House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Starring: Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro

Directed by: Yimou Zhang

Rating: 1 2 3

Zhang Ziyi as Mei in House of Flying Daggers

Okay, so I've seen sublimely stylish Chinese historical martial arts epic tragedy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I've seen sublimely stylish Chinese historical martial arts epic tragedy Hero, do I really need to see sublimely stylish Chinese historical martial arts epic tragedy House of Flying Daggers? Does it have anything new to offer me?

To be honest, not really. As usual, House of Flying Daggers is set some time in the Chinese olden days, when beautiful, bold and implausibly acrobatically gifted martial arts outlaws are pitted against the sinister militant forces of the Emperor. As usual, the charming Zhang Ziyi plays a sweet and innocent girly who simpers and sobs a bit then kills ten men with one elegant but perfectly timed blow. And as usual, the plot is headachingly convoluted, as characters cross and double cross each other constantly, so you're never quite sure who's a goodie, who's a baddie and (due to their habit of endlessly disguising themselves in identical uniforms) who is even who. And to be honest, by the end of the film you don't really care much either. There's a limit to how many times you can have the rug swept out from under your feet before you give up trying to stand.

Mei and Jin - a rather unconvincing couple

Yes, the film is visually stunning, but I am starting to feel as if I've seen it all before. The opening scenes in which we're introduced to our heroine, Mei (Ziyi), a blind dancer with a secret talent for high kicking kung fu (or whatever - I'm not a great expert on eastern martial arts) start off promisingly. Set in a gorgeously lush but delightfully decorous brothel, the vivid use of bright colours, slightly Monkey-ish sense of silly humour and breathtaking mix of exquisitely choreographed dance steps and swordplay promises something new and exciting. But once our valiant heroine is thrown in jail, rescued and set on her way to rejoin her outlaw pals in the House of Flying Daggers, we're back in familiar sweeping landscape/mad gravity-defying fight in tree/confusing switching of allegiance territory and it all starts to get, well, just a bit dull. The fight scenes are cool if you like that kind of thing, but the dialogue is painfully slow and (perhaps the fault of the subtitle translator) just a bit banal.

The final fight in House of Flying Daggers... but why is it snowing?

Unlike Hero, however, this is not a film about politics and war and turbulent times; this is a film about the effects of politics and war on the people caught up in turbulent times. Technically, it's a romance. I won't attempt to chronicle the ins and outs of the plot, but suffice it to say that by the time Mei and her rescuer, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) make it to the House of Flying Daggers (a sort of feminist Robin Hood set up, deep in the heart of a bamboo forest), they've fallen in love. Well sort of, because Mei is married to her job as an anti-government spy and Jin is a confirmed bachelor playboy who likes to be free as the wind. And besides, there's Mei's old suitor, Leo (Andy Lau), to be reckoned with, and he's not about to let them dance off into the sunset unchallenged.

The climactic fight between the two rivals is brilliant, in that it strips away all the elegant ballet of the earlier martial arts set pieces, reducing the action to a brutal and ugly struggle, complete with punching, headbutting and lots of squirting blood. Finally, we have something that seems real. But why is it suddenly snowing? Um. because it looks cool.

And that just about sums of up House of Flying Daggers. It looks cool, but it doesn't really make a lot of sense. It engages the brain and stimulates the senses but it doesn't enthral the heart. And a romantic tragedy without a heart is never going to work.

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