Friday, February 04, 2005

House Of Flying Daggers

This week's film in our current international season was Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers. It follows quickly on the heels of the same director's Hero which we screened last month. The new film is a complex martial arts love story. The narrative concerns a secret society, the Flying Daggers, dedicated to overthrowing the collapsing government of the Tang dynasty. Their most accomplished secret agent is Mei, alternately played with luminous grace and burning fercocity by Zhang Ziyi, who is on an assassination mission. She is pursued by two government officers - Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) - and as the action unfolds the three are drawn into impostures of double- and triple-crossing. Nothing is quite as it seems. And perhaps that is both the strength and, ultimately, the weakness of the film.

As you'd expect from Zhang House of Flying Daggers is gorgeous to look at. The opening sequence at the high class brothel, the Peony Palace, is simply stunning. The set is magnificent and Mei performs two astonishing dance sequences for Jin and Leo that float seamlessly into the first of a number of exquisitely choregographed fight scenes. The significance of the dances becomes clearer as the love triangle is revealed much later. There are some other fantastic set-piece violent encounters, perhaps the most stunning taking in (and almost destroying) a bamboo forest. Some have complained that all this effort is just so much romantic kitsch but there is a compelling operatic grandeur here that is often breathtaking.

But House of Flying Daggers does not satisfy in the way that Zhang's earlier masterpieces such as Raise the Red Lantern or Ju Dou did. I actually don't think it's as interesting as Hero. That film is equally a visual feast but has much greater moral and political depth. It raises important questions about the nature of unfettered centralised power and the ethic of sacrifice for the greater good. Even if one doesn't agree with Zhang's apparent justification for authority over freedom Hero makes us think about those issues. House of Flying Daggers doesn't. The political thrust is always much less clear and, by the end, has all but disappeared. This leaves us with the complicated love story but even this is, in the final analysis, less than emotionally involving. Symbolically, the final duel between Leo and Jin is remorseless as autumn turns to winter and the driven snow turns blood red. But the love that had produced such ferocity is almost incidental. In the opening dance sequences Mei's face is a painted mask animated by (unseeing) eyes and playful mouth. By the end her face is nothing but a beautiful and empty mask.

There's also a good review of House of Flying Daggers by Michael Brooke over at Mischievous Constructions.


Post a Comment

<< Home