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HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Song Dandan
Director: Zhang Yimou
Audio: Chinese, English, or French 5.1
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Commentary, Making-Of documentary, visual effects featurette, music video, storyboard comparisons, photo galleries, trailers
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: April 19, 2005

"I do enjoy fighting a blind girl."

Film ****

A leading member of China's Fifth Generation filmmakers, Zhang Yimou has a well-earned international reputation as Asia's premier and most cinematic director today.  From early masterpieces such as Raise the Red Lantern to his recent triumph, Hero (2002), Zhang Yimou has tempered the character-driven dramas of his films with colorful and frequently mesmerizing visual splendor.  Hero was one such fusion of dazzling martial artistry with gorgeous cinematography, and its success led to Zhang's equally sumptuous martial arts follow-up, House of Flying Daggers (2004).

Starring Zhang Ziyi, the current "It" girl of Asian cinema, House of Flying Daggers is set in China's glorious past during the ninth century, an age of dynastic intrigue and legendary heroes.  As the film begins, the leader of a secretive alliance known as the House of Flying Daggers has recently been assassinated.  Dedicated to the downfall of the corrupt Tang Dynasty, the mysterious Flying Daggers warriors pose a threat to the stability of the Tang's immediate authority, and the provincial government is determined to wipe them out.  Captains Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) are the local, diligent deputies of Feng Tian County assigned the task of destroying the remnants of the Flying Daggers Clan.  The key is Xiao Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind courtesan who dances at the Peony Pavilion Entertainment House.  Suspected of secretly being a Flying Daggers agent and perhaps even the former leader's daughter herself, Mei may represent a golden opportunity for the Tang officials once and for all to eliminate the underground resistance of the Flying Daggers Clan.  In the extended set piece that opens the film, Mei is confronted by the deputies and ultimately arrested following a spectacular fight sequence.

Each individual - Mei, Jin, and Leo - is honorable in his or her own way.  Each believes in the respective righteousness of the rebellion or the Tang imperial rule.  This noblesse and integrity of character shades the main protagonists of the film with a sympathetic core that resonates throughout the film in their every actions (or betrayals).

Mei, following her capture, can expect certain torture and probable death but faces her fate with willful strength.  Captain Leo, in turn, recognizes that Mei is more valuable alive than dead and formulates a clever ploy to use her to draw out the Flying Daggers.  Thus, Mei will not stay a captive for long; late one evening, as per Leo's plans, Jin rescues Mei from her guarded prison under a pretense of sympathy for her cause and a wish to join with the Flying Daggers.  The two would-be fugitives flee into the woods, out-running and out-dueling pursuing government deputies and army soldiers.  Meanwhile, Leo secretly tracks them, occasionally planting fake ambushes to further convince Mei that Jin indeed has become a hunted outlaw and is sincere in his desire to join the rebels.

In one sense, House of Flying Daggers is an action-adventure in the spirit of old Hollywood westerns, albeit rendered with oriental aesthetics and Zhang Yimou's usual visual flair.  However, the conflict between Tang soldiers and the Flying Daggers warriors ultimately assumes a secondary role in the film, and the expectant climactic battle between these forces never materializes.  Instead, the true heart of the film becomes revealed in its central love story as Jin, in a conflict of interest, begins to fall for the beautiful if deadly Mei.

Takeshi Kaneshiro, a rising star in Asian cinema, offers a moving performance as the loyal Tang deputy Jin, torn between love and duty.  Andy Lau, arguably the biggest star in China today, is equally solid as the increasingly despondent Captain Leo who sees his careful plans beginning to unravel and dragging his colleague Jin into the netherworld quagmire of the Flying Daggers.  And best of all, Zhang Ziyi is the soul of the film as a blind but certainly not helpess courtesan capable of defeating armed imperial soldiers.  Zhang Ziyi has her most significant film role to date in Xiao Mei, and she delivers a fine performance that can only enhance her already-rapidly ascending star profile.

There is a lot else to like about House of Flying Daggers, too.  The film's visual style matches or surpasses most Hollywood special effects extravaganzas.  The costumes are vibrantly-hued, and the cinematography bursts with brilliant colors.  Wrapped in sumptuous silk robes and flowing costumes, Zhang Yimou in particular has never looked more beautiful than she does in House of Flying Daggers.  Furthermore, with super-hero movies and martial arts epics in vogue in Hollywood, the dazzling action set pieces in House of Flying Daggers are sure to please audiences.  The cast members, for the most part, are accomplished martial artists or seasoned dancers, further enhancing the authenticity of the film's action.  Among the most impressive sequences are Mei's seductive dance at the Peony Pavilion and especially an aerial imperial attack in the bamboo forest, an astounding sequence that will leave audiences gasping.  The climactic showdown in a snowy field between Jin and a Flying Daggers warrior also assumes an almost mythical, timeless quality that further emphasizes the tragic love story at this film's core.

Motion pictures are essentially part of a visual medium of story-telling.  Directors like Zhang Yimou who understand how to fully exploit the potential beauty of the medium without losing sight of the supporting narrative are rare and to be cherished.  Too frequently in Hollywood movies, directors display a great degree of visual flashiness in their films to the detriment of any actual plot.  Such films, emphasizing style over substance, lack true resonance and soul.  Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers may not possess an infinitely deep or thought-provoking storyline, but it is better than most Hollywood efforts, and the haunting romance at its center, coupled with Ching Siu-Tung's stirring fight choreography and Zhang's superior narrative presentation, establishes this remarkable film as the new standard to which other exotic action-adventure films must be compared.

Video ****

House of Flying Daggers has some of the most truly awe-inspiring images ever assembled for any martial arts film.  Well-deserving of its Oscar nomination for cinematography, the film is presented here in an excellent anamorphic widescreen format that faithfully renders this film to the small screen.  Furthermore, House of Flying Daggers has been mastered in high definition and so will look particularly impressive on higher-end home theater systems.  The film's color scheme, from the Tang Dynasty Dunghuáng rainbow hues in the Peony Pavilion to the fertile greenery of the bamboo forest and flower fields, is truly exquisite.  This is easily one of the best-looking movies on DVD thus far this year.

Audio ****

House of Flying Daggers creates a swirling, immersive aural environment that matches the movement and vibrancy of the film's visuals.  From the spectacularly immersive sound of the "echo game" sequence to the natural ambient background of the myriad forests and fields of this film, the audio for this disc is absolutely reference quality.  The 5.1 soundtrack can be heard in its original Mandarin Chinese or optional English or French 5.1 audios.  English and French subtitles are also available.

Features ****

The first bonus feature on the disc is a commentary track by director Zhang Yimou and star Zhang Ziyi.  It has been recorded in Chinese, although English subtitled translations are provided.  The commentary subtitles replace the film's own subtitles, but since the story behind House of Flying Daggers is relatively straight-forward, there should be no difficulties in following the film.  Nevertheless, I would certainly recommend watching the film first before listening to the commentary track.  Zhang Yimou provides the majority of the comments with Zhang Ziyi reacting for the most part to the director's recollections.  Topics of discussion include the film's color scheme, the gorgeous sets, Zhang Ziyi's training to play a blind girl, and rehearsals for the action sequences.  Both director and star reflect on many humorous anecdotes from the production.  Zhang Yimou also notes various cut sequences (including some fight footage) from the film.

Next, there is a "Making-Of" documentary (45 min.).  Since it was produced in China, this documentary feels different than the typical American self-congratulatory gush-fest.  There are still some plot spoilers, so I would advise watching the film first prior to looking over this documentary.  Narration is provided in Mandarin with English subtitles.  Interviews are kept at a minimal with most of the documentary focusing on candid production footage, dance and fight rehearsals, costume design, and particularly the amazing Peony Pavilion set, one of the most elaborate and expensive in all of Chinese cinema.  The documentary concludes with footage from the film's triumphant premiere at the Cannes festival and also from the fund-raising premiere in Hong Kong, the proceeds of which were donated to charities supported by the late Anita Mui (to whom House of Flying Daggers is dedicated).

The remainder of the bonus features have no narration and thus do not need subtitles.  First up is a short visual effects featurette (4 min.) which shows brief clips from the film in their original elements, with additional computer enhancements, and finally as the finished sequence itself.  The included scenes are the "Sleeve/Sword Dance," "Four Arrows," "Field Fight," and "Bamboo Forest."

Storyboard comparisons (17 min.) reveal the similarities and differences between sequences as planned and the actual completed sequences.  The storyboard and the film are shown simultaneously and highlight "Dance in the Peony Pavilion," "Fight Beside Peony Pool," "Rescue from the Jail," "Ride Through the Forest," "Fight in the Flower Field," and "Capture in the Bamboo Forest."

Photo galleries (6 min.) offer an intimate look at the film's production.  Rendered as slideshows with musical accompaniment from the film, the photos are divided into two galleries.  The first is comprised of about a dozen slides with side-by-side comparisons between costume artwork and the actual costume as seen in the film.  The second gallery, with over three dozen entries, shows behind-the-scene shots of the cast and crew during the production itself.  These slideshows are a rather lovely and effective way to present photos, and I hope such galleries in the future will be formatted in this manner, too.

The film's haunting musical theme is reiterated in "Lovers," a low-res music video.  The film version of this theme song, sung in Chinese by Zhang Ziyi, used lyrics from a famous Han Dynasty poem.  The music video uses English lyrics sung by internationally-acclaimed opera star Kathleen Battle.  While the wonderful Battle has an obviously superior voice, her operatic style of singing may render the lyrics unintelligible to the casual listener.

Lastly, trailers are provided for House of Flying Daggers, Steamboy (an animé film), MirrorMask, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and The Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition.

Summary:

House of Flying Daggers is one of the most gorgeously-photographed movies to come around in a number of years.  With breath-taking visual splendor, exhilarating action, and a lush love story to match, House of Flying Daggers, along with Zhang Yimou's previous film Hero, sets a new high standard for the martial arts genre.  Highly recommended!

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