HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

5 Stars
Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 119 minutes
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Those in search of viable sources of alternative energy should forget about pursuing solar power, wind power, electric cells, or other forms of non-oil fuel juice. For a pure source of raw, rich energy there is nothing better than Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers.”

Quite simply, “House of Flying Daggers” is a film that sets several new standards for production and entertainment values. It is a wild riot of color, music, passion, action, mystery, pure old-fashioned thrills and even dancing. With an endless supply of imagination and a kinetic force of nature in its amazing star Zhang Ziyi, “House of Flying Daggers” cuts all other films to shreds.

Set in 859 AD during the declining years of the Tang Dynasty, the film’s focus falls on two captains in a local police force: the stern and by-the-book Leo (Andy Lau) and the playful, girl-crazy Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Their precinct is being disrupted by the mysterious Flying Daggers, a mysterious band of rebels who delight in stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But unlike England’s Sheriff of Nottingham and his pursuit of a similar band of miscreant heroes, Leo and Jin have some idea how to infiltrate the Flying Daggers.

A new Peony Pavilion just opened. The concept of Peony Pavilion has no Western counterpart – it seems to be a weird mix of brothel and music hall, complete with full orchestra. Jin happily goes undercover to spy on Mei (Zhang Ziyi), the blind dancer who is the star attraction. Mei’s uncommonly athletic brand of dancing arouses suspicion, and her physical prowess raises eyebrows since the leader of the Flying Daggers coincidentally has a blind daughter. Things get complicated when Leo arrives to arrest Mei (Jin gets reprimanded for conduct unbecoming an officer, which includes trying to rape Mei on the dance floor!).

Leo and Jin hatch a scheme to determine if Mei is the daughter of the Flying Daggers leader. Jin disguises himself as a brigand and liberates Mei from jail. He hopes she will lead him to the Flying Daggers HQ and they travel on horseback through deep forests. Leo follows closely behind, sending some willing troops to attempt a capture but to intentionally fail in their pursuit. This charade works, until a local general decides to take over the operation. He sends new troops who are unaware that Jin is working undercover. The new troops have specific orders: kill Jin and Mei on sight.

By the half-way point, “House of Flying Daggers” suddenly drops a series of plot twists which are not very difficult to predict. Don’t worry about spoilers, because I will not disclose the rest of the story, but I can state the film spins its tale to a devastating finale in a snowstorm which will rank among the most dramatic climaxes ever conceived for a film.

The glory of “House of Flying Daggers” is rooted in Zhang Yimou’s embrace of the full spectrum of film technique. Rarely has a commercial film been so lavishly designed in its art direction, costume design, sound engineering and editing (the Echo Dance sequence, with a cascade of pebbles ricocheting across a circular pattern of drums, is a masterpiece of aural planning). The film also employs the dreaded CGI technology with a vivid style that enhances the scope of the action without clobbering it under the dead weight of excess technology (a problem which is too common nowadays in Hollywood FX epics).

Special mention is deserved for Shigeru Umebayashi’s music score. At long last, here is a composer who doesn’t drown the movie in music. Instead, the score offers a sensual flavoring of the action on the screen. Even the closing theme song performed in English by soprano Kathleen Battle (a seeming anachronism) compliments what has come before it.

But any great film needs a killer script to keep it centered and a marvelous cast to bring the tale to life. “House of Flying Daggers” has both in spades. The story is fast, funny and often deeply romantic. Several love scenes are shot in tight close-ups which recall the groundbreaking in-depth eroticism of George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun” – it is uncommon nowadays for faces and only faces to be used to convey such a wealth of emotions. And the martial arts sequences bring the genre to new heights with the complexity of choreography and the skill of Cheng Long’s extraordinary editing. The battle in a bamboo forest, which begins with a light shower of bamboo leaves and concludes with the most astonishing rescue I’ve ever seen, will be studied for years by those seeking greatness in filmmaking.

As for the cast, “House of Flying Daggers” should confirm that Zhang Ziyi is the currently world’s greatest actress. That’s hardly overkill in the praise department. Her beauty is without peer and the visceral nature of her physical performance here can take the air out of anyone’s lungs. Whether she is clobbering villains with bamboo clubs, performing a Tang Dynasty song-and-dance routine with unparalleled grace or standing in heartbroken solitude within an empty forest, it is impossible not to be captivated by her force of personality. It is easy to forget Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau when they are up against her on screen, but both men provide vigorous performances which take bold turns as the film progresses.

To say “House of Flying Daggers” is one of the year’s best films would be a slur against this production. It is one of the very best films I’ve seen in many years, and over time it will be judged to be among the finest to come out of China – or any country, for that matter!

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Posted on September 5, 2004 in Reviews by
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