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Original Title:
Shi mian mai fu

China 2004

Wuxia, Drama, Romance

Zhang Yimou

Takeshi Kaneshiro
Andy Lau
Zhang Ziyi
Song Dandan

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House of Flying Daggers

Story: During the Tang Dynasty the land is ruled by corrupt bureaucrats and a powerless emporer. In times like this an underground opposition crystalizes, the "House of Flying Daggers". They steal from the rich and provide the poor with what they have, which is the reason why they are highly regarded among the people. However, their plan to bring down the government proves to be difficult to put into action. Their leader gets killed by the government and an all-deciding battle seems to be unavoidable.
Involved into the doings that unfold are the policemen Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau). They hear a rumor that the daughter of the former leader of the "Flying Daggers" hides in a local brothel. Jin visits the brothel undercover as a customer and soon gets to know the blind girl Mei (Zhang Ziyi). Leo also appears and takes Mei and Jin into custody. Together Jin and Leo now plan, that Jin rescues Mei and flees. The two policemen hope that this way Mei might lead them to the "Flying Daggers" hideout so that they can be taken out once and for all.
When on the run, Jin and Mei repeatedly get attacked by soldiers of the emporer. Leo can't help his friend, because it's the emporer's wish that the fights look real, so that Jin can obtain the blind girl's confidence. Anyway, on their escape Jin and Mei develop more than just trust for each other. However, it seems that in this world of betrayal there is no place for love...

Review: Zhang Yimou's movie following his "Hero" again proves to be an impressive film, thanks to its visual style and ingeniousness, yet also dissappoints in several areas. This doesn't mean that the movie is bad, yet it can sometimes be a frustrating movie to watch for some viewers. There isn't much to get out of the plot and moreover the story is by far less epic than in Zhang's former masterpiece. In return we get a well wrapped-up love story, but sadly it lacks some well elaborated characters. This creates a certain space between the audience and the events that seldomly can be overcome, which also means that you rarely can get emotionally involved in the movie.

Concerning the visuals Yimou again shows what he is best at. This time his pictures don't look that contrived and beautiful, but instead the natural beauty of the scenery is in the camera lense's focus. And still, sometimes it feels as if every picture is painted by hand. Interesting camera angles and a lot of long shots, in which everything seems to stand still, please the eye. Towards the end Zhang can't help it, but to use a colour that is unquestionably more dominant than any other one. Green is not only the colour of the bamboo forest in which the "Flying Daggers" hide, but also the colour of the costumes of the members of the organisation. For my taste, this reminded me a little bit too much of "Hero", nonetheless you have to give costume designer Emi Wada ("Hero", of course, but also "The Bride with white Hair") credit for her beautiful work.
One of the visual highlights is the obligative fight in the bamboo forest, which is quite typical for any Wuxia movie, but never looked as wonderful as here.

Zhang Ziyi's dancing interlude at the movie's beginning is an eyecandy, as well. Now she finally is allowed to show what she really learned in her life, which is not Martial Arts as many might believe (she was never trained in it), but dancing. Even though she really cuts quite a dash in her fighting scenes. She also can show some of her singing skills, but although this might be impressive, it also almost needlessly protracts the introduction.
Which is also one of the movie's biggest flaws. There are way too many lengths. Various scenes are a little bit stretched for a reason, most of the time in order to intensify the love story and the drama going hand in hand with it, but as already mentioned this just doesn't work out the way it was intended since the characters aren't intriguing enough.
The characers are a topic on their own. They act and look truly poetic, but this also means that several of their motives and actions can't be understood at all. It's as if reading a novel of Shakespeare where you would really like to take the main character aside to tell him that he should act a little bit more uncomplicated and less radical. Yet, "House of Flying Daggers" is just that: poetry. And so the protagonists are torn between their loyalty, their uprightness and their love on the other side.

Actually, there is nothing to criticize concerning the portrayel of the characters. Takeshi Kaneshiro ("Perhaps Love") plays the playboy, who with time develops feelings of love for Mei, very convincingly and especially Andy Lau ("Infernal Affairs") bestows upon his character something unfathomable and later on even shows that he is acting according to his own tragic motives. Still, no one of them can't hide the fact that their characters remain incredible shallow most of the time. Zhang Ziyi ("Memoirs of a Geisha") surely may be a good actress, but somehow she just ends up with similar roles. Mei's unending back and forth whom of her lovers she should choose eventually becomes quite unnerving and boring. At least Ziyi does a fine job portraying a blind girl.

The fight scenes, luckily, give everybody the chance to turn up the heat. We already knew that Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi can deal out quite some punches and kicks, but even Andy Lau cuts quite a figure! Even though he sometimes has to rely on the special effets that support him. Nevertheless, one did avoid to implement too much wire work, so that the fights take place on the ground most of the time. Yet, they are great to watch and even feature some acrobatics.
It's also a bit unusual that there is more blood shed than what we are used to. The blood doesn't gush out from every wound litre by litre, but one still did take the trouble to make certain scenes look very realistic, concerning the violence.
It was a good choice to make the fights look somewhat more brutal, aggressive and emotional. This way the emotions are conveyed more easily and the fact that the final battle lasts from autumn until winter imbues the whole sequence with something epic and poetical.

Then there is the ending, of course. For some it might be disappointing that the actual fight between the government and the "Flying Daggers" is just suggested, but the film simply concentrates mainly on the love story. A story of loyalty, love, but also betrayal. The original title of the movie "Shi mian mai fu" translates as "ambush on all sides" (or literally "ambush on ten sides") and so it's not really surprising that there are several twists and revelations at the end. However, this can't curtain the fact that the story is way too predictable and is written according to a stereotypical wuxia-drama scheme.
The ending is also the stage for an emotional overkill, when one of the supposedly dead protagonists opens the eyes for the third or fourth time already to make his last words heard. These scenes aren't that moving as they were supposed to, even if eventually there will be a cold shiver running down your back. Yet, tears you won't shed...

Let's not take into account that the western audience still doesn't seem to be ready for movies like this. I remember that there was laughter at the most inappropriate scenes when watching it in cinema. And this is only because of the cleft between our different cultures? No, it's more like that most viewers still can't understand that these films are in fact fantasy movies. When the prince kisses awake Snow White, then this is a fairy tale and when Superman jumps out of a phone booth dressed in a red-blue playsuit then this is a comic. However, when two Chinese men fight a battle a whole season through, then this is no poetry on screen, but only odd? Why? There still seem to be many Westerners, nowadays, that are blinded by Boom-crash-Hollywood-CGI-loaded-stuff...

At the bottom line, "House of Flying Dagger" is a very recommendable film, that scores with wonderful pictures, great visual effects and a grandious soundtrack by Shigeru Umebayashi. Sadly, the content can't meet the expectations the wrapping raises. The love story is almost too hackneyed, the characters are drawn too shallow and the ending for some might prove to hit the screen a bit unexpected. Moreover, some lengths flaws the positive overall picture.
If you can live with the movie's downsides, you can experience a Wuxia drama told in impressive pictures, which eventually makes us hope that Zhang Yimou will deliver something more profound and story-loaded next time.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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