December 17, 2004

House of Flying Daggers

Directed by Zhang Yimou Starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has inspired artistic responses from a few critically acclaimed but commercially underperforming Asian directors, targeting the historical and exotic martial arts genre. Tsai Ming-liang has abstracted the wuxia pian with the uncompromising and haunting Goodbye, Dragon Inn, while directors like Zhang Yimou and Takeshi Kitano have disarmed their auteurist instincts to create popcorn crunchers like Hero and The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi. Zhang now rides that momentum with yet another wuxia extravaganza, House of Flying Daggers.

In 859 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty, governmental guards are struggling to seize an eponymous clan of blade-throwing guerrillas. Aiming to locate the reclusive group, police captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro of Chungking Express) goes undercover and rescues its blind yet lethal member Mei (Zhang Ziyi) after a staged scuffle. The eventual star-crossed lovers then charge into the wilderness while Jin’s colleague Leo (Andy Lau) secretly follows.

As with Hero, filmmaker Zhang has here abandoned the realist social/chamber drama that earned critical attention for him and other Chinese Fifth Generation directors. Instead, he sharpens the film’s artistic edge with generic slow motion, bullet time CGI and colour coordination. The only trademarks of his that remain intact are the heightened eroticism and the affectionately adoring close-ups of his muse – Hero and The Road Home star Zhang, once again substituting for Gong Li.

In spite of a richly historical backdrop, clever twists worthy of Infernal Affairs and melodramatic potential analogous to Crouching Tiger, the two-dimensional Flying Daggers is about as substantive as the typical Jackie Chan/Jet Li vehicle. Unlike Hero or Warriors of Heaven and Earth, the film has slashed off a socio-political context. But save from an ingenious bamboo forest battle and the climactic pas-de-trois fencing match, the film’s action quotient isn’t up to current Hong Kong industry standards. Perhaps due to the Cultural Revolution, the director isn’t really invested in the wuxia genre and seems oblivious to its innovations during the past two decades by filmmakers like Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung.

Thankfully, director Zhang is able to orchestrate a heartbreaking finale after the gymnastic and stylistic exercises. Although Kaneshiro and Lau aren’t exactly popular for their acting chops, they’ve nailed the parts and mastered the dialects (apparently an issue for which the Chinese audience had taken the cast of Crouching Tiger to task). Their harrowing emotional showdown is far more memorable than their swordfight.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.