The genuine fury: House of Flying Daggers

Originally published in The Ticket, an independent newsmagazine of Vashon Island.

Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s first foray into action filmmaking, Hero, was a thrilling concatenation of calligraphy, crossed swords, and overlapping narratives. Conceived as an epic, Hero compensated dazzlingly acrobatic fight choreography for the emotional rawness of Zhang’s earlier, character-driven films Ju Dou and To Live. In his newest work, House of Flying Daggers, released this month by Sony Pictures Classics, the director jostles his past and present styles, attempting to infuse a genre picture with something intimate.

Both an action movie and a chamber drama, House of Flying Daggers remains distant from its eponymous title group: a band of Tang Dynasty Robin Hoods, anti-government rebels who steal from the rich to give to the poor. Screen titles inform us of a corrupt government led by an incompetent emperor (shades of the Bush Administration?) and of the fierce rivalry between the House and the Emperor’s deputies. The director, however, never quite shows us the rebels’ daring deeds; the peasants who benefit from their actions and the opposing rulers are, likewise, left to our imaginations. Zhang instead focuses his story on three individuals: a cop, a rogue, and a blind prostitute. While there are soldiers by the bushel and (much too briefly) an assortment of silk-clad courtesans, all of them remain walk-ons.

House of Flying Daggers initially takes the point-of-view of the law-enforcing status quo. The movie opens at a police station where deputies trade cop banter that sounds as if hard-boiled private eyes were composing haiku: “If I die under a skirt,” quips one officer, “I can still flirt as a ghost.” Zhang co-wrote the movie with Li Feng and Wang Bin, who collaborated on Hero. The dialogue, at least in its English subtitles, manages at best to be unobtrusive.

At Peony Pavilion, a sort of Technicolor brothel where the idle rich consort with whores named for flowers, the movie introduces Mei, a sightless young working girl and “a dancer of rare skills,” according to her madam. As Mei, the 25-year-old actress Ziyi Zhang enters with unhurried stateliness. She wears a stiff brocade of turquoise and pale blue, and Mei’s chief accessory is a golden headdress; when she dances to a solemn chorus of bowed erhu strings, the dangling baubles that extend from her elaborate tiara play pretty wind chimes.

Sooner rather than later, House of Flying Daggers leaves both police precinct and den of ill repute far behind. In a turn of events that could only serve as logic in wuxia, Mei’s dancing — a riveting routine in which shell peas ricochet off tom-toms — exposes her as a spy, as a member of the Flying Daggers. Most of the movie, then, follows Mei’s flight from the Emperor’s forces, the long journey toward the “House.”

What was already apparent in the Pavilion scenes becomes even more painfully pronounced in the roaming through fields and forests: the movie should have had Christopher Doyle as cinematographer. I hadn’t realized until seeing bits of Hero again recently, projected onto the wall of a Thai restaurant in Seattle, how dependent that film had been on Doyle’s brilliant sense of color, his astonishing eye for composition. Doyle’s work has often been the saving grace of the films he chooses: his moody atmospherics lent Last Life in the Universe and In the Mood for Love an impression of substance that was, in fact, absent from their screenplays. House of Flying Daggers makes it clear that Hero‘s aesthetic elation stems more from Doyle than Zhang Yimou.

This time around, Zhang works with Zhao Xiaoding as his director of photography, and the results are vastly inferior. Zhao achieves one virtuosic image early on: he fills nearly the entire frame with the undulating ripples of lavender bead curtains, during a moment when Mei, who has been sword-fighting with a police captain, loses track of her opponent. The swaying bead strands evocatively mirror the heroine’s uncertainty. Zhao’s exterior shots, however, consistently lack vividness; they’re too hazy and indistinct, and even the romantic spectacle of a warrior using his sword as a scythe in order to lasso a wildflower bouquet (to give to the blind dancer) looks too ordinary for it to register with our senses.

The three performers generate their own visual interest. As a rakish playboy who calls himself Wind, the half-Japanese, half-Taiwanese, fully handsome actor Takeshi Kaneshiro expertly conveys a sense of lust deepening into love. The erotic interplay between Wind and Mei, as they caress each other amidst the woods, gives the movie what strength it has (the perfunctory fight sequences certainly don’t). The director raises the question of shucking political causes if love and emotions grow to matter more, then scarcely pursues the issue. It might have been redundant if he had; all those conflicting needs are right there in Kaneshiro’s changes of expression.

I can’t tell how good an actress Ziyi Zhang may be. She has palpable sexual chemistry with Kaneshiro as well as Tony Lau (as the policeman who’s trailing her), although her character doesn’t traverse the same dramatic arcs as theirs. The climactic fight between the two men battling it out — over Mei, of course — takes place during a blizzard, and for once the cinematographer awakens to nature’s possibilities on film. There’s a stunning shot of dark gray clouds just before the snow begins to fall, and the beating, the blood-letting, the genuine fury of the combatants — all are mightily imposing in an ocean of white. — NPT

December 13, 2004