei, although, again, there's no real threat. This fight is all setup so we can see how Mei's handicap isn't one and what a great aim Jin is with his bow (seeing all the officers rising later and learning that only their clothes have been penetrated is a nice gag). Soon enough, though, the soldiers are out for blood, and Jin must actually fight his fellow officers to the death. Because Zhang and martial arts choreographer Siu-Tung Ching have set the risks so low up until this point, even the most insignificant bloodletting has a viscerally brutal effect, and Jin's quandary of conflicting duties—to his fellow officers and to Mei's knowledge of the rebel force—adds a layer of immediacy to the fights. From here, the fights increase in intensity, culminating in an ambush amidst bamboo trees (perhaps where the literal translation of the title "Ambush from Ten Sides" comes from) in which Jin and Mei must dodge deadly stakes of bamboo.

From their adventures, the dynamics of the relationship between Mei and Jin are detailed. There's an amusingly sweet scene in which Mei is bathing, while Jin walks away tapping his sword so she knows he is out of seeing distance. That situation doesn't last too long, and their growing flirtation lends itself to an antithesis to the strife between a corrupt-by-implication government and the insurgents looking to overthrow it that they each represent. Needless to say, things are not exactly as they seem, and only one person in the group is seen in a truthful light by the audience. The eventual revelation of each remaining players' genuine identities come late in the film, and the time allowed to adjust is considerably small. By this point, though, the real focal point of the story is revealed, and the political clash takes the back seat, with a group of soldiers approaching the rebel hideout as our only hint that something more significant is happening outside of the love triangle with which we are left. The climax should affect us more, but it plays as melodrama. If not for the picturesque backdrop of a snowy hill atop which the lovers fight, our involvement would most likely be nil.

Such iconic imagery does induce a sensation that what we are seeing is somehow more intricate than it appears, but still, the last act suffers from an unfortunate case of melodrama posing as drama. That cannot be said for the rest of House of Flying Daggers, which deftly balances the love story, action sequences, and political conflict of the material while accomplishing a sense of wonder for the natural world surrounding it all.

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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