House of Flying Daggers
Filmmaker Zhang Yimou certainly understands how to wield the visual sensuality and rapture of color. After years of peasant stories (To Live and The Road Home) and historical dramas (Shanghai Triad and Raise the Red Lantern), he has ventured into the realm of martial-arts adventures with a painter’s mind-set and a bright, sumptuous palette. His recent Hero was a potent blend of bloodshed, intrigue, love, deception and loyalty fed to us in elegant, mood-altering chunks dominated by single colors (red, blue, white and green). His current House of Flying Daggers is just as intoxicating and even more vibrant but, unlike Hero, feels more concerned with plumage and ballets of violence than with people, politics and philosophy.
Zhang is one of the most prolific and celebrated members of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers, a historical name tag for the first students who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy after the end of the Cultural Revolution. His stories, which helped elevate Chinese cinema into international acclaim during the 1980s, play like cinematic folk songs of see-sawing human struggles that combine artistic as well as commercial elements.
Daggers follows suit, but its near-orgasmic focus on visual beauty softens and seamlessly intermingles its flow of action and human emotions to the point that style overpowers rather than accentuates substance. Characters are driven by and make sacrifices for love. They are involved in seemingly insurmountable battles that result in huge body counts. Their lives collapse into an operatic intimacy that classical soprano Kathleen Battle complements within the theme song. There is such an epic, lush and highly theatrical force at work here that the relationships between two men and the woman they both love never gel or resonate beyond their obvious melodramatic structure.
The film is set in the Tang Dynasty, circa 859 A.D. The government is corrupt, and a group of rebels called the Flying Daggers is spreading unrest in the countryside with its rob-from-the-rich, give-to-the-poor approach to justice. It took three months for government deputies to track down and kill the leader of Daggers. Now, a new leader has appeared, and the group is stronger than before, so two captains are given just 10 days to eliminate this latest thorn in the government’s side.
The basic story is thin and pivots on several surprises of varying impact, but the action here is mind-boggling. The main characters survive onslaughts of ridiculous dimensions, and salvation often arrives with only a heartbeat to spare. But Zhang and company have conjured up a breathless, exhilarating action “reality” that transcends even the wire-flying and other special effects of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The lengthy introduction in a brothel includes the playing of the Echo Game. A circle of drums is formed, and a male client of the establishment bounces beans off the heads of multiple drums. A blind courtesan then duplicates the trajectory of the beans by flinging, in slow motion, the long-sleeves of her gown at the instruments while she is airborne. The protracted final showdown begins in a meadow surrounded by flaming autumn colors that soon are buried in a snowstorm. An attack in a bamboo forest with a swarm of assassins slithering up and down the trees like rabid chameleons and chucking spears with phantasmagorical precision is an instant action classic. The only less-than-stunning sequence features an obviously fake squirrel, which looks like the animatronics cousin to the gopher in Caddyshack, that swings on a sword dangling from a tree limb.
Zhang has referred to Daggers as “a love story wrapped inside an action film.” It includes the now-obligatory expression of suppressed emotion to the degree that one slowly falling teardrop expresses a lifetime of pent up sorrows. The difference this time is that the wrapping turns out to be much more diverting than the content inside.