If there were a movie to watch featuring beautiful people in pretty clothes, it’s House of Flying Daggers. Does this sound shallow? In most cases, perhaps, but understandable when the director is Zhang Yimou. Yimou loves bold, striking colors. His historical Chinese epic includes plenty of scenes where his actors in striking costumes and equally unrealistic monochrome environments. A later scene set in a bamboo forest has Mei, played by Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), dressed in a conical hat and fetching bright green robes. Is she auditioning for a pistachio commercial? No, she is once again starring in a Zhang Yimou film.
Her most arresting ensemble, though, can be seen in her introduction. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a drunken patron, takes tea in a brothel where glowing butterfly patterns decorate the floor and requests “the new girl”. Enter Mei, a blind dancer, first robed in a purple dress decorated with green peacock patterns and reveals sins of powder blue, pink, and gold. It and the equally pastel palette of the room — where every surface is covered in an ornate pattern and each angle seems to reveal brand new decorations — strongly contrasts with the typical red and yellow trim of most historical Chinese period pieces. Soon, Zhang puts that Beijing Dance Academy training to use as she gracefully swings the long ribbon-like cloths on her sleeves to tap at the drums. The dreamlike surroundings feel like something lifted from another country, almost Persian or Arabian.
It’s all a trap, though. Police chief, Leo (Andy Lau) is trying to uncover the House of Flying Daggers, a rebel organization fighting against an oppressive government. (It’s not just a cool name. The assassins carry a pouch of three boomerang daggers.) He suspects Mei to be the daughter of the rebel leader.
His plan is to trick the poor blind girl into unwittingly revealing the location of the Flying Daggers’ hide-out. Leo arrests Mei after forcing her to reveal her sword-fighting skills… a stellar scene for Zhang Ziyi, where she swings her blade without looking directly at Leo. Fortunately, Mei is spared from torture when Jin is revealed to be a rebel sympathizer. He frees Mei from prison ninja-style and joins her as she tries to get back to her family (while disguised unconvincingly as a male traveling companion).
Zhang Ziyi, by the way, doesn’t have a monopoly on the cool outfits. The devastatingly handsome Kaneshiro looks equally fantastic in his finely patterned purple silk robes and performance vest. My wife and I had, at some point, had serious discussions to cosplay as these two.
Things, though, are not as the seem. Everyone has a hidden agenda. Twists are unveiled at a steady pace, causing you to question scenes that happened just a few minutes ago. They’re like the titular flying dagger, appearing from out of nowhere and slicing through all you had previously surmised. I actually had to rewrite this review several times because the first twenty minutes already contain two major twists that can be counted a spoilers. When there’s twists on top of those twists, it’s hard to keep track of which spoilers to keep secret. Since Zhang Ziyi plays a blind character, some of the twists happen right in front of her eyes where she can’t see.
Here’s where Zhang Yimou’s storytelling abilities can fail him a bit. Like a hyper-saturated Terrence Malick film, the ethereal visuals come first, which dull the impact of the plot twists and revelations. There are times, too, when it seems that Zhang doesn’t care much for the plot at all. There’s on major plot line, built up over the course of the movie, that’s intentionally left dangling. It caused my wife to throw up her hands in frustration, upset she’d spent the whole movie waiting for a scene that didn’t happen.
Character motivations, too, don’t rise much beyond the superficial. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — a movie that likely inspired Zhang Yimou’s entire 2000’s output — includes complex relationships bubbling under the surface of prim and proper facades in the same cloak-and-dagger scenario. Despite the devious nature of many of the characters in this movie, they all remain somewhat one-dimensional. Mei and Jin fall for each other because, well, they’re both really, really ridiculously good looking.
There’s also a recurring theme of men attempting sexual violence on Mei, and it’s not comfortable. While she’s blind and thus a little helpless, we also know early on that she’s a capable fighter. Thus it’s hard to watch when a strong woman is so easily dominated, and when that scene is artfully shot in Zhang Yimou’s signature style.
House of Flying Daggers is almost best viewed as a dance. There are action sequences, yes, but they’re best seen as exquisite performance pieces set on spectacular backdrops. When it comes to Zhang Yimou, the stagecraft is the art. I’ll always keep coming back to his movies for the visuals alone. There’s one scene, for example, where a blizzard suddenly descends on the landscape and everything is covered in white. There’s almost no rationale for this sudden change in the weather other than that the scene looks more interesting that way. What do seasons matter beyond providing a treat for the eyes?
Next: it’s time to break out of the Hong Kong/Chinese movie sphere…. and into one made of a hundred robots. We’ll take a look at Indian sci-fi movie and internet meme darling, Enthiran (or as it’s known in English: Robot).