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poster artwork for House of Flying Daggers

blind dancer Mei in Peony Pavilion

Mei and Jin on the run

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House Of Flying Daggers

House Of Flying Daggers
cast: Andy Lau, Zhang Zi-yi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Song Dandan

director: Zhang Yimou

119 minutes (PG-13) 2004 widescreen ratio 1.85:1 Pathé DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
Famed Mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou who made his reputation among cognoscenti with a number of rarefied art house dramas (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern, among others), became a breakout box office phenomenon at home and abroad with the wide release of his first wu xia (historical period martial arts epic) film Hero. He followed that up with another production in that genre House Of Flying Daggers (aka: Shi mian mai fu), an opus garnering equal if not greater critical praise and audience attendances because of its dazzling production values, great story, spectacular martial arts, superb performances, and an exquisite aesthetic sensibility that elevates this type of cinema, formerly under the radar in the west, to the highest artistic level.

Co-written with Li Feng and Wang Bin, Yimou's House Of Flying Daggers takes place in 859 AD during the decline of the once great, now corrupt T'ang Dynasty in Feng Tian County near the Imperial Capital. Here authorities confirm they have found an enclave of the film's central force, the Robin Hood-like eponymous underground revolutionary organisation. The recently assassinated old leader's mysterious successor becomes the assigned target of the local constabulary, their two best deputies given the daunting orders to capture the new chief rebel within 10 days. Captain Leo (Hong Kong mega-star Andy Lau) suspects that in a just-opened, high-class brothel, the Peony Pavilion, a new and ravishing blind dancer and singer Mei (Zhang Zi-yi, another superstar) uses that occupation to conceal her real identity as the revenge-seeking daughter of the old kingpin.

Captain Leo's partner, Captain Jin (Japanese-Taiwanese star Takeshi Kaneshiro), in disguise as Wind, a drunken playboy swordsman, goes to the house of pleasure in question where he flirts with and then harasses Mei - a set up leading to threatened arrest by Leo. The Peony Pavilion's Madam Yee (Song Dandan) begs Leo to refrain from punishment until he gets to see Mei perform her celebrated Echo Game (the first of the excellent action sequences). This elaborate routine involving drums on tall pedestals surrounding Mei in a large U-shape - with spectator Leo creating beats with tossed beans which Mei matches with sounds made by her extremely lengthy, flung sleeves - grows more frenzied and acrobatic until the play turns into a swordfight of equal grace and beauty ending with Leo really taking Mei into custody.

When threat of torture fails to get Mei to talk, Leo hatches a plan and persuades Jin to again assume the identity of Wind and to rescue the captive in the hopes that she will lead her saviour to the Flying Daggers' hideout. All goes according to plan at first while the couple flees and, after a few thrilling bouts in which the duo fend off pursuing lawmen, Mei grows to trust Jin's false persona. The two continue their journey north to the remote locale of the House of Flying Daggers' stronghold where a sense of imminent danger permeates the atmosphere and where no one is who he or she seems to be.

Along the way to this destination, Mei and Jin's relationship gradually blossoms into full, unanticipated romance - a complication that causes everyone's schemes to go awry. When increasing pressure forces Jin to fight and kill fellow government troops for real and Mei's compatriots demand that she execute Jin, the stress of divided loyalties becomes unbearable, building to an agonising denouement confrontation between Leo and the fugitive pair.

Successfully mixing martial arts with a melodramatic romance triangle story, House Of Flying Daggers enthrals on every level. The charismatic, beautiful trio of stars convey emotional highs and some charming, humorous light moments and equally effectively communicate gut-wrenching torment where appropriate. The action sequences brilliantly staged by veteran Tony Ching Siu-tung (of A Chinese Ghost Story trilogy fame among numerous others) - use minimum flying wirework effects, employ maximum intricacy and grace and get enhanced by clever CGI that follows the POV of those titular daggers and/ or arrows in ways that astound. Fight scenes take full creative advantage of varied environments: inside the Peony Pavilion; within the jailhouse; through forests and meadows; and amidst a bamboo grove in a spectacular mêlée that trumps the de rigueur use of similar locales for combat in countless predecessor genre pictures. Emotion and movement blend inextricably, to an intensely involving degree.

House Of Flying Daggers, along with amazing performers and stunning action, dazzles with its gloriously beautiful cinematography; costumes; sets; and a plethora of breathtaking outdoor locations (some in the Ukraine), autumnal woods and open flowery expanses culminating in the rugged terrain setting for the climax fought amidst swirling snow. Shigeru Umehayashi's wonderful score mixing modern and traditional instruments complements everything perfectly.

Admittedly, Hero's convoluted narrative structure proved more interesting than House Of Flying Daggers more linear plot, but the more recent film's martial arts display superior choreography. Both productions' visuals astound equally. Zhang Yimou with only two wu xia pictures, firmly establishes himself at the top of the genre. One can only fervently hope that Mr Zhang will continue to show that, given the right talent and genius behind and in front of the camera, martial arts cinema can achieve the highest artistic and entertainment potential and win deserved world wide acclaim. Can't wait to see what marvels will result when Zhang Yimou and his colleagues visit House Of Flying Daggers territory again!

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