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Friday Film Review: House of Flying Daggers

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

Friday Film Review: Iron Monkey

Friday Film Review: Iron Monkey

Iron Monkey (Siu nin Wong Fei Hung ji: Tit Ma Lau) (1993)
Genre: Martial Arts Action/Adventure
Grade: B+

Iron Monkey was originally made in 1977 and remade in 1993. I’m concentrating on the remake. There are two editions of this movie to be found (though with varying extras and treatments) and a quick scan of movie sites will reveal passionate feelings about them both. As a newcomer to HK martial arts films, I’m not going to get down in the trenches and Jello wrestle about which is better. I’ve seen both the original HK version and the Miramax version that Quentin Tarantino touts. From what I understand, the version widely shown in the US tones down the political stuff and doesn’t emphasize the role of historical figure Wong Fei Hung as much. What I can say is that I enjoy watching both versions and, unless you’re a purist – and there’s nothing wrong with that – I think you could enjoy either one.

The people of a small Chinese town suffer from failed crops and corrupt Governor Cheng (James Wong). Iron Monkey, a Robin Hood-esque figure based on a benevolent diety, robs from the Governor and rich and gives to the poor. When martial arts master/doctor Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen) and his son Fei Hung (Sze-Man Tsang) arrive in town, a gang of pickpockets tries to rob them. While defending himself, his martial arts skills attract the notice of the security detachment sent into the city to arrest anyone who could even remotely be the Iron Monkey. Wong and his son are taken in and, along with the others arrested, are harangued by the Governor to identify Iron Monkey.

Just as he’d hoped, the Governor’s actions draw Iron Monkey out and Wong attempts to subdue him in order that all the detainees might go free. But neither one wins the fight and the Governor gives Wong seven days to find Iron Monkey or else. He also decides to keep young Wong in custody so his father won’t flee. The townspeople distrust Wong and refuse him any food or aid but beautiful Miss Orchid (Jean Wang) invites him into the medical clinic run by Dr. Yang (Rongguang Yu) who treats the poor for free while gouging the rich. There Wong reveals his mission and his worries for his young son. Yang and Orchid promise to look after the boy and eventually get him out of prison.

Meanwhile, the Governor is told that an Official Legate will be arriving in town. In a comic scene Iron Monkey impersonates the Legate and dupes the Governor out of all his money while also getting him to open the food storehouse. When the real Legate, a corrupt Shaolin monk (Shi-Kwan Yen), arrives the Governor is run out of town. The actions of the Legate and his band of evil Shaolin monks brings Wong and Iron Monkey together and it’s then that Wong discovers who Iron Monkey really is. Can the two of them defeat the evil Legate and his minions?

If you like the wire work in “Crouch Tiger, Hidden Dragon” then you’ll probably enjoy this film. Directed by Yuen Woo-ping, the action starts early, is fast and furious and keeps going until the end. Yuen also choreographed the Matrix and Kill Bill movies if you wanna know. The man is astounding. Wong fights, Yang fights, Orchid fights, Fei Hung fights, the evil monks and the Legate fight – everybody except the Governor fights. They fight on rooftops, they fight in the clinic, they fight in the Governor’s residence, they fight on the streets and in the famous last sequence they fight balanced on poles above a blazing fire. It’s so fricken’ awesome.

I’ll mention a few differences between the HK version and the US one. Yuen employed undercranking which when played at regular speed makes the action appear faster than it is. This was slowed down in the US version. There’s more bloody violence and a scene between Miss Orchid and evil monk minions is more overtly sexually threatening in the HK one. I also don’t recall if the subtitles of Miramax include as much naming of techniques as they’re being performed which I’ve read that Wong Fei Hung usually did in real life. Once I knew about it, I thought the fact that this is included is neat. There is a short substory about Miss Orchid’s background that I don’t recall in the Miramax edition either though some people say it’s there. Watch for it as it adds poignancy to her efforts to protect young Wong and her relationship with Dr. Yang. Personally, I sense a budding romance between those two but nothing is every overtly shown – or if it is, I missed the clues. The HK version also has more comic moments which come as a nice interval between the martial arts sequences.

Yen, Yu, and Tsang are all martial artists. I can’t find information about Jean Wang so if you are aware she is, help a sister out and let me know. Tsang who plays young Wong is actually female and she rocks in her role. The real Wong Fei Hung, in addition to naming techniques as he did them, was also famous for his staff work which is prominently used in movie. Both Wongs also use the Shadowless Kick while fighting in the film. The main baddie Legate gets a truly cool thing though – the fighting sleeve! as well as the Wonder Palm of Shaolin. Listen out for all the trash talking too. You’re just not being a badass fighter if you don’t trash talk.

If you haven’t watched many martial arts films, and I count myself in this group, here’s one that is accessible both from a point of understanding and availability. Start with whichever edition you can get your hands on and see if you want to progress to trying the other. If you want to stay strictly shallow – and God knows I certainly am, the two main heroes are certainly easy on the eyes (Yu started as a male model in China) while Jean Wang is beautiful and Tsang is as cute as a button. I would also suggest watching with both subtitles and the English language track to get different nuances of what’s going on. I’m also looking to expand my experience of martial arts movies so if you have any suggestions, let me know. B+

~Jayne