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Due in large part to the massive success of 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and 2002’s Hero, a resurgence of sort in the interest of Wuxia films, movies based on Chinese fiction and martial arts, took hold in the West, reaching its zenith when Quentin Tarantino made it a running theme in his epic two-part revenge tale, Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004). And while some of the wonder of the genre started to wane afterward, there was still some magic to be had, and indeed, there is arguments to be made that the best had yet to come.
Enter House of Flying Daggers, a spellbinding bit of fantasy and action that seized audiences and critics alike with some of the most imaginative and striking visuals ever seen on screen with a story that truly captivated even as it become secondary to the imagery. Spoken in Mandarin, it nonetheless was a huge box office hit and earned an Academy Award nomination for its cinematography. While movies have continual grown and expanded in use of CGI and creativity since then, this remains a spectacular visual experience you simply have no excuse for not watching.
THE STORY: Directed by Zhang Yimou and set in the Tang Dynasty (AD 859), it follows the capture of a Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind dancer who is suspected of being a member of the House of Flying Daggers, a well-organized group of rebels fighting the corrupt government. Best friends and police officers, LeoTakeshi Kaneshiro) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are sent to arrest her and then, having Jin pretend to be a rebel sympathizer, break her out and have her lead him to the Dagger’s headquarters, with Leo close behind. But the heart has other plans and in the company of the beautiful Mei, Jin falls in love and now he’s got to help keep her alive as forces close in from all around.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: As many in the genre take care to apply to their stories, most notably the aforementioned Hero, the use of color is vital to the narrative, with a specific five-color palette key to character, setting, action, and interaction between them all. the film pops with bright reds and yellows and whites and transitions between them in stages in deliberate and deeply affecting ways.
While the film is simply stunning to look at, it’s surprising how strong the story works, lingering just below the staggering beauty of the film’s visuals. The three leads are all strong though Kaneshiro and Ziyi elevate the somewhat familiar romantic elements to their proper place, with an ending that is a gut punch you won’t see coming. You’ll be dazzled by how it looks but left impressed by how it feels.
A GREAT MOMENT: From Mei’s opening dance number, which sets a high standard right from the start, Yimou rolls out one jarring moment after another, culminating in a sequence in a bamboo grove that is as much a musical masterpiece as it is one of tremendous narrative impact.
With no spoilers, there is much going on that keeps you guessing, but at one point, Mei and Jin are on the run from something new and end up trapped in a thick stand of bamboo as attackers come not from the ground but from the treetops themselves, using machetes to cut limbs into hollow spikes that they in turn send whistling to the ground below in attempts to skewer the lovers. There is no score, only the haunting moans of the cunt bamboo moving through the air and the battle cries of those in the fight. It’s a monumental moment in film.
THE TALLY: House of Flying Daggers is an uncommon movie, and while it requires some reading, the film is mostly easy to follow, spending much of its runtime on the actions of the players rather than their words. That’s one of the film’s strongest points, its ability to say much with little dialogue, a device few studios are brave enough to try. Daggers is much more a romantic film that a straight up fighting and action thriller, but it has plenty of combat with some stunning stunt work. If you’ve yet to see this, don’t hesitate in adding it to your queue, fan or not of sword and martial arts movies. It’s what to watch.