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