On a line at a Blockbuster Video in mid-town Manhattan, I recently overheard a patron infer that he had interest in renting Zhang Yimou’s Hero because he liked the “first one,” to which he was referring Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If anything, this moment in urban boredom illustrates that the latter Hong Kong-born film’s $130 million domestic intake has been both a blessing and a curse. Ironically, while it has expanded foreign-film awareness, it seems to have fostered a minority “they all look the same to me” bias. The blessing is that cinematic goodies from the East -- like Yimou’s fine House of Flying Daggers –will, in growing numbers, continue to leap over the Pond Pacific and splash onto the local big screen.
Made a full two years after Hero, House, set during the Tang dynasty in 859 A.D., outlays its storyline like a fortune cookie: On the outside, there is a warring conflict – which feels rather timely -- between a chivalrous, yet outlawed, group (The House of Flying Daggers) and the corrupt government that’s in abusively in power. Yimou’s focus, though, is what’s inside the cookie: a building romantic triangle involving the beautiful, blind but deadly Mei (Hero and Crouching Tiger star Ziyi Zhang), a member of the Daggers, and the two undercover cops, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) assigned to take her down. While the Chopsocky-meets-Romeo and Juliet love story provides greater emotional resonance than the messier-plotted Hero, it still feels a bit awkward and immature; especially when compared to, say, the soulful urban emotion conveyed in the cinema of another Hong Kong master, Wong Kar-Wai. For example, Mei and Jin’s sex scene, possibly too hot for Hong Kong’s conservative censors, feels stilted and staged to these American eyes. The amorous dialogue, too, gets easily lost in a translation of multiple “wind” metaphors that grow increasingly tiresome as they appear. On the other hand, there is also some provocative imagery to be found, as when Leo furiously fires a dagger that slices through what appears to be a walnut that Mei has tossed and nails it to a tree.
Please don’t go thinking that this movie is all red roses, happy hearts, and tumbling tears. Ass indeed is kicked, and often, in a mouth-dropping fashion that will make our Blockbuster patron proud (My personal favorites are the “Echo Game” and the scene in the bamboo forest). What sets this film apart is the heightened attention Yimou pays the technical aspects of his breathtaking action sequences, especially in sound and camera work. Nary will such an occurrence pass without some intensive onomatopoeia: the whoosh of a flying dagger, the ping of clashing swords and the crack of splintering bamboo. The fighting sequences are also filled with a clearly audible heavy breathing and deep grunting by male and female participants alike that border on erotic opera. While Christopher Dolan’s cinematography in Hero received much notice for its striking hues, Xiaoding Zhao’s work in House is more natural, autumnal and subtle but equally as effective. Shot mostly outdoors, you can feel and see the seasons change, sometimes from shot-to-shot. Included in the fun, too, are POV shifts to inanimate daggers, arrows, tiny spears or rocks as fly through the air, seizing us in their wake.
Technical mastery aside, House Of Flying Daggers is an excellent thrill ride. But while it seeks a higher ground with a more tender touch, it lacks the overall characterizations and emotions could have made it truly memorable. Certainly, it is of a high enough quality to bring our Blockbuster patron back for another helping.