Sunday, August 15, 2010

East Asian Directors Marathon #3- House of Flying Daggers (2004, China, Zhang Yimou)

"Do not pull this dagger out. I'm sending you back to keep spying for us. You will be more convincing with a dagger in your back."

When compared to Hero, House of Flying Daggers is quite simple. I look at that as both a good and a bad thing for the film. It wears its themes on its sleeves and some things I at first felt like I had to take at face value, but then I realized that this was more of an opera than a film. More of an experience than a story. It asks you to sit back and enjoy the colors, the music, the romance, the action, and the suspense. It asks you to appreciate the art direction, costume design, and sound editing. Never before have I seen a more technically proficient film that works side-by-side with storytelling since perhaps The Matrix or Blade Runner.

Like those films, any CGI in this film is used as a storytelling device. We see this as the film goes from small set pieces to bigger ones. The (small) first scene that left me in awe was when police captain Leo challenges dancer Mei to an "echo game." A room is surrounded with drums and he throws a pebble as it bounces from one drum to the next. Mei is blind and yet she uses her costume of flowing silk like a whip as she replicates the drum pattern while dancing to music. The second sequence that left me in awe was this fight in the bamboo trees where Mei and Jin fend off soldiers with kill orders. The scene reminded me of the tree top sequence from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (a film that I'll eventually get to in this marathon). It was just both artistic and served to move the characters and story along.

Let me provide some context before I go any further. Set in ancient China, Jin and Leo are police captains who want to take down the fascist group known as the House of Flying Daggers. They believe Mei (a blind dancer at a brothel, or whatever kind of place it is) is the daughter of the former assassinated leader. Leo captures her and then Jin goes undercover as a lone warrior named Wind to break her out and ask to join the Flying Daggers. From there, Leo will trail Jin and Mei and then have his soldiers take out all the Flying Daggers' members including the mysterious leader of the group.

From what I know and like I said, the movie plays more like an opera than an action movie. The camera is constantly keeping close to the characters so we can see all the emotion on their faces. At first I felt like the emotion that was displayed wasn't enough to warrant a romance between Jin and Mei as they head north to the Flying Daggers' headquarters. Then I started to notice how trust strengthened their bond and despite their earlier flirtation, I truly believed these characters loved each other. Not that Zhang Ziyi is already an incredible actress, but I was totally invested in Andy Lau as Leo. He had this stone faced persona that could then believably become emotional on cue. It reminded me of Tony Leung from In the Mood for Love (once again, another film I'll revisit) who if I remember correctly starred alongside Lau in Infernal Affairs (which later was remade by William Monahan and Martin Scorsese to become The Departed).

I should once again remind everyone that this is all set alongside such motifs as daggers, blood, leaves, and silk. Zhang Yimou is a visual artist who can use the still images to create life and art. Through a very well paced story (more so than Hero, I felt), camera work that compliments choreography, and a sensual tone that works alongside the plot without overtaking it (the film's restraint is noticeable but not distractive)... you have a soap operatic, mediative film on love and war with a devastating finale.

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