Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dir. by Zhang Yimou

Perhaps it is natural the Chinese filmmaking is a bit of a grab-bag. Asians were forced to adapt to deal with the inrush of Western culture. In more recent times they have been able to pick and choose, blending foreign elements with home-grown style. The wu xia genre is typically Chinese, with its emphasis on history and traditional social structure. Nonetheless, while watching House of Flying Daggers I found myself thinking how much it reminded me of a Jean Pierre Melville film. Hard-boiled cops and outlaws with a code of honor meet in a world of tarnished honor. And yet, I couldn’t help but remember that Chinese detective stories date back to a time even earlier than the one Flying Daggers inhabits!

The story is set in the 800s. The Tang dynasty is crumbling and China is in the throes of a revolution. The gendarmes are battling a subversive movement known as the House of Flying Daggers. Leo (Andy Lau) a police captain sends his lieutenant, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to infiltrate the Peony Pavilion where the new showgirl is rumored to be linked to the Flying Daggers. The girl is Mei (Ziyi Zhang), not only is she supposed to be the daughter of a recently deceased Flying Dagger leader, she is also blind. Mei can also play a mean game of “echo”, which involves beans, drums on posts, a Chinese orchestra, and evidently, swords on the end of ladies’ sleeves. Leo raids the Pavilion and before you can say “Minsky’s!” Mei is in the calaboose with a front row seat at the torture chamber. Mei is clearly limber, but having your arms pulled out of their sockets is a bit much.

Before Mei can get a Rolfing session from the Chinese fuzz, Jin busts her out of the can and they head for the hills. In true noir style, the viewer finds himself asking who is for real in this situation. Is Jin just an undercover cop doing his job? What are his feelings for Mei and what are her feelings for him? Before it is all over the view finds the veil of deception covers just about everything and everybody.

There’s a curious side note to all this. Zhan Yimou doesn’t exactly romanticize either the cops or the insurgents. Both view their agents as expendable. They are soldiers in war where personal happiness is irrelevant, they are just eggs to make an omelet. That’s a significant subtext in these times.

Flying Dagger is set in a land of lush landscapes, not as stark as the Central Asian wilds served up by Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, but suffused with color that can be gentle or harsh. There is of course, action galore. The wire-fu is offset by some intense ground battles and Ziyi Zhang has a real dancer’s grace. Zhang Yimou doesn’t neglect the more extravagant traditions of wu xia. There are battles fought in the tops of bamboo stalks and arrows that bank and ricochet like billiard balls. It makes for some spectacular eye candy. If I have one complaint, it is that at two hours the film might have benefited from a bit of trimming. After the midpoint of the story (plot-wise not time-wise), a little less in the way of beautifully composed reaction shots might have been more.

Still it’s hard to deny that House of Flying Daggers is a marvelous blend of action and romance.
-Dave Hardy

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