House of Flying Daggers
China 2004
Directed by Zhang Yimou.

This must be the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. The Tang Dynasty fairy tale takes place mostly outdoors, the backdrop the four seasons and the changing terrain, from forests to grasslands to bamboo groves. Against this natural backdrop each person's costume becomes the most detailed set piece in any scene, and thankfully, Zhang Yimou does not constantly change everyone's costumes to match the sets like he did in his previous swordfighting epic, HERO. Against this backdrop HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS tells a tale equally beautiful in its formal simplicity. If the message of HERO was that the state is more important than the individual, HOUSE turns that message over and suggests nothing is more important than love.

Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are two soldiers working for the tyrannical Tang Dynasty emperor. A rebellion, led by the Flying Daggers, is afoot. The rebel leader's daughter is said to be a blind martial artist, and they suspect the new girl brought to the local brothel, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), may be her in disguise. They capture her, then come up with an elaborate plan to reach the rebel leaders: fake an attack on the prison, and pretend that Jin is simply a wandering swordsman who has decided to come to her rescue. Leo and his troops will then follow at a distance, until they reach the House of Flying Daggers, where they may destroy the rebels once and for all.

And so, Jin goes "undercover", and flees with Mei. Soon he finds himself caught between their two worlds. He is forced to fight, and kill, government troops in order to survive. And he finds himself falling in love with blind Mei, despite harsh orders not to from Leo. They must undergo one trial after another, including some of the most fantastic battle sequences ever put on the screen, to reach their destination and to finish his mission. A battle scene in a bamboo grove must be the ultimate bamboo grove battle scene ever filmed, paying tribute to but also eclipsing the classic scenes in A TOUCH OF ZEN and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS really only has three characters in it, from start to finish: Leo, Jin, and Mei. Of the three, we at first dislike Jin the most, as he is constantly playing roles and trying to manipulate Mei, though his clumsy attempts at deception are endearing. By the end of the film, we understand that he was the most truly sincere and honest of the three, and it is he who had been deceived. All three characters conceal deception, and Jin's almost naive honesty becomes our anchor.

The story, concerning the Tang Emperor and the leader of the Flying Daggers, is similarly deceptive. After the opening credits, a text crawl informs us that the government is corrupt, positioning the Flying Daggers as a sort of Robin Hood outfit and suggesting clear sympathy with their cause. But by the time we encounter the group, they are as alien and inhospitable to love and individualism as the Emperor could ever be. By then, we realize that our heroes are not in the top rung of martial artists, as is usually the case in this sort of film. They are footsoldiers, pawns being moved about on a gameboard larger than themselves. And then the question arises -- why are we giving our lives to this thing that none of us understands, for ideals that are only distantly connected to reality? It was a central tenant of the writing of George Orwell that there is nothing more horrifying than a man who is willing to die for an idea. Humanity should be more important than that, reality should be understood as a daily compromise among people who struggle to get along as best they can. Each of the characters in HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS must decide whether it is worth dying for an idea, or whether it is better to live your life for the people you are with, to love. Some viewers bitterly complained that, when the Emperor's troops finally converge on the Flying Daggers, an epic battle likely to ensue, the movie passes over the event as if it were nothing, and never returns to discover the result. But by that point in the movie, it would be pointless to linger over the meaningless battle. We had already made our choice, and we chose love.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 27, 2005.


I agree with your first statement about this movie, "This must be the most beautiful movie I have ever seen."

I was as much blown away by the look of this movie as I was by the action.

Posted by: ShaolinChamberDotCom at April 21, 2005 05:33 AM
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