A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , , , , , ,

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