HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
Review by Ed Nguyen
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
do enjoy fighting a blind girl."
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
trailers are provided for House of Flying
Daggers, Steamboy (an animé
film), MirrorMask, Crouching
Tiger Hidden Dragon, and The Fifth
Element: Ultimate Edition.