****/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras B-
starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Ziyi Zhang, Song Dandan
screenplay by Li Feng & Zhang Yimou & Wang Bin
directed by Zhang Yimou
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. For the dozen or so eye-bleedingly beautiful sequences in Zhang Yimou's new wuxia pian, the encapsulating image is that of the incandescent Ziyi Zhang prostrate beneath a would-be paramour, her delicate, ivory hand pressed against his lips in an eloquently ineffective ward. It's a tableau introduced in a more overt attempted rape in a brothel and revisited in a stream where a quartet of thugs nearly succeed in literally/metaphorically piercing Ziyi with their long spears. House of Flying Daggers (its title in Chinese the loaded "Ambush from Ten Directions"--essentially an ambush from everywhere) is at its essence an allegory for rape and the Chinese tradition of concubinage that Zhang has already explored to varying degrees in Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, Shanghai Triad, and, of course, Red Sorghum, in which a young woman played by Gong Li (Ziyi's predecessor as Zhang's muse) is saved from rape by a young man with whom she later runs a winery. But the conceit of a young woman teaming with her knight in shining armour is complicated in House of Flying Daggers by the fact that she is more than capable of taking care of herself, except, fascinatingly, when the attacks against her are sexualized.
Ziyi is Mei ("Shao Mei," which is "little sister" in Mandarin), a blind showgirl (blind: Happy Times; showgirl: Shanghai Triad) as well as the daughter of a slain leader from the titular gang of assassins, which has taken to flouting the constabulary late in China's Tang Dynasty, Robin Hood-style. Mei tries to kill the man responsible for her father's death, Captain Leo (Andy Lau), then goes on the lam with Leo's partner, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro). (Masquerading as a bandit who helps her escape from prison, he's one of the would-be rapists.) Leo and Jin hope that Mei leads them to the hideout of the House of Flying Daggers and their mysterious leader Jia ("Da Jia," "big sister" in Mandarin), the renegade troupe apparently some kind of sylvan matriarchy existing in an impossible memory of green. But the many lies that comprise the lives of Leo and Jin begin to become reality once House of Flying Daggers locates itself as more in league with the gender dynamics of Closer than with the epic serio-mythmaking of Zhang's own Hero.
When Jin first frees Mei, he leads her through a forest by the sheathed shaft of his sword; later, after he spies on her bathing, he gives her a man's clothes to wear, promising that henceforth he will instruct all his whores to don similar male clothing. From this point forward, as they walk together, Jin leads Mei hand-in-hand. It's a dangerous, homoerotically charged sequence of events that becomes a legend for the map of House of Flying Daggers, a film that unearths the archetype of male sexual hegemony. Zhang is so interested in sexual heat between men and the physical power that men use to intimidate women that things begin to take on the character dimensions of a slasher film. The idea is that the hero girl is virginal, that she and her friends are hunted and killed by an inexorable force of frustrated male sexuality, and that at the end, the hero girl takes on the arms of her assailant (literally here) and has her vengeance. After finally losing her virginity, Mei must, by the rules of genre, also lose her life; that she loses it because her blood is "drained" in a scene on a snowfield stained by the crimson attentions of her champion and her tormentor adopts the heft of menstrual anxiety or the spilled blood of lost virginity.
The depth of House of Flying Daggers is easy to overlook when presented with Zhang's and DP Zhao Xiaoding's extraordinary cinematography (this is his fourteenth film, none except for this one known in the United States) and Tony Ching's fight choreography. The camera loves Ziyi and Kaneshiro, and without hyperbole, this is easily one of the best-looking films of the year. But what works about the picture is Zhang's return to the sociological satire that marks his best work (and his worst, truth be told). Consider that the picture, many of its scenes CGI enhanced or fully constructed, has artifice as its second theme--existentially and extra-textually, recalling another blind swordsman film from Asia earlier this year, Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi. Married to issues of gender (note that the constables are entirely male and the bandits, save one, entirely female), sexual violence, and ultimately sexual jealousy, the idea of the slipperiness of truth and fiction (something addressed in Hero as well, but there in terms of national identity instead of personal) gains a lovely, elegant weight. House of Flying Daggers is the sort of pure filmmaking one expects from Zhang Yimou, but it's also the kind of laden social commentary that his early work promised. Blame it for that feeling of discomfort in the midst of all that cinematic ecstasy--it's not his best work, but, taken as a companion piece with Hero, it does represent a fifth-generation Chinese auteur redefining the genre for which his country's cinema is most well-known as a canny vehicle for the obsessive introspection of a post-modern world. Originally published: December 17, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Sony shepherds House of Flying Daggers to DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that falls just short of excellence due to all but negligible traces of edge enhancement. As with the concurrent release of New Line's Birth, this is an amazingly filmlike presentation, though that almost works against the piece in that it leaves the image wanting for scale. On the other hand, I was disappointed by the absence of a DTS logo on the packaging until I heard the (Chinese) Dolby Digital 5.1 audio for myself: Sound-wise, the film retains its theatrical dimensions. The "echo game" is, of course, demo material (you can hear the lima beans drop clearly enough in the rear discretes to count each individual one), but so, too, is the field ambush, while bass is elegantly yet forcefully deployed throughout. (DD 5.1 dubs in English and French seem identical apart from the dialogue substitutions.) On another track, find a subtitled, feature-length commentary pairing the two Zhangs, Yimou and Ziyi, with Ziyi serving as a quasi-interviewer and Yimou given to annotating the picture's aesthetic departures from Hero. We learn, among other things, that the Peony Pavilion was the most expensive set in Beijing Studios' history, and Ziyi is amusingly skeptical when it comes to the more acrobatic gestures of her blind character ("I wanted to cut it, but the way you did it was so beautiful," Yimou says of a particularly egregious somersault.). But while a sense of humility is maintained, Team Zhang unfortunately shies away from subtextual analysis and too often squanders their time and ours on fawning over the film's visuals.
Produced for Chinese television by Theme Base Production, the longest of the remaining supplements is the 45-minute "The Making of House of Flying Daggers" (45 mins.), which suffers from obnoxious and/or literally-translated narration (at the Cannes press conference, "you could even feel the charismatic energy of the actors themselves!"), a structural lopsidedness that sees the participants recapping the plot in the second half of the piece rather than in the first, and a generally unhelpful take on production challenges. ("When he encountered problems," offers the narrator of Zhang Yimou, "he resolved them.") Still, between it and AnimalLogic's "Creating the Visual Effects" featurette (a 4-minute demo reel tracking the progression of various CGI-assisted shots), there's enough to sate one's ample curiosity about how the film's optical illusions were achieved. Split-screen "storyboard comparisons" for six major sequences, a "costumes gallery" (1 min.) that juxtaposes original designs with the results as they appear on-screen, a 4-minute montage of "behind-the-scenes" photos set to Shigeru Umebayashi's score, and the music video for the Kathleen Battle-performed "Lovers" round out the video-based extras. Trailers for House of Flying Daggers, Steamboy, Mirror Mask, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Fifth Element Ultimate Edition cap the disc proper. The keepcase is packaged in a cardboard slipcover. Originally published: April 18, 2005.