HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
(Shi Mian Mai Fu)
Both Hero and House of Flying Daggers were afforded rapturous acclaim by arthouse audiences upon their appearance in the West, including both being nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. As was the case with Hero, one enjoys House of Flying Daggers for the gorgeous sumptuousness of the visuals that Zhang Yimou throws at us. The entire film takes places with a dreamy elegance, filled with exquisitely dressed period settings, costumery and gorgeously photographed landscapes dripping with autumnal colours, snow and falling leaves. One reviewer hit the nail on the head when they called Zhang Yimous films Wu Xia made in the style of Douglas Sirk, after the legendary expatriate German director who made such Hollywood films as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959) where the screen seemed to ooze with the lushness of the Technicolor and dreamy set dressings.
House of Flying Daggers was seen as the slightly lesser sibling of Hero. Hero was filled with dazzling, visually stunning set pieces and Zhang Yimous problem with House of Flying Daggers is that while the first film had a newness, House of Flying Daggers comes somewhat in Heros shadow. House of Flying Daggers also takes longer to get to the main story than Hero did. Moreover, House of Flying Daggers is not so much driven by the set-pieces, nor are they quite as rapturously dreamy. There is even the odd moment a somewhat over-hyped scene where Takeshi Kaneshiro runs across a field on horseback gathering flowers for Zhang Ziyi when the set-pieces seem to be trying to be more than they are. Certainly, Zhang Yimou does produce little pieces of mise-en-scene that dazzle with their floridness the opening scenes with Zhang Ziyi flicking her surplice to beat on drums and then even picking up a sword in the end of it to try and attack Takeshi Kaneshiro; the fights in the forest with Takeshi Kaneshiro firing arrows that simultaneously down four opponents; and the blood-drenched climactic showdown in the snow. The one sequence that leaps right off the screen is the battle through the bamboo forest with Zhang Ziyi combating an army of soldiers swinging around and bouncing up and down on the trees, she perched halfway between bamboo saplings, fighting swordsmen off with a splintering wooden stake and especially the image of the soldiers flitting through the tops of the trees like phantoms raining down a hail of bamboo spears as Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi run along the ground.
Zhang Yimou has also borrowed from Japanese samurai cinema the iconic figure of the blind swordsman, made famous through the long running Zatoichi series. (Indeed, Takeshi Kitano had just conducted a remake of the series with Zatoichi (2003) around the same time as Zhang Yimou made these films). Added to this is the traditional melodramatic plotting of Wu Xia Pan secret societies and clans, love triangles, revelations of elaborate identity masquerades. Certainly, Zhang Yimou provides us with far more substantial plot than is usually the case in Wu Xia Pan. As in Hero, he gives us an unfolding Chinese Box of a story that opens out multiple times to reveal sudden twists about peoples identities and schemes within schemes. One is not entirely sure if the eventually unveiled plot makes complete sense I was quite sure in the end why the Flying Daggers needed to lure Jin all the way to their northern provinces but the larger-than-life melodrama sits perfectly amidst the dreamy visuals.
Zhang Ziyi, who made an astounding debut in Crouching Tiger, and has since become somewhat typecast in these films, is fine her porcelain features having an ability to radiate both haughty certainty and a tremulously repressed passion. Against her, Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro plays with an effortlessly laconic charm.
Zhang Yimou would subsequently return to Chinese dynastic drama with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), which goes over-the-top with colour and and the lushness of set dressings, although unlike Hero and House of Flying Daggers does not contain any fantasy elements. Zhang later returned to fantasy with the English-language The Great Wall (2016).
(Winner for Best Cinematography, Nominee for Best Director (Zhang Yimou) and Best Actress (Zhang Ziyi) at this sites Best of 2004 Awards).
Full film available online here:-