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House of Flying Daggers

directed by Zhang Yimou, with Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, 119 minutes, color, PG-13, 2004

Detail from DVD cover

Detail from cover of DVD

By Carter B. Horsley

"House of Flying Daggers" is a magnificent cinematic masterpiece that combines fabulous cinematography, breathtaking action, and memorable romance into an indelible and exotic visual experience.

It was directed by Zhang Yimou on the heels of "Hero," (see The City Review article) his splendid film that boldly used different color casts.

Visually, the movie is comparable to Akira Kurosawa's "Dreams" and both films stand at the pinnacle of cinematography - unflinchingly presenting a continuous flow of exquisite images that elevate them to the highest realms of art. "House of Flying Daggers," however, is infinitely more fast-paced and less esoteric than "Dreams."

Furthermore, and more importantly, it stars Zhang Ziyi, who may well be the most beautiful movie star of all time. She is mesmerizing and, almost as importantly, a superb actress, and a fantastic dancer and martial arts expert, qualities that Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Sharon Stone have lacked. Moira Shearer may have been as beautiful and a better dancer, but martial arts were not her forte. Zhang Ziyi looks a bit like Helena Bonham Carter, and they share an air of aristocratic fragileness, but Zhang Ziyi can also be ferocious and very sexy and while petite she has the monumental stature of a super-woman.

Although widely praised for its fabulous imagery and special effects, many critics have been a bit disdainful of its plot, which is surprising given its many twists and turns that certainly make qualify it for the best "film noir" in color.

Most critics, however, do note that it has two incredible sequences that are among the greatest in film history: the "Echo" dance and the "Bamboo Forest" battle. "Singin' In The Rain" is perhaps the only other film that contains two such sequences: Gene Kelly's "Singin' In The Rain" song and dance and Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" song and dance.

"Singin' In The Rain," of course, is a joyous comedy. "The House of Flying Daggers," on the other hand, is a great tragedy in the best tradition of Shakespeare.

Many critics appear to have heavily lumped this film into the martial arts category, but that is to see the tree and not the forest for this movie is much, much larger. It is poetry and it is about human emotions and the tugs and strains upon the human spirit.

If anything, it is almost too uncompromisingly beautiful especially in this dressed-down, politically correct world. Quality, however, does not necessarily imply elitism. Zhao Xiaoding was the director of photography.

The two male leads, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, are also fabulous, the former with his swaggering confidence and swashbuckling acts, the latter with his stoic intensity. It is not hard to regard either as worthy of Zhang Ziyi's character, although she is undeniably the ultimate, totally captivating seductress and consumate Amazon.

The film is not quite perfect as its ending is a bit extended, the soundtrack is at times a bit too Western and schmaltzy, and the plot a bit too complicated, but with these astounding actors, this director and the cinematography, who cares?

This movie raises many bars dramatically. The actors are so compelling as to totally erase cultural differences. The cinematography is so great as to embarass all other filmmakers. The action sequences are so sensational that it is almost inconceiveable to image them ever being bested. The love scenes would make Rodin cry.

The final scene recalls the lyricism of the snow scene in "Shoot The Piano Player" (see The City Review article), and the ends of "Breaker Morant" and "The Seventh Seal" (see The City Review article).

Philosophically, the film is subliminally complex and quite deep. Things may not be what they seem. We may act against our "better" instincts. We may be in control, yet we can make decisions. All may not be perfect, but all is not wrong.

Some reviews have used the word "swoon."

This film, whose action takes place at the end of the Tang Dynasty in China, does make one swoon.

 

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This film is rated 18th in Carter B. Horsley's List of the 500 Top Sound Films

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