Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of TIFF’s fall film series Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes. For more information, visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
The critically acclaimed House of Flying Daggers, masterfully directed by Fifth Generation Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, combines romance and drama with action and adventure. A wuxia (martial arts) film in the vein of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971) or Yimou’s previous film Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers uses dazzling cinematography to convey the marvelous nature of mythological Chinese martial arts, an activity of which mastery suggests a mystical or spiritual communion with nature. To express this, the action oft appears transcendental, with knives following targets and characters levitating upon their own energy (chi). The action is neither in vain nor single-minded, however, as it is rooted in the age old parable of the Iliad, in which a single woman’s beauty is the metaphorical cause of war between two opposing armies. Yimou recontextualizes this myth to speak of the war between government and revolutionaries during the Tang dynasty, eventually parsing down the epic battle into a symbolic fight between two opposing ideals over the love of a woman, the object and reward of war which is ironically destroyed in war’s unrest.
House of Flying Daggers uses dazzling cinematography to convey the marvelous nature of mythological Chinese martial arts . . .
Besides House of Flying Daggers obvious draws of interest—wuxia fight sequences, gorgeous cinematography for which it was nominated an Oscar, and beautiful actors in stellar roles—the story is incredibly dense and full of depth. Though at times the narrative feels contrived towards particular ends, with somewhat awkward dialogue or trickery of the audience on display, the story is packed with symbolism, poetry, and historical exposition. This is complemented by Yimou’s highly meticulous direction through which he visually communicates much of the themes. Most notably expressing the banality of war is the final fight between Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), wherein the two equals literally spill blood for blood, the camera tracing equal slices of flesh until their culminating stab, a visual yin/yang wherein opposing parties each receive a sword through their back. Such harmony between visual and narrative intention is hard to find, and Yimou brings such thematic depth in strides.
Though beginning as a seemingly commercial display of action and colour, Yimou’s signature depth and austere sensibilities slowly reveal themselves.
The trickery, as mentioned, includes such twists as the revelation of Mei’s (Zhang Ziyi) sight. While integral to the film’s themes and ends, it is a revealing fault in that Mei continues to act blind in scenes when Jin is not even present. Her fight with the soldiers is particularly relevant as Jin is not around but her ability of sight is still hidden from the audience. There are other moments wherein the dialogue too serves to benefit the plot’s ends while retroactively appearing contrived. This includes many of the conversations earlier on between Leo and Jin. These scenes take on a new form once the twists have been revealed, making it clear that they were written for the purposes of leading the viewer rather than for authentically representing the world it conveys.
Nevertheless, such moments are easy to forgive as House of Flying Daggers reaches climaxes of such resonant power and meaningfulness that its immense beauty compensates for its flaws. Though beginning as a seemingly commercial display of action and colour, Yimou’s signature depth and austere sensibilities slowly reveal themselves. Using primarily aerial cinematography, the fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed and often complemented by a highly emotive soundtrack. The sets and costumes appear quite authentic and Yimou’s somewhat affected style is a wonder to watch, from the echo games to sword-fighting to the flying blade which pierces through a drop of blood. There are some moments of editing discontinuity, wherein a scene may appear to be multiple takes spliced together, but the rapid style prominently serves Yimou’s mise-en-scene. By the time that the snow begins to fall and the climactic battle begins, the viewer is so fully immersed in Yimou’s visual foreplay that the final 10 minutes is a purely ecstatic feast for the eyes. This phenomenon is certainly due to the accumulative density of both story and style; as the film progresses, it builds to a thematic and cinematic genius that is difficult to deny, easily absolving the certain few awkward moments of melodrama.
By the time that the snow begins to fall and the climactic battle begins, the viewer is so fully immersed in Yimou’s visual foreplay that the final 10 minutes is a purely ecstatic feast for the eyes. This phenomenon is certainly due to the accumulative density of both story and style; as the film progresses, it builds to a thematic and cinematic genius that is difficult to deny, easily absolving the certain few awkward moments of melodrama.