This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Shi mian mai fu, or House of Flying Daggers, or occasionally Lovers, sure has a weight of expectation on its shoulders. With director Yimou Zhang hot from directing the most successful Chinese movie that there’s ever been both critically and commercially in the awesome shape of Hero, even my jaded, cynical old bones were anticipating it’s release so badly frequent changes of underwear was required. However, it’s difficult to improve on Hero and House of Flying Daggers doesn’t, although it’s still better than ninety odd percent of movies ever made.
Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) are provincial coppers working for a dying dynasty on the brink of civil war, holding order by acts of brutality and general nastiness. Part of their police duties are to investigate the Rebel Alliance, headed by Mon Motha. That can’t be right. Ah, to investigate the House of Flying Daggers, the self styled revolutionary army who’s leader Leo and Jin have just bumped off. Striving to find clues as to the new leaders of the Daggers, they get wind of a blind dancer skilled in dance and martial arts in the shapely shape of Mei (Ziyi Zhang). With the old leader having a daughter about Mei’s age, also blind, also skilled in the same areas, you can see the mental wheels turning. Hatching a plot to have Mei arrested and Jin work undercover to effect her escape in a bid to flush out the Daggers, things start to go off the rails once Jin begins to fall in love with Mei, hampering his work and proving unfortunate all round given the third act revelations.
Given the personnel change between this and Hero in retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised by the change in focus of the works. If there’s going to be a lot of fighting, cast Jet Li and Donnie Yen. If there’s more of a slant towards little interpersonal dramas then cast respected actors with action pedigrees such as Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshio. That said, if you’re coming off the back of the most successful addition to the whole wushu cannon in a couple of decades changing any part of the formula would be risky, and in this case not one that’s paid off. Swapping jaw-slackening action scenes with trite homilies about the overwhelming power of love does not seem a fair trade.
Love stories have their place, but I’m not convinced this is it. Were it a particularly good love based tug-o-war then it may have been forgivable, but the Attack of the Clones level dialogue on show for the bulk of the non-chop sockey sections tends more towards laughable than captivating. In particular, try any of Jin’s seduction techniques and expect outright dismissal at best, physical violence at worst, making it the least believable part of a movie that frequently features people fighting without a care in the world on top of trees.
This is being churlish, I’m just a little upset about this. From first view of the chill-inducing trailer a good couple of months ago this was the only film I’ve been truly been excited about seeing in some time. The slew of overwhelmingly positive, glowing, nay incandescent notices heaped upon it further fuelled this, and not a one of them mentioned that the script had been written by someone with a tenth Dan understanding of fight scenes and a primary school understanding of romance. Once again, the established movie press let us down and it’s left to us to sweep up the pieces. Tsk, tsk.
Quite why I’m expecting halfway believable dialogue from a genre where people can leap tall buildings in a single bound and occasionally walk on water I’m not sure, but there’s limits on how far you can push a man, y’know. The upside to all of this, in a sense at least, is that despite this self administered hamstring injury House of Flying Daggers is more than capable of finishing its race with great honours heaped upon it. Yimou Zhang drops the vibrant, ever changing single colour themed sequences of Hero for something a little more subdued but no less beautiful. From the ornate brothel when we first meet Mei through to the bamboo forests towards the conclusion there’s rarely a setting that doesn’t impress. You won’t find many movies over the next year that look much better than this I’ll wager, although Hero certainly beats it. That phrase may become something of a mantra.
I can’t fault the actors either. Remarkably Andy Lau’s now been in over one hundred movies, notably Fulltime Killer and the superb Infernal Affairs and he brings his A game as the officious, stern, sadistic copper. His expressions during the Echo game played in the brothel are a joy to watch. Takeshi Kaneshiro may be less familiar to Western audiences, although gamers may realise he’s the voice and in-game model for Capcom’s Onimusha and some may have picked up the enjoyable sci-fi yarn Returner, recently thrown out on DVD in Blighty. He’s also on form, his interaction with Lau flowing freely with oodles of charm to spare. Both actors seem uncomfortable later in the cycle, the clumsy dialogue causing problems more to do with the writing than the delivery. Ziyi Zhang’s a Yimou Zhang mainstay now, and she’s just as graceful and naturalistic as we’ve come to expect.
All take to the genre’s wire heavy combat like ducks to water, even the swordplay of the finale taken in stride. Kudos to Yimou Zhang for making them look like they’ve been in the dojo almost as long as Jet Li was, kudos to the cast for giving such game action performances. The choreography peaks at much the same level as Hero, it’s just not reaching those heights that often.
It’s perhaps not fair to keep harking on about this film being firmly in Hero‘s shadow, but it’s the comparison Yimou Zhang himself invites so that’s what it’s judged by. If there’s a negative tone to the above works is just because I’m disappointed, the movie itself doesn’t really deserve such harsh tones. As beautiful and graceful a movie as this hardly justifies a low mark and it’s certainly a more remarkable and enjoyable film than the majority you’ll see over the next year, I’ll wager. Watch it.