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"Real flowers bloom in the wilderness."

Chinese (Mandarin) wuxia film

aka Shi Mian Mai Fu (Ambush from Ten Directions)

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Writing Credits

Cast


Review

Let me start off by saying that House of Flying Daggers is a very beautiful film. The cinematography, the colourful costums, the action scenes, and the special effects (especially the use of the daggers) - all very well done and hypnotic during the first viewing of the film.

However, like Zhang Yimou's previous wuxia creation, Hero, House of Flying Daggers turns out to be a beautiful film with no real substance. The introductory text sets up the premise - a secretive group known as the House of Flying Daggers roams the country attempting to begin a revolution against the corruption of government officials during the Tang dynasty. Jin and Leo are two deputies who hatch a plan for Jin to convince Mei, a blind dancer who is rumoured to be a spy for the rebellious group, that he is out to help her return to her comrades. As they run from battles with government soldiers sent to hunt them, the two begin to fall in love.

The real problem lies with the romance part of the film. The chemistry between Zhang and Kaneshiro is so unconvincing that I could not help but feel cold at the blossoming romance. This does not actually pose a problem for the first 3/4 of the movie as the romance is only hinted upon in bits and pieces. In fact, the first 3/4 of the film is quite well done. Leo's challenge with Mei at the Peony Pavillion is a marvel to witness. In addition, the battle with soldiers in a bamboo forest is superb. Finally, the scenery shots are spectacular - setting the movie against a backdrop of fields of tall grass, grand mountain passes, and thick forests makes for great eye candy (along with the cast). Plus, the meeting with the House of Flying Daggers who come to the rescue of Jin and Mei makes for an interesting introduction to a cool concept (plus a great scene of dozens of flying daggers tearing through the forest).

The movie falls apart after the introduction of members within the revolutionary group. At this point, twists and turns in the story are revealed. It is here that the film could have taken an interesting turn in the concept of the Daggers - who are they and why do they do what they do? Instead, it chooses to focus on a love story that is already hard to swallow.

The epic battle at the end between two main characters is well done but I sat there thinking about the ultimate reason for the battle and laughed - because it was all about a girl. Nothing more than that. While it may seem romantic to some, it would have worked if the romance wasn't so queasy and melodramatic to begin with. It's like watching Titanic with swordplay - cool to look at but the only memorable thing you come out of it with is a numb ass.

Bottom line: beautiful to look at but ultimately unsatisfying - like supermodels.

Owlman's Rating: 6/10

十面埋伏

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

House of Flying Daggers (Shi Mian Mai Fu, literally, "Ambush from 10 Directions") is the latest big-budget action spectacular from Chinese director Zhang Yimou. House of Flying Daggers will undoubtedly be compared to Yimou's last epic, Hero, and indeed the two films are similar in many ways. Like Hero, Flying Daggers involves a melodramatic plotline set in a mythic ancient China, built upon spectacular martial arts sequences, dazzling use of colors and natural settings, a haunting musical score (this time by Shigeru Umebayashi), and some of the biggest names in the Chinese film scene, in this case Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro. But where Hero drew to a jingoistic conclusion of clear blacks and whites, a more troubled Flying Daggers never makes clear who the heroes and villains are, and its more ambiguous ending is ultimately more satisfying.

Set in the 9th century, the film traces the efforts of two members of the Chinese constabulary to root out the leader of the eponymous "House of Flying Daggers", a Robin-Hood-like rebel band that "robs from the rich to give to the poor," by tracking a beautiful blind prostitute named Mei (Zhang), who is reputed to be a member of the shadowy group. Inevitably, the plot thickens as Jin (Kaneshiro), the young constable assigned to investigate the young woman, finds himself increasingly allured by her charms despite his better judgment and his duty. His efforts to win her trust without losing his heart are only complicated by the emergence of double agents, a murderous general, and the young woman's feelings for man from her past (Lau).

Flying Daggers has much to recommend it, especially in the department of pure visual delights. Yimou makes nature itself one of the stars of the film, lingering longingly on dazzling wide-angle shots of virgin birch forests, sweeping meadows, and lonely mountain passes filmed on location in the Ukraine. Not to be overshadowed, the fight sequences are superbly choreographed, and played, filmed, and cut with a smooth inertia that builds tension toward a climax and then fades away like an exquisite symphony of flying twisting bodies, without relying too heavily on the sort of obvious piano wire trickery that sometimes made the fight scenes in Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon less satisfying.

Some may find room to quibble with the plot of Flying Daggers, which can at times seem mechanistic in its twists and turns before fading away to near irrelevance as the film's three main characters grow to overshadow it. But if anything it is refreshing in this day and age to see a movie that places its characters before plot. What emerges is an almost-timeless tale of star-crossed love in the grandest tradition of the great Chinese epics like the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". But despite the heavy doses of melodrama, Flying Daggers almost never feels forced, thanks to the patience of Yimou's pacing and the expressiveness of his actors. Most of the emotion and the romance is conveyed in moments of silence - small smiles when no one is looking, brief looks of confusion or sadness or self-doubt, the way Mei's and Jin's hands find each other when they are trapped and facing certain death, or the way they just lie and stare at the sky without daring to look at each other during the film's climax. There is a subtlety here that can't be matched by pithy one-liners or dramatic displays of affection, and if the movie doesn't always succeed in remaining so subtle, it is a tribute to Yimou's direction and the talent of his players that it succeeds as often as it does.

I suppose I should just say it plainly: this movie is better than Hero. This is a much more human story, with a more human ending. The world is larger than life, but somehow the characters are not. They may fly, but they also feel, and thus they can fail. It's a martial arts movie with more than a bit of a soul.


Credits:

Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Li Feng, Wang Bin, and Zhang Yimou
Original Score: Shigeru Umebayashi
Cinematography: Xiaoding Zhao

Cast:

Takeshi Kaneshiro - Jin
Andy Lau - Leo
Zhang Ziyi - Mei

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