House of Flying Daggers
It may be hard to justify a grade of 10/10
for a film of which the only flaw is that it isn't particularly profound. But maybe profundity is overrated. Maybe it's enough that House of Flying Daggers
is the greatest martial arts movie I've ever seen. And man, is it ever a huge source of redemption for its director, the world-class master Zhang Yimou, who is coming off the only mediocrity of his career. Hero
was basically a bullshit script with window dressing visuals, an art film for bankers, Republicans, and insurance claims adjusters who wanted pretty pictures on the weekend. Daggers
is a different beast entirely -- it's essentially an escapist adventure film, a road picture and a love triangle, made with the artful skill of planet Earth's greatest living cinematic craftsman.
Takeshi Kaneshiro (a veteran of Wong Kar-wai's brilliant films Chungking Express
and Fallen Angels
) stars as an undercover cop posing as a rebel in order to lead his police force (led by the great Andy Lau of Fulltime Killer) to the hideout of the Flying Daggers, a Robin Hood-type clan of the people who rage against the tyrannical, incompetent government of China in the 9th century. Things get dicey when Kaneshiro falls in love with the blind dancer he travels with (Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Yimou's replacement for Gong Li whom he introduced to the world with a bang in The Road Home
), and suddenly duty conflicts with passion. This plot template is the stuff of classic myths and legends, simplistic fairy tale romances that care more about the How than the What. But the characters here are as rich and complex as you could want, helping to drive the plot twists (and there are several) instead of falling victim to their contrived machinations. Lau's inner turmoil is potent and heartbreaking, while Kaneshiro and Zhang generate enormous chemistry loaded with lust, romance, and sacrifice. Also note the subtle arcs that the movie takes, going from lies to truth, from betrayal to love, and from safety and artifice to brutal, bloody violence. It's a grand tale indeed, but it would just be another tale without the man behind the camera.
From one exquisite setpiece to the next, Zhang Yimou steps up to the plate and delivers action like you'd never expect from a previously sedate melodramatic storyteller like him. Remember when Terrence Malick came out of nowhere and shot some of the most intense war scenes ever put on film? Zhang may have warned us with his warm-up exercise of Hero
, but it's still worth several double takes to see the choreography and dynamism of these fight sequences. The best visceral scene is The Echo Game in the brothel towards the beginning, a musical dance with nuts, drums, whipping sleeves, and spinning legs. A surreal fight in a bamboo forest is ridiculously cool and creative. And the climactic standoff in a snowy field amps up the visual cues -- Zhang's camera is shoving its lens deep into close-ups so we can ache for the characters while the weather is punishing the frame with blurry chaos. The camera is never where it shouldn't be; every frame is a painting, and every cut is on beat. Even story-wise, just when you're wondering where all the general's troops are while the lovers are pouring their hearts out, Zhang will cut to an ominous descent of an army to keep you informed.
House of Flying Daggers
is such superlative cinema that it's hard to imagine a better example of the genre. Although we may not be intellectually impressed by a film that once again favors youthful emotion and defiance over loyalty and tradition, it's impossible to deny the resonance of our tear-stained cheeks as we stumble drunkenly out of the theater. This is Zhang's greatest testament to the frailty and wonder of the human condition since To Live
, and the best visual work of art he has produced since Raise the Red Lantern
. If martial arts and wuxia films are fine as escapism, then the bonuses you get from Flying Daggers
should feel like the most generous gift you could possibly get this holiday season.