Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 20, 2004 8:51 am 
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Splendid spectacle with an emotional core

House of Flying Daggers is as visually glorious and spectacular in its martial arts special effects as Zhang's 2002 Hero but smaller, warmer, and more human. In 859 , we're told, the Tang Dynasty was in decline and a Robin Hood gang with the eponymous title was abroad. Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are two police captains who set out to trap Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a dancer and courtesan who they think may be the daughter of the recently killed gang leader. (Zhang Ziyi is currently also to be seen in Lou Yi's 1930's political thriller, Purple Butterfly.)

Kaneshiro goes to the posh brothel where Mei is and plays a bold and rakish customer -- he calls himself "Wind" -- who gets drunk and assaults Mei when she's called out to dance for him. The ruse is to cause a disturbance in which Mei too can be arrested. It works that way: Leo jumps in with his men and Mei is locked up in prison.

But things don't work that fast. Before that we have one of the most elaborate and stunning sequences in Chinese movies. First, to Wind's astonishment, Mei is blind. Before she's taken away, the charming Madam persuades the police to allow her to perform something called the Echo Game: the first and perhaps the most dazzling of the martial arts spectacles. It's a thing of tossed beans and flicked sleeves of robes, of a ring of drums, sounds copied in movements, a dance, a battle, a feat of memory, a feast to the eye.

Mei gets locked up just the same, but she escapes with Jin following her and at crucial times protecting her. The secret of House of Flying Daggers is that its elaborate rituals of conflict and pursuit are also emotional, because however proposterous the plot twists may be, there is a core of passion. There's a star-crossed love affair between Jin and Mei, and a three-way love conflict between them and Leo. Eventually Leo turns out to be other than what he seemed and in that revelation comes the fact that he's been long enamored of Mei.

The film begins indoors, enters a woods; the escape is through an ultra-verdant landscape, the final confrontations happen in a beautiful autumnal field beside a wood. Extraordinary use is made of a forest of bamboo trees, and the final confrontations occur in the snow. The seasons change before our eyes. So do the three principals, none of whom is what first appeared.

The myths and abstractions of Hero are replaced by passions and conflicting loyalties in Flying Daggers; both films would require a pile of thesauruses for enough superlatives to describe their beauties. Kaneshiro, a huge matinee idol in the East, less seen here (but notably on our screens in a couple of Wong Kar Wai's movies), has never seemed so large and so human, or so glamourous: he's an Asian Gregory Peck, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Errol Flynn rolled into one. Andy Lau (another Wong veteran) is a worthy opponent of Kaneshiro, not as glamorous or youthful but more soulful and sad. Zhang Ziyi varies from little girl to gorgeous lady and combines strength, delicacy and grace in an inimitable blend.

The film's operatic as well as epic. One's left with confused feelings because it can be very touching but also preposterous or naive and above all it's simply a glorious show. Some critics regret the melodramas of Zhang Yimou's earlier days. They think he's turned all cold and aesthetic on us. Well, this is in partly true, but the results are too splendid to object. How does one respond? Is one sated or hungry when it's over? Both, really. It's simply hard to imagine where Zhang can go from here. He has turned the wuxia genre into something exquisite; he has brought us to our knees before him. Art and popular entertainment are so mixed in Daggers that the audience in the cineplex to see it is a mixture of popcorn-crunching gigglers and studious experts who glare at and shush them. And both go away satisfied, minds blown, eager for more. CInematic spectacles just don't get any better than this. A masterpiece.

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