A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 283 – House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers – December 8th, 2010

Every so often I will look at our big list of movies and see something and think “That. That’s what I want to watch tonight.” Sometimes there’s a specific reason. Sometimes it just feels right. It took us a little while to get to our movie tonight but we still had about two hours and so I sorted the list by running time and scrolled down a little bit and there this was. Waiting. Full of lovely swordfights and wire-fu action sequences. And Ziyi Zhang. I really like her, so I was definitely excited to see her in this.

It’s a period piece, set during the decline of the Tang Dynasty. A group of mysterious rebels known as the Flying Daggers are wanted by the government. Captains Leo and Jin devise a plan to find the new leader of the Daggers by capturing an agent hiding in a local brothel and letting her think she’s escaped so they can follow her. Once the agent, Mei, has been captured, Jin poses as a former customer from the brothel who’s fallen for her and arranged her escape. He believes that Mei is blind and leads her into the forest. Of course there’s trickery involved. No one is quite who they seem to be at first glance. And of course there’s romance involved. While traveling Mei falls for Jin and Jin likewise falls for Mei, even though neither one is being honest with the other about what’s truly going on. By the time the movie reaches its climax there are reveals of double agents, plenty of fight scenes and a romantic triangle.

The funny thing is that while there’s this whole political struggle going on, with the government soldiers hunting down the Daggers and the Daggers planning ambushes on the soldiers and so on, the politics only really serve as a backdrop and set-up for this semi-Romeo and Juliet plot. As a member of the Daggers Mei can’t really afford to fall in love with a government soldier, even if he has technically quit by the end of the movie. And Jin can’t stay with Mei. He’s not truly on the same side as the Daggers. The specifics of the time period and politics aren’t really dealt with much at all. It’s all there for the setting and the costumes and the general feel to it all, because let’s face it – setting up a couple on opposing sides of a war can be done all over the place. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s something to keep in mind going into the movie.

I don’t fault the choice in visual settings one bit, really. Apparently the costumes and props were all based on period paintings, and they do lend a particularly vivid touch to it all. Yes, the bold colors are a lot of that, but it’s not just the color choices. It’s the clothing styles and the swords (oh god, the swords) and the armor and everything. It is a visually gorgeous movie, with plenty of care taken not just with the colors, but with the shot composition and cinematography. Every scene is beautiful.

Fortunately for the movie, it’s not just pretty. Pretty movies are all well and good, but they need a good plot and good acting to back them up. In this case I give a ton of credit to Ziyi Zhang and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Andy Lau was excellent as Leo, but really it’s Jin and Mei who make up the vast majority of the movie and they play very well off of each other. I have no complaints about the acting or the overall plot and definitely not the visuals.

My only real criticism of the movie is that even though it has this fantastic strong female lead who can kick ass and hold her own, she ends up being a pawn. The climactic battle isn’t her fighting to make her own choice, it’s two men fighting over their claim on her. That’s disappointing but not unexpected. One could argue that all three of them, Mei and the two men, are pawns (Jin even says as much about himself and Mei), but in the end look who fights and who’s bleeding on the sidelines. Look who lives and who dies. And it’s really all because of a dude who can’t take no for an answer. I mean, throw a dagger into the chest of the woman you profess to love? Yeah, that spells romance to me. Totally not controlling or abusive when you tell her she made you do it by not loving you.

I will say this, though: Never once is an assault on a woman portrayed as totally cool. There’s one scene that starts out questionable and then isn’t. And it ends when the woman makes it clear that she’s done. It’s outright stated by the leader of the Flying Daggers that a man should never force a woman against her will. I’m down with that. I just wish the ending had been stronger for said woman. Instead of being an agent of her own destiny she’s an object to be fought over. She got to make her choice, but was punished for it. It’s all very symbolic and tragic, yes, but it’s frustrating. I really liked her character and I really disliked her assailant and I’m not terribly satisfied with the ending.

Still, I can see what was being aimed at. And aside from the specifics of the ending, I think the movie did an excellent job. It’s gorgeous in many different ways and I was thoroughly enthralled by it for the vast majority of its two hours. I can live with quibbling over the ending if I get the rest of the movie prior to that. It’s truly worth it, and not just for Ziyi Zhang’s fight scenes, though I admit? Those do weigh heavily in the movie’s favor.

December 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

House of Flying Daggers

December 8, 2010

House of Flying Daggers

Crouching Tiger led to this. The audacity of an American film-maker to make the iconic big budget Chinese wire-fu movie! It was a call to arms that China as a nation could not ignore. And so they called upon Zang Yimou, himself a national treasure, to reclaim wire-fu as a treasured Chinese art form. This movie, along with the much more blatantly political Hero which came before it, represent the absolute pinnacle of period kung fu as pure art. (At least that is my interpretation of events.)

The story here is simultaneously starkly simple and convoluted. It is more a character study than an action movie – the action drives the characters as they are manipulated by the complex opposing forces that surround them. At the heart of the film are two people: the blind dancer Mei who is an agent of the rebel group known as the Flying Daggers and the dashing government agent Jin who is trying to infiltrate the Flying Daggers by getting into her good graces. Both of them have their loyalties tested to the extreme as the movie progresses. They are torn by their dedication to the opposing sides of a greater conflict and their ill-advised growing affection for each other.

The movie mostly concentrates on Jin, since it isn’t until quite late in the movie that we learn much about Mei and the many deceptions involved in her role. We know that he is a cocky strong-willed lady’s man who uses his charm and his skill in battle to hunt the members of the Flying Daggers. He rescues Mei from jail after she is arrested by his superior officer Leo (himself a conflicted character with more to him than you might at first expect.) They believe that she is the missing blind daughter of the former leader of the Flying Daggers whom they were instrumental in executing. If Jin can convince her that he is on her side perhaps she will lead him to the new head of the rebels. So Jin takes on the persona of a wandering knave calling himself “The Wind.” But he is anguished when he is forced to kill soldiers on the emperor’s side who are sent to hunt him and Mei down. There are plots within plots as the general in command of the mission to eliminate the Flying Daggers takes over Leo’s operation and Jin finds himself not just a double agent but a hunted man. Leo warns him not to fall for Mei, but Jin finds himself falling anyhow. Then things get complicated.

I always love when a director has the faith in his actors to let important plot points be communicated with little or no dialog, and this is a technique used quite well in this film. Takeshi Kaneshiro as Jin and Zhang Ziyi as Mei have several scenes where the internal conflict that drives their characters plays out simply through their facial expressions in tight close-up shots. They both deliver stunning performances which draw the viewer into the movie and make you care about these poor characters.

The fight scenes throughout the movie are, of course, absolutely gorgeous. Each one has a different tone and setting from the thrilling battle between Mei and four riders with pikes to the silent, mystical and almost peaceful ambush in the bamboo forest. The choreography and editing are fluid and graceful. The blend of classic wire work and modern CGI special effects is flawless and mesmerizing. Indeed it’s not just the fight scenes – the entire movie is a feast for the eyes. Yimou uses a rich saturated color palette and fills every frame with astonishing beauty. The many gorgeous locations alone are worth watching the movie.

I’m not too certain about the politics of this movie. After watching Hero I was ready for a strong message about the power of the people or faith in the unified government, but this movie is much harder to pin down. Certainly the emperor’s forces are faceless bad-guys. We never even see the general who pulls their strings – we only see the many troops sent to hunt Mei and Jin. And I kind of figured that the Robin Hood like rebels that are the House of Flying Daggers would resonate as a strong populist movement in China, but when we finally meet them they are as manipulative and heartless as the emperor’s agents if not more so. Ultimately, as I said before, the movie is about these characters and the conflict between their beliefs and their feelings. The final climactic battle between the Daggers and the emperor’s assassins is only alluded to, and the climax of the movie is much more personal. They even say themselves that they know they are only pawns in a greater game – nobody cares if they live or die. Except perhaps us, the viewers.

This movie steadfastly refuses to fall into simple categorization. It is art, and needs to be viewed as such. I think what you get out of the movie is deeply personal, since it is so reluctant to provide easy answers. All I know is that it’s astonishingly, heartrendingly beautiful. A major accomplishment, and, yes, I think a better movie than Crouching Tiger.

December 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment