There are those of you out there who absolutely hate movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers for no other reason than because they include flying Chinamen involved in fantastic fight sequences. If you are one of those people, stop reading now. This review is not for folks with minds closed to the beauty of the martial arts fantasy film. I’m not going to waste my time trying to change your mind. I suppose you could keep reading just to spite me. I don’t care. House of Flying Daggers is a spectacular piece of cinema, and no amount of boorish pooh-poohing is going to rain on my pagoda.
It is the waning years of China’s Tang Dynasty and the place has the same feeling to it as Robin Hood’s England. Corrupt government officials oppress the people under the nose of the emperor whilst a network of outlaw heroes led by one brave soul quietly steal from the rich and give to the poor. This network is known as the House of Flying Daggers. Beloved by the people, they wage an ever intensifying war against the government’s army of highly skilled warriors. The warrior army has recently dealt the House of Flying Daggers a major blow by assassinating their leader, setting the stage for a massively vengeful response.
Unwilling to rest on their laurels, two captains of the Chinese army, Jin and Leo, mount a daring plan to worm their way into the very heart of the House and destroy it from within. In a staged jailbreak, Jin pretends to rescue Mei, a member of the House of Flying Daggers. A blind girl surprisingly skilled in the martial arts, Mei is suspected to be the daughter of the House’s recently assassinated leader. Jin sets out to seduce Mei and win her trust while returning her to her people, hoping to gain access to the House’s inner circle. Leo warns Jin not to fall for the beautiful Mei, but all three quickly find themselves unprepared for what lies along their chosen paths.
House of Flying Daggers is a masterful intermingling of romance, action, drama, dance and martial arts; bound in a cloak of secrecy and twists; woven together with silk and steel, blood and bamboo. With a delicate violence the film’s creators have fashioned an unexpectedly beautiful but tragic love story in the midst of a stunningly choreographed battle of wills. The eloquent and fantastic fight sequences are perfectly balanced with moving moments of drama and intrigue, all set against some of the most beautiful locations (both invented and real) that the world has to offer.
Detail is what makes the film so breathtaking. Everything from the actors’ nuanced performances, photography of the fight sequences, exquisite costumes, and the constantly twisting storyline has been paid painstaking attention to achieve the exact effect desired. Director Yimou Zhang has crafted an elegant story into one of the decade’s most commanding pieces of cinema.
I’ll be the first to admit that many western watchers may have a hard time with House of Flying Daggers. Its stylized action and rhythmic pacing can be distracting to viewers not used to this particular approach to storytelling. Despite that, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to try and see past those disruptions (if they indeed bother you) and enjoy the story for what it is: a fantastical journey of love and battle through an ancient world of beauty and honor.
The DVD release for House of Flying Daggers is a mixed bag of interesting bonuses and painfully awful accessories. There are so many things that could be explored in such a multi-faceted project, but much of it goes untouched. Worst of all, anyone not ready to read their way through the entire disc is just plain out of luck.
For folks who hate to read subtitles, there is an English dub-over, but the quality reminds me of the horrible voice-acting on those cheesy black and white kung-fu movies I had to endure as a kid early Saturday mornings while waiting for my cartoons to start. The movie is best enjoyed with the original Mandarin Chinese dialogue with subtitles. My apologies to those who don’t like to read, but the English dub absolutely destroys the entire show.
The only truly redeeming extra is the commentary provided by director Yimou Zhang and actress Zhang Ziyi. The two are completely candid and conversational as they talk their way through the film, sharing interesting insights into the intriguing story line and fascinating information about the process of creating the film. Their humorous dialogue about the nature of love scenes in movies and mini-debate over the nature of movie’s finale are particular gems. Of course, the entire commentary is in Chinese but English subtitles are provided.
The feature that takes you behind the scenes of the making of the film feels more like a 45 minute commercial than a documentary. Carnival-barker style voiceovers and an inordinate amount of time spent watching the actors pose for celebrity shots left me feeling a little cheated. Too little time was spent looking at the film’s beautiful costume designs, complex fight choreography and other artistic elements. In case you hadn’t guessed by now, it’s all in Chinese with English subtitles.
There are a handful of other short, but enjoyable goodies. The still galleries are actual play-through features complete with fades and background music. I usually hate scrolling through such galleries, but in this package they’re a pleasant slide-show style experience. All in all, the parcel makes for a rent-me recommendation of a must-see film.