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HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
Blu-ray Edition

Film review by Ed Nguyen
Technical Specs by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Song Dandan
Director: Zhang Yimou
Audio: Chinese, English, Spanish or French 5.1, Chinese PCM 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Sony
Features: Creating the visual effects, storyboards
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: June 6, 2008

"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 ***1/2

It's a spectacular Blu-ray offering, but maybe just a little more flawed than what I'm used to for the format.  The colors and crispness of the images are more vibrant and alive than ever, which suits the Oscar-winning cinematography well, but there are some noticeable flaws in the film itself; namely some apparent grain that smatters the picture from time to time.   It's not as obvious on DVD, but Hi-Def brings it out a little more.  The transfer rate is a little lower than what I've seen on Blu-ray, ranging in the mid 20s or so for most of the presentation.  That being said, many sequences are incredible, and the bamboo forest fights really spring to life.

Audio ****

No complaints here...the 5.1 audio is expansive and enveloping.  You can listen in original Chinese or English dubbed, but the Chinese track has more depth and subtlety, as well as more dynamic range, so you should definitely opt for it.  The scene involving the echo drums will have all of your audio channels operating in full distinct glory...you may use this sequence just to show off your sound system!

Features *1/2

There aren't as many extras on the Blu-ray as on the DVD version...curious, because Blu-ray is capable of storing a lot more information.  All you get here is a look at the visual effects and some storyboard comparisons.

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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