House of Flying Daggers

December, 2004, Thriller

Directed by:Zhang Yimou

Starring:Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Ziyi, and Andy Lau

House Of Flying Daggers

Hero, the critically acclaimed Chinese action epic, finally made its way to our shores this year, becoming a critical and box office success under the patronage of Quinten Tarantino. It's director, Yimou Zhang, (who established his reputation with Red Sorghum in 1987) was said to have taken the Hero directorial assignment due to the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  But despite a story based on a classic episode in Chinese history, Hero didn't begin to match the director's work in Raise The Red Lantern or any number of his other earlier films. Nonetheless, he's stayed in the same genre here, with amazing results; Daggers is a poster child for the first word in the couplet "motion picture"; it delivers a succession of brilliantly conceived and deftly executed action sequences with such visual beauty and breathtaking composition you need a chin strap to keep your jaw from dropping  into your lap. Daggers is simply the most visually exciting movie of recent memory.

As is true of all films in the Asian kung-fu genre, the storyline merely functions as device for the meticulously displayed pandemonium of its often loosely connected sequences. A secret society calling itself Flying Daggers has sworn to eliminate an evil king who has killed their leader. His blind daughter is said to possess remarkable marital arts skills that threaten the dynasty's continued reign so seriously an elaborate ruse is established to lure the elusive members of the this murderously clandestine rebel group into the open so they can be captured or killed. Spies and counterspies swirl around Mei, (Ziyi Zhang) whose flight from the authorities may be straightforward or possibly an elaborate trick designed to uncover the identity of The Daggers' new leader. Since she's perused by a pair of handsome officers in the king's employ, Mei must struggle to ascertain which one of them is true to her and which is true to the emperor, her sworn enemy. Will Mei's real identity be exposed before she can complete her assignment? Can her handsome pursuers remain true to their sworn allegiance to the emperor or will they yield to Mei's charms? 

Does it really matter? Not at all; the plot merely sets up a series of lavishly choreographed scenes so ingeniously devised and executed that the characters disappear into stereotype, all the better to focus the audience's attention on the stunning display of acrobatic skill and technical wizardry the director, cinematographer and set designer exhibit--not to mention the exquisite costuming, animal stunts, and breathtakingly photographed Chinese countryside. As Mei, Ms. Zhang, (first seen by American audiences as the feline assassin in "Crouching Tiger") once again displays a fiercely aggressive personality framed by delicate beauty, sensuously interpreting a traditional dance in a brothel one moment and hacking a quartet of mounted horsemen to pieces the next. Her cherubic face encases a pair of eyes men could drown themselves in, and her lithe frame remains stunning whether she's elaborately dressed as a courtesan or disguised as a foot soldier. (She can probably act too, but male members of the audience of least may find that of little interest.)

With rare exception, Hollywood blockbusters don't employ historical plots, and when they do, audiences shun them, Troy and Alexander being this year's examples.  What aspect of American culture causes us to prefer our high-budget efforts to be loaded with elaborate mechanics, (think the James Bond, Terminator and Die Hard series for example) rather than reliant on distinctly human capacities? Does our passion for gadgetry and the clever manipulation of our machinery reflect the degree to which we've become couch potatoes? There was a good bit of laughter during my screening of Daggers at many its more outlandish stunts; but are swordsmen leaping high in the branches of tall bamboo trees or hurling impossibly spinning knives with surgical precision any more preposterous than seeing Bruce Willis tie himself to a fire hose and leap safely off a skyscraper or watch Sean Connery turn a can of hairspray and a cigarette lighter into a blowtorch? Today's movie audiences seem prepared to invest machinery with exaggerated powers they obviously do not have while being reluctant to accord that same suspension of disbelief to the stunts of mere humans.    

Due to typically god-awful subtitling, the love triangle which dominates the final third of the film plays out too slowly for Western audiences that unable to appreciate the nuances of the dialogue. By then it really doesn't matter; Zhang's sheer exuberance behind the camera produces its own justification for what goes on in front of it, making this astounding example of fluid motion, richly imagined imagery and spellbinding stunt work a classic in the genre. If you liked Crouching Tiger, you'll be thrilled with Daggers; if you didn't, then there's probably no hope for you as a true cinema-buff.    


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