Film & DVD Review
859AD, the incompetent Emperor and corrupted government decline the Tang Dynasty. Rebel armies are forming; among them the underground alliance "House of Flying Daggers" is the largest and most prestigious. Feng Tian County's two local captains, Leo and Jin are ordered to capture the House leader within ten days. Captain Leo suspects that Mei, the beautiful new dancr at the Peony Pavillion is actually the daughter of the former leader, and hatches a plan to arrest her and bring her in for questioning. At the same time, Captain Jin will pretend to be a lone warrior, Wind, rescue Mei from prison, earning her trust and escorting her to the secret headquarters of the House of Flying Daggers. The plan works out but on their long journey to the House, something unexpected and uncontrollable is forming...
After Hero and all the fuss that has been made over Zhang Yimou being forced by Miramax to cut footage from the film, it was with great relief in the Asian movie fan community that it was announced Miramax would not be handling his follow up film, House Of Flying Daggers. I personally loved Hero, and knowing that the film would get decent treatment only whet my appetite for it all the more, so imagine my delight when I discovered that the film had recently been released in Hong Kong. I had my copy ordered pretty damn promptly!
Through no fault of its own, House Of Flying Daggers is undoubtedly going to be compared to Hero by most people (myself included), because of both having the same director. The latter introduced a far more arty martial art film, with imaginative and deliberate use of colour and fights that were slightly different to the norm. Fortunately House Of Flying Daggers isn't just more of the same, although in some respects that could have been better. The fights are progression again from Hero but the story is toned down and far simpler, possibly being a little too near a tried-to-death-and-becoming-clichéd story line.
In Japan the film has been released under the title Lovers and while this is not as dramatic or as catchy a title, it is more fitting to the main story line. The actual House of Flying Daggers is merely a backdrop to the story, which focuses on the relationship between Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Mei (Zhang Ziyi). Maybe I am being a little harsh in not judging the film on its own merits, but I've seen quite a number of films in the past about two people from opposite sides who start to have strong feelings for each other and then have to overcome their inner emotional struggle. That is essentially the main plot line in the film, and it offers nothing much new that you've not seen before elsewhere. There are of course other twists and turns and elements to the story that I'm not going to mention, but when the main plot line is something I've seen done in so many different settings, the wind was somewhat taken out of my sails. I was hoping for, and expecting, some novel twist on this theme but it never really materialised.
I admit other than this and Hero I've not seen any other Zhang Yimou films, so I've no idea how arty he has been in his previous work, but I think in some scenes in House Of Flying Daggers he just takes it a little too far. Now I have nothing against a more artistic approach to any sort of scene, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and I feel that is something that Zhang Yimou forgot while making the film. The "Echo Game" near the start of the film goes on for too long, becoming a little tiresome and repetitive. Granted the visuals in the Peony Pavilion are stunning with the costumes and building all looking quite exquisite, but seeing pretty much the same thing go on, and on a bit more, things start to drag despite having Zhang Ziyi on screen. The same statement goes for the multitude of 'running in the forest' scenes. Now there are quite a few of these, and when they were running for quite a bit the first time, I didn't think too much of it. There may have been a thought in the back of my head that said, "you know, that could have been a little shorter and the same effect would have been achieved", but I wasn't bothered. Then the second running in forest scene came, then the third, now there was a fourth etc. After what turned out to be the final 'running in forest' scene I found myself really strongly thinking something that I usually don't - this films needs tighter editing. You could probably have cut, like, 20 seconds from each of the running scenes and there wouldn't have been anything lost as far as story, action or effect goes. I've got no doubt had the editing been a little tighter, the pacing would have been better, the film wouldn't have had that dragging feeling in places and it would have been a better film as a result.
It's not all bad though, as you may have been starting to think given that I've not said much positive about the film yet! The three leads give commendable performances in each of their roles. The highlight of the three was Zhang Ziyi, in easily her best role since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Here her character had depth and a bit of complexity allowing her to display a far broader acting range than her roles in the likes of Hero and Rush Hour 2 allowed. She does have the facial structure that can go from ridiculously attractive and cute, to damn scary and evil with only moving a few facial muscles. A lot of this I think comes from the intensity in her eyes and lips. I know, I stare too much at her when she is on screen... Anyway, she comes across quite convincing as the blind dancer Mei, essentially looking with her ears (you know what I mean...) during her fights, reacting to sounds not visuals.
The leading man is Takeshi Kaneshiro as Jin, the government official who goes undercover to infiltrate the House of Flying Daggers. Now he has a sort of cheeky boyish look to him that makes him believable as the womanising flirt, but again the more intense face that allows him to play the part of an experienced fighter. I didn't think that he was always quite as on key as Zhang Ziyi, but his performance was nonetheless very good. Lastly there is Andy Lau as, my star sign, Leo. Now I've got absolutely no complaints as far as his acting generally goes, but he is pushing mid-forties now, and he is becoming less believable in the more 'boyish' roles. His character may actually be meant to be about 40, but I don't think so given events that take place and the age of the other people in the film. For the most part of House Of Flying Daggers his acting is in tune, but with the development that takes place with his character, he becomes less in tune towards the end of the film. This may not be his fault but just him making the best out of the script and direction, but while not bad acting, it just didn't seem on par with the rest of the film. For all three it is a shame that the most significant element of their character's development is in their indecision of their fates, and their trying to overcome their inner turmoil - character developments that are just too frequently handled.
As far as visuals go House Of Flying Daggers was rather, dare I say, ordinary, not even competing for the most part with Hero. There are the roaming field shots, the forest shots, but neither of them have the sort of "oooo!" factor that came with most scenes in Hero. This rather under whelming reaction was probably due to those sorts of scenes being very commonplace, therefore they would likely have to be very special to instigate a decent reaction. One exception to the visuals is the Peony Pavilion - it looked incredible. Full of colour and detail, the sets were incredible, and easily the highlight of the film for visuals. Maybe my expectations were to preconceived due to Hero, but I had expected more of a visual feast.
Where I was given a delicious feast, though, was in the fight scenes. Like I've said earlier, the fights here are progression from Yimou's previous work. There is much more akin to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with the action. The fights are still based in wuxia, but on the whole there is less of the flying and fantastical fighting and more proper realistic action. None of the three leads are martial artists, but all have undoubtedly had quite a lot of training for their many previous martial arts roles. This shows in their excellent handling of the moves they have to execute. The fights contain interesting and exciting choreography, courtesy of Tony Ching Siu Tung, and feature all of hand-to-hand, swordplay and horseback fighting. For a film such as this that largely takes place in a forest, it is probably inevitable that there would be a bamboo forest fight. That seems to be an obligatory element to swordplay films, and House Of Flying Daggers is no exception. This is the fight scene that you have to withhold your sense of belief the most for, due to the amount of flying and the like that takes place. The fighting in this scene ranges all over, from up in the trees to down on the ground. So many bamboo poles are thrown that I would have thought the forest would be half the size by the end!
I've covered the main things I wanted to mention now, so the rest of this section is all going to be general quibbles I had with the film, that all detracted a little from my overall enjoyment. Firstly, too many situations in the film seemed forced for plot advancement purposes. There is one particular conversation involving Andy Lau's character where the two for no apparent reason, other than to fill the viewer in with information so that everything makes sense, start to talk about their past and how they got to where they are now. It seemed like at that point the film was to go in a particular direction, so they just chose to dump all the information required for it to make sense into one dialogue. Then there is another arty element that made no sense. In the final fight one of the daggers, that you'll become very familiar with throughout the film, is thrown and you see it fly through the air for quite a bit. It seems to travel quite a path before it hits its target. Then in the next scene it turns out the person who threw it was like 10 meters from the target. Bad continuity like that cannot be overlooked purely for artistic merit. Neither can bringing in ridiculous weather changes. From what appeared to be a reasonable day, a little bit of cloud, a bit of sun, that sort of thing, a huge blizzard suddenly comes out of no where covering the entire field in about a foot of snow in no more than a minute! What the hell was that all about? Zhang Yimou must have really wanted to have a fight in the snow, and having a blizzard come out of nowhere was acceptable for the artistic visuals. Yes, it was good to watch, but it made no sense whatsoever. Lastly there was one special effect that looked particularly bad. I don't think it was a CG effect, but possibly a matte painting used for the backdrop. Whichever it was, there are two scenes where you see a view of the huge forest, with a small path going through it and one of the characters on a horse trotting on the path. It just does not look right. Why? Other than the horse, there isn't the slightest bit of movement in the picture. No wind in the trees, nothing.
I know I've mostly criticised the film, but House Of Flying Daggers is not a bad film. It simply is not as good as I had hoped, nor as good as it could have been. For an action film, the story is as good as most, but for a film of this production size, a little more should have been there. The acting is good, the action is very good, it is entertaining, but the slight dragging in places and forced plot advancement bring the film down a few notches for overall quality.
Audio & Subtitles
From the choice of the DTS or DD5.1 soundtrack, I watched the film in DTS mode. Every sound effect sounded crisp and clear, you could hear the daggers whirring and cutting through the air, the sound of the leaves in the forest were sharp as they rustled; it all sounded good! The surrounds were put to adequate use, with ambient effects such as the rustling of leaves filling the entire soundstage. There were some discrete channel effects too, but possibly not as many noticeable ones are there was the opportunity to have.
The English subtitles were of an exceptionally high standard. Spelling was flawless and the grammar was nigh on perfect too. The only flaw that I could point out was that at the start of the film there was some Chinese text burned on the print that was not subtitled. This could still have been the opening credits, or it could have been time, date or location info, I don't know as there was no English translation.
With the visual quality that was displayed on Zhang Yimou's previous film, Hero, I would have expected nothing less than that standard for House Of Flying Daggers. Colours are vibrant and bold throughout the film, but less noticeably so than in Hero due to colour not being one of the strong themes in the film. Contrast levels at times are unfortunately a little off. In the brighter scenes, like in the Peony Pavilion, Zhang Ziyi's skin tone just seemed too pale and glaring. In some of the scenes that had darker backgrounds a little shimmering could be seen when I paid close attention to the detail, suggesting a little bit of grain in the print. Shadow depth was moderate. Importantly though is that there are pretty high detail levels. The picture more often than not looks very crisp and sharp, and while not the visual feast like Hero, the print still looks good.
DVD & Extras
This release is really nothing more than a bare-bones release from Edko. The only extras on the DVD are the film's trailer, a photo gallery and Cast and Crew Filmographies. The latter one is a lot more detailed, as far as the personnel goes, compared to the usual Cast and Crew filmographies. Listed are Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Yimou, Li Feng (Co-Writer), Wang Bin (Co-Writer), Bill Kong (Producer), Zhao Xiaoding (Director of Photography), Ching Siu Tung (Action Director), Huo Tingxiao (Production Designer), Tao Jing (Sound Supervisor), Shigen Umebayashi (Composer), Emi Wada (Costume Designer) and Cheng Long (Editor). Each of these has a little ditty on them in Chinese and then a selected filmography. One comment, do not look at the pictures on the back of the DVD, as there is a major spoiler to the film in one of the screen captures. Edko really could have thought more about their choice of images!
I had high expectations, not helped by crew members on this film stating something like Hero was essentially a practice film, this would be the real piece of work. House Of Flying Daggers has not lived up to these expectations. Maybe upon repeat viewings I'll like the film more, not that I don't like it just now, but I honestly can't see that happening. There are just a few too many issues that stop this film from being the sort of "Wow" film that Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were when I first saw them. Yes, the fighting is right up there in quality, but overall as a film House Of Flying Daggers doesn't cut it quite as well.
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