Sunday, January 30, 2005

House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers
Directed by Yimou Zhang
2004, rated PG-13
5 stars
Mandarin Chinese with English Subtitles

China is a country of beauty—beautiful landscapes, beautiful culture, and beautiful people. With this in mind, Chinese films that have done well in the US focus on these aspects to create films that are more artistic than plot driven. Such was the case with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, where people flew majestically through the air, and alighted atop the delicate branches of a vibrant green bamboo forest. Such entrancing colors were also used in Yimou Zhang’s Hero, where each layer of meaning took on a different hue. In House of Flying Daggers, Yimou Zhang has created another stunning visual masterpiece to captivate any audience.

As with both Crouching Tiger, and Hero, House of Flying Daggers takes place in China’s distant past, where swords, arrows, and martial arts are still the main tools of combat, and where political tensions smolder. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) are both captains of the police, serving under the current ruler of China. Their main task is to destroy the government’s most formidable foe, a band of dangerous assassins tired of the blatant government corruption who call themselves the Flying Daggers. In their scheme to uncover the group’s new leader, the young, handsome, ladies’ man Jin rescues and attempts to seduce the beautiful, blind Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a suspected member of the group. Jin, however, not only succeeds in his amorous attempts, but also falls in love himself, and finds himself in conflict with another who has fallen in love with the mysterious Mei.

Though this may seem like the typical love triangle, and in some ways it is, it provides new twists to the archetypal tale. Yimou Zhang tries hard to make the story center solely around the characters, and the powerful emotions each is struggling with. As such, the film makes no judgments on which side is bad and which is good. The film remains completely neutral, refraining from creating bias either politically, or in respect to Mei’s two lovers, who find themselves in fierce competition over the affections of Mei. This ambiguous nature allows the audience to focus completely on the beautiful simplicity of the story line, while inwardly marveling at the difficult intricacy of human emotions. Even in the end, after all the utterly surprising twists and turns, it is still hard to take sides.

The splendor of the scenery, of course, mirrors the beauty of the story. Such is Yimou Zhang’s extraordinary talent and marvelously artistic eye, that each scene is more poetically stunning than the last. There is not a single unattractive shot in the entire film. Though not as solidly colored as Hero, House of Flying Daggers still erupts with moments of breathtaking color. The spectacular scenery is complimented directly by the colorful nature of the costumes, elaborate creations of embroidered silk, which can serve far more deadly purposes than simple elegance (in one scene, Mei uses her incredibly extended sleeves as graceful weapons).

And of course, where would such a film be without the fascinatingly complex choreography of the fight sequences? Unlike Crouching Tiger, or Hero, no one supernaturally flies in this film. Although the mysterious “flying technique” is mentioned, it is never obviously used. In fact, the only objects that fly are the daggers of the title. Without this aerial scope of combat, the fight sequences are much tighter, more realistic, and in some ways more improvisational. Since everything has already been done in the air, Zhang has expanded on what may be accomplished from the ground.

House of Flying Daggers is one of the most astoundingly artistic films of the year. The glorious magnificence displayed in every scene alone is reason enough to see this film. Added to this is the excellent plot and story line, and actors with beautiful faces and incredible fighting skills. Don’t be scared off by the subtitles either—the brilliance of the story makes for easy reading. The closest you could get to this exquisiteness is actually going to China—but Flying Daggers is the next best thing, and a little less expensive.