House of Flying Daggers
(aka, Shi mian mai fu)
(in Mandarin, with English subtitles)
Directed by Yimou Zhang
Yimou Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers is so drop-dead gorgeous visually that I could love it even if I hadn’t been taken by the story of a doomed love triangle. Set in China in about the 9th century A.D., the Flying Daggers are a rebel group that the powers that be want to wipe out. Two police captains decide that a local brothel may be hiding a prominent member of the Daggers, so they decide to launch an undercover operation. The undercover captain, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), gains – or attempts to gain – the confidence of the Dagger member – who happens to be blind -- Mei (the stunningly beautiful Zhang Ziyi), by helping her escape after she is arrested.
Jin and Mei go on the lam – traveling on foot and horseback through lovely countryside in full fall colors. The other captain, Leo (Andy Lau), stays with the police but keeps in touch surreptitiously with Jin. The viewer can tell early on – even though it’s never stated explicitly – that both men have fallen for Mei. Leo warns Jin not to fall for her – he says for the integrity of the operation but the subtext is jealousy. The viewer knows that this situation cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of all three.
An early brothel scene has the blind Mei playing an “echo game”. She stands in the center of a couple dozen drums, arranged vertically. Then Leo (as the police captain, testing her) flicks a series of beans at the drums which she has to follow with a flick of her long, flowing gown. It’s a beautiful dance sequence, complete with percussion.
One of the visually stunning scenes ever put on film is the bamboo forest scene in House. The lovely deep green color of the bamboo is complemented by the green costumes of the Flying Dagger crew. The entire range motion of the players – vertical and horizontal – is shown, in contrast to how many action movies chop up each minute of film into a hundred or more shots in order to simulate action. The simulation here is sweeping and graceful, not choppy and hyper-kinetic. Not only is the scene a joy visually but they wisely resisted the temptation to add music – they inserted excellent foley work for the sounds of combat in the forest – exaggerated but very effective -- breaking bamboo branches, spears flying through the air.
Another gorgeous scene takes place in the middle of a field of tall grass and wild flowers. It occurred to me that a lot of money was probably saved on set decoration and production design by scouting out beautiful outdoor locations. There were relatively few interior shots in House -- for the most part, they just found beautiful places in the natural environment – which would look the same now as 1000 years ago so they didn’t have to worry about period authenticity – and shot some of the best looking film I’ve ever seen.
Quentin Tarantino (as you probably know if you read this site, one of my favorite directors) has obviously been influenced by the style of some of the Asian martial arts films. I hope other American action directors take that cue – action can be so pleasing to the eye. The fight scenes in House have more in common with dance choreography than the chopped up, MTV-style sequences common to mainstream American action movies. This is one of the best looking films I’ve ever seen -- it stylishly depicts a sad love story. House is so good looking that you need to see it properly: on a 35mm print in a real movie theater – even if you then decide that this classic beauty is a must for your DVD collection.
After seeing the film several times, I’d like to add that it not only holds up very well on repeat viewings but since the plot is so dense, the characters so complex, it was interesting to look back on the way that the characters were relating to each other, knowing about the layers of deception that exist. The film is quite atypical of martial arts films in that the characters are very sneaky in a subtle, clandestine way. Once is clearly not enough for House of Flying Daggers.
Photographs are copyright Sony Pictures Classics.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.