REVIEW: HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS
Disclaimer: I watched House of Flying Daggers with English subtitles whilst listening to the Mandarin dub – the definitive way this film should be viewed. Like the Korean hit television drama series Squid Game, the English dub and intonations from the voice actors do not correspond with the on-screen actors’ facial expressions, which meant that I could not appreciate the film’s visual allure. In the end, when it comes to watching foreign films, it’s subs over dubs any day.
If you like nuanced characters traversing through a visually salivating kung fu-romance cinematic odyssey, then this is your film. House of Flying Daggers (2004) is a staggering technical achievement from auteur Zhang Yimou that uses a hybrid of Wuxia and romance conventions in the guise of a period film to show the self-destructive nature of love and how love can render a person powerless through deception. What makes Daggers an enthralling character piece is how Yimou subverts Wuxia conventions, whilst retaining the martial arts tropes and the historical authenticity of the traditional Tang dynasty. He does not mythologise the main characters as undefeatable superstitious warriors from Chinese folklore like the legendary Monkey King, but rather humanises them.
Critical consensus on the Rotten Tomatoes site describes the film as a “visual splendour”, with which I completely concur. Every scene is accompanied by a mesmerising colour scheme, creating the sensation of opening a nesting doll until you have reached the last one. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. If you have seen any of Zhang Yimou’s films, it comes as no surprise that Yimou is the master of colour application and visual artistry that is evident in his many film frames. Remember the iconic red lambent lit lanterns juxtaposed against the dark blistering winds and snowy backdrop in Raising the Red Lantern (1991) or even Shadow’s (2018) depiction of the city of Jinzhou, a society clothed in grey?
During the film’s opening, we see two government police officers from Feng Tian County Captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Captain Leo (Andy Lau) devise a plan to capture a showgirl (Zhang Ziyi) skilled in singing and dancing from the Peony Pavilion brothel. She is in fact an agent from the titular rebellious Robin Hood-esque group, an organisation bent on dismantling the “archaic” imperial government by giving to the poor. But how their plan transpires is nothing short of a cinematic miracle, a feast for the eyes.
Each ingredient that composes the Echo Dance is a chef’s kiss, with the scene depicting a vibrant and thriving Chinese culture on the edge of decadence. In this scene, Captain Leo challenges the suspected blind assassin Mei to the Echo Dance to test her abilities and see if she is the spy he is looking for. Yimou stages the Echo Dance successfully, including the intense diegetic sound of traditional Chinese drums and framing the drummers surrounding Mei who is positioned standing on a Peony mosaic, to make us feel confronted by the skill required to trace the direction of beans thrown by Leo. I certainly was. In fact, I was laser locked without blinking an eye. Zhang Ziyi really embodies the role of the fierce Mei, portraying her as a complex and dangerous woman despite her blindness as she performs the graceful, athletic and menacing combat dance moves convincingly. As the challenger, Andy Lau is excellent portraying Captain Leo as an individual who is very determined in his role to catch the assassin through his subtle performance. The scene culminates in an enthralling sword fight between these equally skilled warriors, resulting in Leo getting the upper hand.
After the Echo Dance, Mei is freed by a cloaked Jin and they journey across meadows, bamboo forests and fields with mountain ranges to reach the headquarters of the House of Flying Daggers. It comes to no surprise that Jin and Mei do fall in love, but can Jin be trusted? Daggers, as a film, is a cinematic rollercoaster of twists and turns the audience will not expect.
In the film’s final scene, there is an arresting climatic duel where the main characters are pitted against each other in a vicious fight to the death. It's here that Daggers’s intelligence shines through the minute details of the duel such as the snowy backdrop, which ultimately reveal the frailty of the human condition. Can the characters overcome the cold conditions through love while standing on their two feet fighting? What will it take to halt their human drive? I cannot say any more about the film’s final minutes beyond this point without spoiling the ending. However, despite the very atmospheric direction, layered characters and scenes blossoming with richness, the film is faltered by some of the writers’ choices the audience may overlook.
The fight scenes in Daggers contain CGI weapon throwing sequences that capture the trajectory and perspective of a blade or arrow in ballistic missile motion, which is often used in moments of peril faced by Mei and Jin. Yet, I find this trope repetitious at times to the point that my appreciation for this immersive visual effect eventually wore off. It can be argued that the repetitious nature of the image is used to subvert audience expectations in the third act (Spoilers: You’ll know when you see it) which is used masterfully well, however the preceding scenes where the effect is primarily used made the stakes feel low. I did not feel a sense of danger when watching Mei and Jin’s attempts to survive in those scenes. I should have.
Additionally, Captain Leo is eventually captured by the House of Flying Daggers and is interrogated by the subordinate of the unseen leader Nia, dressed in a green silk dress and a bamboo lamplike hat. The verbal exchange between the two is expository, however the way the dialogue is communicated does come across as forced but purposeful as it provides greater insight into Leo’s character and justifies his actions and presence in the final act.
Regardless, House of Flying Daggers does overcome these minor pitfalls through its use of spectacle, accompanied by compelling characters and the grandiose visual storytelling. There were times when I wanted to raise my arms and reach out to the screen, like a child experiencing 3D for the first time, because I felt transported into Ancient China, a testament to Yimou’s use of cinematic immersion. Xie Xie Ni Mr. Yimou.
Christopher Lo is a recent Communications and International Studies graduate at the University of Technology Sydney with Australian born Chinese heritage who is majoring in Journalism and French. Stemming from his French language studies and experiences living in France, Christopher wants to use his existing intercultural skills to rediscover his Chinese heritage and is keen to learn more about other Asian cultures in order to become a more culturally enriched global citizen. During his leisure time, Christopher likes to immerse himself in cinema and watch indie, retro and newly released films at the movies, and also likes to try a variety of international cuisines.