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Friday Film Review: House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Genre: Romantic, Action/Adventure,Drama
Grade: B-

Our recent post with the luscious Asian mantitty reminded me that I’ve wanted to review this one for ages. Okay, prepare your brickbats now because this time I’m sure that a lot of you are going to disagree with my grade for this one. It’s beautiful, the costumes are lovely, the scenery is gorgeous but there’s just something missing here for me.

Mei (Ziyi Zhang) is an exotic, beautiful blind dancer, associated with a dangerous revolutionary gang known as The House of Flying Daggers. Ordered to find and kill the group’s leader, two officers, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Lao (Andy Lau), of the dying, decadent Tang Dynasty, hatch a plot to arrest Mei after which Jin will “help” her escape hoping she will then lead them to the gang. Mei finds herself both threatened by – and attracted – to the flirtatious Jin as they battle against the Tang soldiers. For his part, Jin begins to have feelings for this woman he must ultimately betray. But Mei isn’t the only one hiding her true self as a third person begins to figure into the equation. Their hearts and loyalties battle each other, amid warriors in the treetops and dazzling combat on the ground. But as Mei tells one of the men, if we meet again, one of us will die.

Almost every review or comment I’ve read about “House of Flying Daggers” mentions how beautiful it is. And it is. Great care and time were spent on making it that way. The costumes were researched and are supposed to be Tang period perfect – the styles as well as the colors as seen especially in the Peony Pavilion scenes. The two dresses worn by Zhang in the brothel are simply stunning. The Dagger personnel look like living bamboo canes in their green robes and handmade bamboo hats. The courtesans of the Peony Pavilion are brightly dressed and flirtatious. The soldiers look sharp and dangerous in their dark green uniforms.

Oh, and let’s not forget the outside stuff. A more menacing bamboo grove could not be found for the amazing acrobatic combat that takes place there. The birch forest is stunning in its autumn array of gold and orange leaves. The ultimately fortuitous snowfall provides a perfect place for the final fight which deviates from the usual balletic, martial arts grace and instead becomes a slugfest, mano-a-mano test of brute strength.

Not only are all these elements lovely to look at but the fight scenes are beautiful as well being carefully choreographed and filmed. Though it does seem to me that there’s less wire work in this than in CT,HD – or maybe it’s just not quite as obvious. Zhang dances in the classical Chinese “sleeve” style – though I’m sure it has a specific title that I haven’t looked into yet. The echo dance is more martial arts than classic style dancing and in the fight scene that follows, Mei is like Ginger Rogers dancing the same moves with Fred Astaire but in heels in that Mei has to do everything Lao does but she also has to do it with long sleeves. Soldiers seemingly race across tree tops and scamper up and down the bamboo. The horseback fight between four men and Mei looks to be as frightening as Zhang says it was to film. And both she and Lao throw their daggers like heat seeking boomerang missiles. I also love the horseback “flower picking” shots. I do love a man who brings me flowers.

But despite all this visual wealth, for most of the film I find myself feeling somewhat at a distance from these characters and their emotions. Perhaps this is my lack of knowledge of Chinese culture. Maybe it’s that I find it hard to warm up to Ziyi Zhang. I did find that a second viewing helped me pick up on subtle details and really made a difference in how I felt about (the superb) Andy Lau’s performance. Still, when all is said and done and I’ve drooled over Kaneshiro a bit more (Here, Takeshi, let me help you take that jacket off for the love scene), I don’t find this film as emotionally engaging as other Chinese films I’ve seen and added to my movie collection. There is, however, a lot to be said for the yummy eye candy factor of the actors.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

33 Comments

  1. Maili
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 04:57:47

    Sometimes I feel I’m the only person in the universe who wasn’t keen on this film. I found it cold, stilted and rather dull. I mean, I even – half way through the film at cinema – slept with my eyes open. Very pretty, though.

  2. SHZ
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 05:28:18

    I find it bizarre that some of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Ukraine instead of China… That’s about all I remember about the movie, apart from the fact it was gorgeous!

  3. Anachronist
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 05:30:25

    But despite all this visual wealth, for most of the film I find myself feeling somewhat at a distance from these characters and their emotions. Perhaps this is my lack of knowledge of Chinese culture.

    I completely agree with your assessment. I watched this movie some years ago and couldn’t help thinking that even during the love scene the actors moved and acted as if they were just puppets, not normal, living people. Of course the settings and dresses were gorgeous but they once again reminded me more of a theater than a story about people and their conflicting emotions.

  4. SHZ
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 05:53:02

    Oh, I should mention that the birch forest you mentioned was one of the scenes in Ukraine!

  5. Jayne
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 05:58:07

    @SHZ: I discovered this when listening to the commentary with Zhang (director) and Zhang (actress). He said Ukraine was selected because it was cheaper! I kept thinking – it’s beautiful but was there no other place (even if it’s not a birch forest) in China he could have used instead?

  6. MarieC
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 07:04:25

    I loved this film; the colors,Takeshi Kaneshiro, the love triangle, Takeshi Kaneshiro, the fight in the snow, Takeshi Kaneshiro, the choreography, Takeshi Kaneshiro.

    This one, after seeing ‘Hero’ with Jet Li, made me want to watch more.

  7. Jeannie Lin
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 07:24:45

    I think this movie had a lot of gratuitous cinematography. I liked some elements of the story with Takeshi & Zheng Ziyi reluctantly falling for each other, but overall there were just too many loose ends. I think I might have laughed out loud in the final battle scene when Mei suddenly stands up because it was so over the top. The final standoff/showdown was nice though.

    And I must say, Takeshi Kaneshiro was undoubtedly eye-catching, but can we have a shout out for Andy Lau? I’ve been a fan of his since the 80s and damn, does he age well. :)

  8. Jayne
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 07:48:50

    @Jeannie Lin: Absolutely Andy Lau! I loved “Infernal Affairs” – but then I also love Tony Leung Chiu Wai so that was a given. “Needing You” was cute too

  9. Megan
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 08:28:17

    Oh, this is likely my favorite film–and Zhang Yimou is my favorite director–and I just love it so much. That said, I can understand feeling distant from the characters, and all that, but something just speaks to me in it. I read that the last scene in the snow was a total surprise, because snow wasn’t forecast, but they decided to just go for it and film the scene in the snow, which I think totally works (and does take the drama over the top to melodrama–even tho I still love it). Thanks for the review.

  10. Angela
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 09:14:05

    I think I’m going to stop at the video store and grab this and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to watch this weekend. You’ve made me really want to watch them – and I haven’t seen either.

  11. Isobel Carr
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 09:28:59

    All I really remember from the first time I saw this was spending the whole film thinking that Jin looked distractingly Japanese then getting to the credits and seeing the name Takeshi Kaneshiro (he’s half Chinese, half Japanese). I could watch him for hours though. And I’m just not a fan of the strange story within a story thing they do with the bandit romance. It’s sort of like the endless time in the tent in Harry Potter. Needed to be waaaaaaaay shorter.

  12. Isobel Carr
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 09:29:31

    Or is the bandit romance thing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Now I can’t remember. ARGH!

  13. Jayne
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 09:45:06

    @Isobel Carr: I think the bandid romance you’re thinking of is in Crouching Tiger. Ziyi Zhang is the love interest there who goes after the bandid who stole her hair combs. And I agree…it went on too long and I ended up feeling sorry for the bandid she abandons.

  14. redheadedgirl
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 10:10:03

    The story does kind of fall apart in the end- are we worried about the government attack on the House of Flying Daggers? Nope, we are only concerned with how the three leads are going to kill each other off.

    But it is SO PRETTY. And I adore good fight choreography.

  15. Jeannie Lin
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 10:27:16

    @Megan – I didn’t know about the snow. That’s pretty cool

  16. Darlynne
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 10:32:53

    I agree with all the things wrong with this film and I don’t care. So much didn’t make sense, too many scenes went on for too long and I still don’t care. If certain still frames from the film were hung in a gallery, I would line up to walk through and marvel at the beauty before me. The forest, the snow, the bamboo? Takeshi Kaneshiro? The costumes? I realize we expect films to do more than look good, but in this case, nothing can diminish my enjoyment of or love for this movie.

  17. P. Kirby
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 10:39:30

    Well, the only thing I remember about this film was that it was pretty. Pretty men; pretty women. I didn’t hate it. I recall being entertained, but for the life of me, until I read your review, I couldn’t tell you what it was about. All I remembered was gorgeous imagery and a lot of wire fu. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth watching if you enjoy this kind of quasi-historical, Asian action flick. (I do.)

  18. Sherry Thomas
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 12:53:33

    I really love this movie for the eye candy factor (both the performers and the cinematography.)

    Where I feel the movie came up short is its scope. For some reason, with all the prologue about trouble brewing and a powerful organization that wants to contest the emperor’s rule, I was expecting a story that would start as one man and one woman on the run and end on a grander scale, with more characters, a battle of thousands, etc. That transition never quite happened.

    It is probably the strangest criticism I’ll ever level at anything, given how much I like a tightly focused love story, but this movie felt slightly claustrophobic at the end.

  19. Brussel Sprout
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 12:53:44

    I loved this movie, and I love it more every time I see it. I show it to students every 2-3 years, so I’ve seen it now once in the cinema and three more times.

    First of all, I didn’t find it particularly slow, not compared to some other Chinese movies I’ve seen (Red Sorghum and Ju Dou and Farewell to my concubine leap to mind). I was quite happy with lingering shots because the three leads were so beautiful, and almost every single scene was so lovingly shot, but compared with quite a few other movies I’ve seen, this allowed you to wallow in the action scenes while shifting the plot on pretty effectively. Not that there is really that much plot, given that it is classic love-vs-loyalty triangle stuff.

    What I really loved though, was the characters and their stories. I enjoyed Hero and CTHD, but I didn’t love them, not like I love this movie, and I think that is because I really enjoyed all the cross and double-cross stuff, all the hidden relationships and the internal conflicts of each of the characters wrestling with honour and passion which I think the three lead actors again delivered beautifully. Unlike many action movies (e.g. pretty much anything with Angelina Jolie, Bourne type movies), a genre I enjoy as exhilarating at the time, but pretty forgettable, I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters when I finished watching the movie. We know next to nothing about them and their prior lives, or indeed, what happens at the end of the movie – because, spoiler alert, they don’t all end up dead. But for me, they lived on as viable characters after the movie was over, largely because of the visual metaphors used by the director – like the bamboo forest, the prison, the big dance scene, all of these have symbolic significance as well as pure spectacle. The use of colours, the use of atmosphere all develop the claustrophobia of the society that the characters inhabit, at least for me.

    I lived in China for a few years during the mid-1990s, when it was really beginning to open up, but at the same time, Tiananmen was still a pretty vivid and influential time, and the thing about several of the historical movies in this genre is that both the big bold conflicts between different power bases and the personal relationships of the individuals can be read as commentaries on contemporary China. But with HoFD in particular, it looks at the way things go wrong. And every time I watch it, I start crying a little earlier. In fact, I’m feeling just in the mood for some good old-fashioned catharsis, I might just play a little HoFD tonight!

  20. Brussel Sprout
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 13:00:44

    PS, I forgot I reviewed it when I last saw it – two years ago, so it really is time to watch again. Apologies if I’m not meant to do a link.

    http://www.thatreadingwritingthing.com/home/2010/10/28/flying-daggers.html

  21. Jayne
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 13:11:53

    @Darlynne: LOL, I feel this way about other movies so I totally know where you’re coming from.

  22. Jayne
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 13:32:04

    @Brussel Sprout: Nice review – and I don’t mind the linky thing. I totally agree with you that some stories just have to have an UnHEA ending – anything else and the sacrifice is negated.

  23. Jayne
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 13:38:18

    @Brussel Sprout: Raise the Red Lantern almost put me in a coma.

  24. Megan
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 13:41:54

    “Raise the Red Lantern almost put me in a coma.” HA! I liked that movie, too, but I can see the pace being off-putting.
    My husband’s favorite Yimou film is Hero, and I can see why he and I differ; Hero is much more…heroic, while HoFD is so much more romantic (and that’s without factoring in the nom of Takeshi, who’s in my Top 5). But what Yimou does better than anyone else, in my opinion, is use color to tell his story. In Hero he does it literally, pulling a Rashomon with showing three different POVs in three different colors. HoFD is so deliciously lush in color the color is practically another character.
    It’s fun seeing everyone’s thoughts on it-and I really wish I hadn’t lent it out so I could watch it tonight.

  25. Gennita Low
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 21:02:12

    Chinese stories never have a happy ending ;-/. They find that* romantic.
    HOFD is my least favorite movie from this director, although his use of colors is one of my favorite things. There is something abstract about the story and the actors hold back a lot. Maybe they were following the director, holding back, casting doubt in their words and actions, even at the end, but that resulted in a disconnect with the audience (or me) because no one is ever cheering anyone on. Yimou does love beautiful death scenes :).

  26. heidenkind
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 23:28:42

    I was tres excited when this movie came out because I ADORED Hero with Jet Li, which was Zhang’s previous film right before this one (if you haven’t seen Hero, you definitely should). I agree completely. I just couldn’t connect to the characters, and the cinematography, while gorgeous, didn’t help the story out at all. By contrast, Hero has an awesome, epic feel and is just as great to look at.

  27. Janine
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 23:45:42

    Every Zhang Yimou film I’ve seen has been gorgeous to look at and I do love the visuals, but I’ve never connected that deeply with his sensibility. I prefer Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or more recently Hark Tsui’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

  28. Jayne
    Mar 24, 2012 @ 03:37:33

    @heidenkind: @Megan: “Hero” is gorgeous too. A couple of years post watching it, color is about all I remember. Must rewatch sometime.

  29. Jayne
    Mar 24, 2012 @ 05:30:20

    @Gennita Low: No HEA ever? Bummer.

  30. Jayne
    Mar 24, 2012 @ 05:34:32

    @Jeannie Lin: In the commentary, Zhang says that he wanted the final scene to be of the two men fighting in the autumn leaves. Only it started to snow and the Ukrainian crew told him that if he wanted that ending, he’d have to come back in a year. Not an option. So they started the days long process of shooting the final battle. Only, a few days into the shooting, the snow started to melt! But not enough to reshoot for the initial ending so then they had to get snow machines in and use digital enhancement to get the final effect.

  31. Gennita Low
    Mar 24, 2012 @ 07:59:27

    @Jayne:

    They tend to wallow (okay, my opinion!) in bitter-sweetness, as if love involves self-sacrifice, whether it’s death or disappearance or renunciation, the more epic the better. And let’s not even go into the contemporary movies of the 50s and 60s, where it’s always the woman who did all those things. I’m thinking of Lin Dai’s movies. Lin Dai looked like Elizabeth Taylor and died like Marilyn Monroe. Her movies are all bittersweet–contemp or historical–with lots of self-sacrifice and death, mostly hers, for her man. And her millions of fans at that time loved these themes. Modern feminists, not so much, LOL.

  32. Gennita Low
    Mar 24, 2012 @ 08:00:54

    @Gennita Low:

    Excuse me for the typos and tenses…caught them after I hit POST and couldn’t edit.

  33. Susanna Ives
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 13:54:11

    I loved this movie. I thought it was visually magnificent. And I didn’t feel any isolation from the characters and their emotions, but then I enjoy very subtle emotional performance (as in Gary Oldman – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ). If I had any minor and personal criticism, it would that the final fight/death scene went too long.

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