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Zhang Yimou has an extraordinarily keen eye. He, along with what must be some of the most talented cinematographers, is able to consistently create films that are, if nothing else, a joy to watch for their beauty. I was first introduced to his work when I picked up 1991’s Raise the Red Lantern. The film was storytelling and filmmaking at its very best and after watching a few of his films, he became one of my favourite mainland China directors. So it was with great anticipation that I awaited his first martial arts film, Hero, back in 2002. With simply stunning cinematography by Christopher Doyle, Hero thrilled viscerally. However, I felt that the action overpowered what could have been a truly interesting and thrilling tale of deceit. Moreover, I felt that the film’s commentary on the Communist government (a theme found in most all of Zhang Yimou’s films) was a little too on the nose for my taste. Still, I loved the thrill of the filmmaking. Reading that Hero was merely a ‘practice’ film, I anticipated the release of its follow-up, House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers
Film
Conceived as a companion piece to Hero and marked by some troubles during pre- production (a lead character was cut from the film when actress Anita Mui passed away from cervical cancer), House of Flying Daggers combined some of the biggest talent in the Asian film industry. Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour 2) is Mei, a blind dancer during China’s Tang dynasty. The government, recently plagued by a gang of revolutionaries called The House of Flying Daggers, is currently trying to track down the new leader of the sect.

Leo, a police official played by Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, Fulltime Killer) sends a young, handsome man named Jin, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro (a star in both China and Japan, appearing in films as varied as Chungking Express and Returner) to investigate Mei to determine if she is, in fact, tied to the House of Flying Daggers. Playing the drunkard, Jin sets up an elaborate illusion. When Leo storms the building, Mei thinks Jin is being arrested and that she is being taken away as well. Leo, however, agrees to let her stay and work if she can perform well in what is called the echo game. This scene, early on, is simply stunning and probably the best of the film. An amazingly visually and aurally choreographed scene is played out where Leo flings nuts at a circle of drums around Mei. Being blind, she must listen to determine which drums are hit and then, using weighted and elongated sleeves on each of her arms, must beat the same drums. The entire scene escalates in thrill and is, simply put, perfectly executed.

The echo game turns violent and Mei is taken in. Continuing their plot to discover the leader of the Flying Daggers, Leo sends Jin to break Mei free and follow her to the hideout. As they travel the countryside, Jin uses his good looks, flirtatious nature and a secret name (Wind) to continue to convince Mei that this whole charade is real. Meanwhile, Leo is on their tails sending in waves of soldiers in choreographed attacks. These attacks leave Mei on the offensive, but ultimately it is Jin that is made to look the hero when he saves her life.

Perhaps, though, Jin and Mei are really falling in love. There are subtle hints to each other displayed in many touching scenes (like the bathing scene and the flower picking scene). Things become complicated, though, when the soldiers attack Jin and Mei and do not realize (or care) that Jin is on their side. The need to find the House of the Flying Daggers is so strong, that law enforcement must make Mei believe in Jin’s loyalty to her by forcing him to kill his peers.

House of Flying Daggers
At this point in the movie, and when Jin and Mei finally make it to the Flying Daggers hideout, there are many secrets to be revealed. What has been a simple love story and road adventure film becomes something more and, unfortunately, something completely ordinary. Jin, obviously, becomes torn between his love for Mei and his loyalty to his government. Throw into the mix another man who may or may not have Mei’s heart and you have yourself a commonplace love triangle story. It even culminates in a snow covered swordfight between the two men who love Mei. While the sheer beauty of the filming, the talent of the actors and the delightful swordplay try hard to raise the bar on it, the script is ultimately to blame for the thematic failure. That’s not to say the movie is bad, far from it, but it comes close to collapsing under the weight of its own plot.

The film is a gorgeous one to behold. If you’ve only seen Hero and then move to House of Flying Daggers you may at first be disappointed. Far from Christopher Doyle’s striking colour schemes is this films use of muted, but very distinct, colour themes. The photography is still wonderful. The actors all bring credibility to the film that may have been laughable had lesser talent been employed. Most likely, many people will only invest time in this film for the action. I will tell you that it is worth your time. While there are lots of daggers and arrows flying through the air (which are all very cool in themselves), there is also some very real and well choreographed (if slightly obviously choreographed) hand to hand combat. As Zhang Yimou is trying to pay tribute to the wuxia genre, he sets one of his most elaborate scenes in a bamboo forest.  It is skilfully executed and will probably prove to be the most popular scene for many.

Perhaps without the loss of a major character during pre-preproduction the story would have felt fuller. As it stands, it is plenty to keep ones attention, but not one to admire. Zhang Yimou has proven time and again that he is capable of potent and powerful drama.  However, in his two action outings, he has failed to blend the two together. House of Flying Daggers is beautiful and exciting to watch, but ultimately is a failure when it comes to providing an emotional attachment to the action. It is, though, a welcome addition to my collection and for any fans of the director, stars or genre I would certainly recommend at least a rental.

Video
House of Flying Daggers is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Having seen many editions of this film prior to its US release, I’ve seen bad, good and great transfers of this film. This release falls somewhere between good and great. The colours are as vibrant as they should be given the cinematography yet the picture, overall, is a bit softer than the best transfer I’ve seen, the two-disc Starmax Limited Edition (R3). The soft picture, though, is hardly noticeable for most of the film as the photography is just too good to let minor flaws shine through. There is no noticeable edge enhancement either. Overall, this transfer is quite good and, considering how many companies have been treating foreign releases here in the States, I am very satisfied.

Audio
Again only slightly below the mark set by the DTS track on the Starmax Limited Edition release, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround on this release is most excellent. Case in point is the amazingly enveloping sound experience of the echo game scene. Also, every flying dagger and arrow comes from its respective location in the surround setup with ease. The rear channels really get a much needed workout. Dialogue is almost always clear. Still, I would like to have seen a DTS track included on this release (wishful thinking, I know). Finally, the English dub is just as normal as you would expect it to be and is laughable.

House of Flying Daggers
Extras
The first feature to be found on this disc is a commentary with Zhang Ziyi and director Zhang Yimou. It is a subtitled commentary so any references to dialogue have the potential of being very confusing and ultimately lost. Fortunately, the pair are very specific as to what they are referencing when they are talking and the subtitles for the commentary are very good. There is a great deal of information in this commentary and you can tell that both director and star truly believe in their art and this film. My favourite part of the commentary was hearing Zhang Yimou’s reverence for the late Anita Mui and finding out exactly what part she would have played in the film’s universe. Overall, an excellent commentary and probably one of the best subtitled commentaries I have seen.

Next is ‘The Making of House of Flying Daggers’, an ultimately frustrating piece that runs for about fourty-five minutes. I say it is frustrating because it lies somewhere between those promotional pieces I hate and the in-depth true making-of pieces I love. There is a rather annoying narrator who seems to be more interested in hyping the movie than stringing the creation process together. There are short glimpses of a better documentary wanting to shine through when we see Zhang Yimou at work behind the camera. The featurette is not a total waste, though, and fans of the film should give it a spin once.

‘Creating the Visual Effects’ follows and is a very minimalist approach to the subject. Here is where a decent narrator would have been a valuable asset. This featurette shows several elements of a scene that involves special effects and then shows the finished scene. It leaves the viewer with no true idea of how all the elements are specifically put together and really serves only to show which elements were real and which were special effects.

A storyboard to scene comparison is well done and simultaneously shows the storyboards and final sequences of six key scenes in the film. It is particularly interesting to see just how meticulous the director was in recreating his storyboard vision. There are also two photo galleries on the disc. The costume gallery is well done as it shows the actual sketches as well as the final product, allowing the viewer to immediately compare the two. The behind the scenes photo gallery is the standard automatically progressing production photos feature. The special features are rounded out by a music video for the love theme ‘Lovers’ and some trailers.

Had it not been for the excellent commentary, the extras package would have rather low. I cannot help but think more effort could have been put into the making of featurette making more worth the buyer’s time. Although some of the standard extras are interestingly well done, it is still the commentary that makes this a good investment for fans.

House of Flying Daggers
Overall
While not the wuxia classic Zhang Yimou may have been hoping for, House of Flying Daggers is still a very fun picture to watch and should be admired for its technical skill. The cast is excellent and help bring the story from laughable to acceptable on sheer integrity alone. While not the information store fans would have liked, we can be grateful that we have even this on a DVD release of a foreign film.  


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