House of Flying Daggers

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 12/08/04 19:20:14

"Moments of astonishing greatness followed by yawn-inducing romance"
3 stars (Average)

As the closing credits roll on House of Flying Daggers, you begin to wonder whether it marks the end of the recent American movement towards the high-flying martial arts historical epic. It’s not that Daggers is a bad movie – in fact, it’s quite enjoyable for the most part, and incredibly beautiful in others – it’s that there doesn’t seem to be a lot left in the genre that we haven’t seen before, and several times at that. I’ve always been a huge fan of Asian period martial arts flicks, but they were usually small in scope, abundantly inventive and, most of all, a whole lot of fun. House of Flying Daggers starts off that way, but gets so caught up in trying to impress the audience with sprawling vistas and love triangles that the end result is a confused, drawn-out yawn.

Zhang Yimou has a good track record in moviemaking, not the least of which was this summer’s $53m arthouse success, Hero (actually, Hero was made in 2002 but Miramax sat on it for two years), but has the lure of big budget, US audience-intended, chop socky epics dulled his ability to identify what works on screen and what doesn’t? That’s really the only way you can explain the way House of Flying Daggers starts off grand and slides continually down the excitement scale over its two-hour running time, lumbering to a drawn-out finish that is anything but worthy of the opening scenes.

The time is around the end of the Tang Dynasty, and the local constabulary is on edge. Seems a group of Robin Hood-like rebels, the House of Flying Daggers, has been causing trouble, stealing money from the government and giving it to the poor. And we can’t have that, can we? So a couple of deputies - Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) decide to go investigate a beautiful blind brothel dancer by the name of Mei (Zhang Ziyi), who is rumored to be a member of the Daggers. The plan is for Leo to bust Mei out of prison and travel with her to the leader of the rebel group, with Jin always watching from afar. But love gets involved and next thing you know, everyone is double-crossing everyone.

While all this is going on, unknown cinematographer (at least in the west) Xiaoding Zhao combines with similarly unknown Art Director Zhong Han to create a look to the film that is simply incredible. Every single frame is a scene that wouldn’t look out of place hanging on a wall, and every single scene makes you sit back and say “wow.” But while the scenery is breathtaking, it never stops being breathtaking, to the point where it becomes such a distraction that it hurts the film. Several scenes feature sprawling shots of the countryside that seem to change seasons even while the actual scene in the foreground is happening. One moment the trees are green, the next they’re brilliant red, then they’re orange - and then it’s snowing. Okay, I get it, you’re handy with the camera, now get over yourself.

But as beautiful as the backgrounds are, Zhang Ziyi is the single most aesthetically pleasing element in the film, and her pre-acting career as a professional ballet dancer is put to great use in the opening scenes. From the outset, Flying Daggers resembles a piece of cinematic dance performance art, and it’s in these early scenes that the film is at its best. Ziyi is simply breathtakingly beautiful, and every second she’s on screen is a second of the film where all attention is focused on her.

Unfortunately, good looks and screen presence don’t beat a tired script, and the romantic end of Flying Daggers is by no means the stuff that great love stories are made of. All the guys seem to be potential rapists, leaving them entirely unsympathetic, and Ziyi’s character, while more than capable with hand and foot, is hardly the personality-loaded type that will win the hearts of the audience. In the end, you just don’t care whether these people find true love or not, because the film… Just. Won’t. End.

We’ve seen the shots where thousands of arrows are coming at us, and where the bamboo splits around a sword, and where the bad guys dance in the treetops. It’s been done. It’s over. Find a new way to make us go “wow.’

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