Saturday, 16 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 30 - House of Flying Daggers

#71 - House of Flying Daggers


So today I take another visit to Asia and have a look at the films of Zhang Yimou, done in the style of Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower. I always used to be fascinated with Chinese culture when I was a kid and my brother is on the verge of moving there so that’s pretty exciting. I saw this film when I was fourteen and I’ve always wanted to watch it again now that I’m older and can appreciate the visuals a lot more. So without further ado, let’s get going.

The film is set around the fall of the Tang Dynasty in China which is around the 9th Century AD. The government is corrupt and an underground organisation known as the Flying Daggers has been operating for quite some time. The old leader has been killed and two police captains Jin and Leo suspect that a showgirl at a brothel might be his daughter seeking revenge. The two of them come up with a plan to find the location of the Flying Daggers by releasing the girl Mei from jail and Jin pretending to help her in the hopes that she’ll lead them to the organisation. Of course Mei being a pretty girl and Jin being a bit of a skirt chaser, you can guess what’s going to happen next.

Okay the story isn’t really the main point of this film; it’s pretty much a tragic romance combined with a martial arts action story. That sounds a bit hokey and fishy on paper but it definitely works here. If you’ve seen Curse of the Golden Flower or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon then you’ll know not to be too sceptical of a film like this. The film has some pretty stunning visual action sequences, done a little over the top to a Western audience, but still pretty impressive to watch. Actress Ziyi Zhang isn’t trained in martial arts but rather in dance so she incorporates dancing into many of her fight scenes, adding a nice elegant and theatrical quality to the film. The bamboo forest fight sequence, a pretty common scene in Chinese martial arts movies, is one of the more exciting action scenes in the film. In some ways you almost feel like you’re watching a great theatrical stage production instead of a film, the way it’s directed.

The main thing to talk about in this film is the visuals, which are...well there’s no better word to describe them than stunning. The colours, sets, costumes, environments, everything really are so visually stunning it’s almost overwhelming to watch. In the aforementioned bamboo scene, green is the prominent colour and the screen is almost completely filled with varying shades of it to create a washed out look. In another scene near the end of the film, there’s a big fight scene that takes place in a field filled with snow during a blizzard. As you can imagine, there’s some startling imagery with the contrast of the red blood against the white snow. Then there’s the Peony Pavillian, the brothel where we are first introduced to Mei. The colours and decorations are just beautiful to look at, taken from Chinese paintings from that period to add to the authenticity of the film. There’s also another scene that takes place in a flower field that uses yellow as a predominant colour and it’s equally as impressive as the scenes in the bamboo forest. It’s almost as though various locations in the film represent the seasons – the gaudy artwork of the brothel represents Spring, the sunny green forest and bamboo represents Summer, the yellowing forest in the third act represents Autumn and the final scene in the blizzard is of course Winter. 

I can’t really say too much about the script since I watched in subtitles (the dub really isn’t worth it; I’m not against dubs but this one didn’t really fit) and I’m guessing it’s not a perfect translation, but I did like the way the lines were written. It goes back to the theatrical element I mentioned earlier with the period setting. I like the metaphors they keep using for the wind, and the romance plotline didn’t feel tacked on or clich├ęd even if it was a little predictable. Call it a nice spin on predictable. The performances were all enjoyable to watch with Ziyi Zhang being the standout of all of them. She has a certain elegance that is fascinating to watch in all her films. And she is extremely convincing playing a blind girl – which is even more fascinating when you think about it after a certain plot twist is revealed. Takeshi Kaneshiro was also quite good as Jin, playing a convincing typical torn between the girl and the cause type of character. Say what you will about romance stories but here’s one where both the leads are likeable characters with enjoyable dialogue.

My favourite scene to watch is definitely the “Beauty Dance” where Mei is first introduced. She sings a poem and dances for Jin; it is truly one of the most beautifully designed scenes I’ve ever watched and the music is almost enchanting. Ziyi Zhang shows off her dancing prowess and even Jin’s drunken singing along doesn’t ruin the scene. This is immediately followed by another gripping sequence where Mei is called upon to play the “Echo Game” – she is in a circle of drums and Leo throws a pebble at one drum, so Mei must try to hit that same drum. This eventually evolves into a pretty dramatic fight scene. There’s also a more subtle scene where Mei is bathing in the river and Jin thinks he has fooled her into thinking he’s not watching her. Then he turns away and she says calmly “have you seen enough?” – it’s a good way to play up sexual tension in a period piece.

Now this film does have its flaws, particularly in terms of the plot. There will be spoilers following this so stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled. I felt there were too many plot twists and therefore too many red herrings set up early in the film. The revelation that Leo is actually a mole in the government was a little unnecessary as that contradicts the big fight scene they had earlier and why he had to describe the torture device to her in prison. That little twist just feels tacked on and doesn’t really make any sense, as though it’s only there to act as a driver for the final fight scene. That was my main gripe with the film but otherwise I felt it was solid enough in terms of story. The good parts to it definitely outweigh all its flaws.

So I revisited Asia with a little stroll into martial arts movies, which I’m not a fan of. I don’t hate them but I just haven’t seen too many of them. I found this film to be beautiful to look at but with a plot that was interesting enough and well written to stop it from being completely style over substance. This will technically be the last Asian film on my list though there will be another film set in Asia coming up much later. Until tomorrow then, Bobby-verse. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.


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