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HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (PG-13) (2004)

Sony Pictures Classics

Official Site

Director: Zhang Yimou

Producers: William Kong, Zhang Yimou

Written by: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou

Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Song Dandan

Rating:


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was overrated by many critics when it came out in 2000, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been done at the expense of the martial-arts genre CTHD allegedly reformed. Ignorant critics who’d somehow missed the entire ’90s Hong Kong renaissance of politically engaged and technically dazzling martial-arts/action spectacles suddenly proclaimed that the martial arts film had become adult and fit for “serious” consideration. It’s a good thing, then, that though House Of Flying Daggers is in intent a serious, arty movie, it is also utterly moronic, narratively taking the genre backward while unleashing too many gorgeous images for it to really matter.

Basically a love triangle in which the lines connecting the involved parties keep changing, House Of Flying Daggers is also, theoretically, about the titular rebellious anti-government faction, which wreaks all kinds of havoc during the Tang Dynasty. It lacks the quasi-fascistic intent of its predecessor, Hero. The politics—generic anti-authoritarianism—are secondary to everything else, leading to the possibility that Zhang Yimou, in the past a source of trouble to the Chinese government with thorny films about touchy subjects, hasn’t so much sold out as become completely oblivious to his political messages in the excitement of choreographing some of the coolest martial arts sequences ever. Which is understandable.

What House offers plentifully is surprises; moronic narrative ones, sure—with characters revealing hidden loyalties at the slightest provocation and obstinately refusing to stay dead when logic would dictate they do so—but more importantly, visual ones. The first comes about 10 minutes in: After an unpromising block of text providing dubious historical context (presumably to add historical verisimilitude to the wirework that’s about to follow), a police raid on a brothel brings captain Andy Lau into contact with blind dancer Zhang Ziyi. He whisks her dress off with a sword, and it flies off in slow-motion to reveal an even more dazzling costume underneath. Inevitably, Flying Daggers will be compared with Hero, and possibly unfavorably. Zhang’s decision to make two martial arts films in a row, however, gives the films a superficial resemblance at best. Hero was shot by Christopher Doyle, and reflected it in every frame and edit—a consistent palette of impressionistic shots linked by quick cuts to bring moments of accidental beauty together, spoiled only by shoddy F/X work and slightly dampened by the mournful presences of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. House Of Flying Daggers has more stately, obviously tweaked long shots and feels more like Zhang than an uneasy Christopher Doyle hijack job (and has far, far better CGI). Actually, it doesn’t feel a thing like Zhang’s past work, but insofar as it doesn’t feel like Doyle, it feels like Zhang. Narrative control, surprisingly, eludes Zhang for the first time: Spiraling melodrama straight out of vintage ’70s Shaw Brothers Hong Kong productions provoked widespread audience laughter and scoffing. Suspension of disbelief, however, is well worth it for moments like a fight scene where the seasons change mid-fight. In moments like these, where computer imagery finally comes of age and flies straight off into total artifice instead of trying replicate real elements unsuccessfully, Flying Daggers becomes indelible for all the right reasons.

—Vadim Rizov

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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