Sunday, February 7, 2010

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Lush, colorful Wuxia film, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with a strong story, but somewhat contrived characterizations. Zhang Ziyi plays a blind courtesan in the China of old who is inadvertantly used by the police to discover the location of a rebel group, known as the Flying Daggers. The opening scenes are the most effective, where Ziyi shows the policemen the true extent of her grace in both dance (utilizing her wardrobe and levitated drums as a sort of free-form instrument) and martial arts. As the protaganist, a ladies man who does a Johnny Utah and actually falls for the lass he is using, Takeshi Kaneshiro is broad and boring; his drunken, loutish early scenes and clearly manipulative behavior with Ziyi make him not only pretty reprehensible, but, given what we learn, quite stupid, making him an unsympathetic, lame duck protagonist. Ziyi, who, as the object of affection, requires us to be quite enamored with her, is effective, but, due to the contrivances of the script and the lack of chemistry with her romantic lead, ends up coming off as hollow and inconsequential. The strongest of the performers is veteran Andy Lau, who, as in Infernal Affairs, treads that fine line between sympathy and adversity as Kaneshiro's superior, who trails him into the woods as Ziyi leads him to her presumed leaders. His is the most thankless, unjustified part, and he injects it with a haunted sympathy that makes his scenes the most provacative and deep. The other characters are at the mercy of the plot, which gets nice and complex once the second act wraps up, and the visuals, which definitely benefit from the care and attention that was obviously given to them.

The visuals are very well composed and constructed, but I found them, to my surprise, to get boring; once they are in the woods, they stay in the woods, and the bamboo/forest surroundings got tiresome after a while. At the end, the scenery gets more intense to reflect the characters mood, but it seemed very artificial and showy, rather than moody or powerful. The visuals fare best in the beginning, when the archetypes of the cops and robbers allow for much nuance and dynamics in the presentation of their respective environments. The color of the early brothel scenes does much to justify what comes after, and the intricate interior design of these scenes achieves a unique style that, unlike most of the film, does not evoke another film's imagery. However, for the majority of the running time, I found myself citing Crouching Tiger, Kurosawa's Dreams, and director Zhang Yimou's own Curse of the Golden Flower, and the characterizations did not register strongly enough to rate this higher than any of those superior films. However, the action scenes are more effective and plentiful than those in Crouching Tiger, and, albeit at the cost of the films contemplative, philosophical tone, achieve a sense of energy and excitement. These, along with the strength of the deceptively simple plot, make the film an entertaining, if shallow, endeavor.

Recommended for fans of Wuxia cinema, Zhang Yimou, Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In terms of Yimou, I'd reccomend Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower over this, but this is not a significantly lesser film than those, just a mildly lesser one.

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