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House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers
Director: Zhang Yimou (2004)

Showing in cinemas this month, the House of Flying Daggers (shi mian mai fu, 2004) is the latest blockbuster from Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern). At the premiere in Beijing early last month, stars Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi turned up for the red-carpet treatment, along with opera diva Kathleen Battle.

Although the 2004 martial arts epic received praise at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, and is set to break box office records in China this year, it did not escape criticism prior to its general showing. Zhang Yimou came under fire for using foreign technical expertise, and for privileging action at the expense of plot with some critics calling it "inane."

"House of the Flying Daggers is a sophisticated, visually splendid tale of duplicity and deception with gorgeous central characters, incredible fight sequences and moments of breath-taking beauty. "

Set in China in AD 859, the once prosperous Tang Dynasty is in decline with government forces fighting back rebel groups of which the House of Flying Daggers is one.

Two government captains, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are ordered to capture the new leader of the rebel group.

Attempting to avenge the death of a former rebel leader, her father, the beautiful but blind Mei (Zhang Ziyi), who can wield a sword (jian) as mightily as she can throw a dagger (dao), gets caught up in the elaborate government plot to capture the leader and falls in love with the young and handsome Captain Jin while revealing an old love for Captain Leo.

House of the Flying Daggers is a sophisticated, visually splendid tale of duplicity and deception with gorgeous central characters, incredible fight sequences and moments of breath-taking beauty.

But there are some problems with the film that viewers, despite all that aesthetic pleasure, have a hard time ignoring. The storyline appears to be a vehicle for action rather than vice versa.

But there is more to it than that.

"Don't turn a game into reality," Captain Leo advises a love-struck Captain Jin early on, perhaps hinting to the audience to do the same.

This is Chinese martial arts cinema where the surreal, magic-realist qualities of the genre assure viewers that a story will never be what it seems.

As the characters are forced to disclose the secrets of their past, and the plot takes unexpected leaps and turns - as the characters themselves routinely do - the viewer is left a little perplexed.

In this film, as in other films of the genre, reality is deliberately challenged in the name of fantasy and to dismiss this film on the basis of plot is to ignore this.

House of Flying Daggers asks much of the eyes and ears and little of the brain and has moments of intentional comedy. For example, Captain Jin's request for further foreplay with the luscious young Mei is stopped short by the words: "I don't know you well enough."

It has moments, too, of meditative beauty and seriousness amid thuds, grunts and endless "Hii-yaaaas!" Sounds are sharp and exquisite -- if ear-splittingly loud in a cinema -- and the costumes and scenery are vibrant and lavish. Colour, as with sound in the film, is enhanced and is further evidence of the genre's need to be surreal.

House of Flying Daggers is a film definitely worth seeing, if, perhaps, not for the reasons you'd expect.

Reviewers comments: It was strangely comforting to be in Beijing in the grip of a Western-style multiplex experience, even if the loudness of the opening advertisements nearly brought on an epileptic fit.

(Beijing This Month August 9, 2004)

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Director in the Frame
House of Flying Daggers Premieres
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