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House of Flying Daggers
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(from left to right) Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi
AKA: Lovers
Chinese: 十面埋伏  
Year: 2004
Director: Zhang Yimou
Producer: Bill Kong, Zhang Weiping, Zhang Yimou, Zhang Zhenyan
Writer: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou
Action: Ching Siu-Tung, Cai Li
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Zhang Ziyi, Song Dandan
The Skinny: The best-wrapped present you'll ever get! This ballyhooed swordplay film is an overproduced mixed bag, but the costumes and colors deserve their own special award. The plot is no great shakes, and the characters are somewhat cold. But for entertainment value, this is primo stuff. It falls short of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon crown, but as glorious packages go, it's hard to top House of Flying Daggers.
by Kozo:

Former arthouse darling Zhang Yimou attempts further commercial acclaim with the sumptuous swordplay film House of Flying Daggers. Unlike Hero, Zhang's previous stab at swordplay cinema, House of Flying Daggers is not an epic, but an intimate love story about people who will gladly throw honor and duty out the window for love. These people also happen to be martial arts superheroes, and thanks to action coordinators Ching Siu-Tung and Cai Li, they do seem the part. In fact, their status as supreme ass kickers is much more convincing than their ardent passions. The overwrought love story is more scripted than felt, and the characters come off a little cold. This is gorgeously made stuff, but its emotions feel more calculated and clinical than affecting or authentic. That could ultimately turn off more discerning viewers, but for many the stunning style of House of Flying Daggers could likely be enough.

The plot of HOFD seems like standard swordplay stuff. Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, the rebel group known as the House of Flying Daggers occupies the attentions of the Emperor's guard. Police deputies Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) are charged with rooting out members of the secret society, and act quickly when rumors contend that a new girl at the Peony Pavilion brothel is in fact a member of the House of Flying Daggers. Jin goes undercover as a customer to bring her in, but she turns out to be the blind, stunningly gorgeous Mei (Zhang Ziyi), who's a great dancer and pretty handy with a blade, too. The boys drag her in to get more info out of her, but she's as tightlipped as she is unable to see. Despite the threat of torture, she's not about to reveal the true leader of the Flying Daggers.

Which leads to Plan B. Leo suggests that they can get more out of Mei by faking her escape, and orders Jin to pretend to be a Flying Dagger sympathizer to break her out of jail. He complies, and soon Jin—now calling himself Wind—flees with Mei at his side. It's all a ruse, of course. The soldiers, led by Leo, are actually in close pursuit, and waiting for Jin to use his roguish charms on Mei until she cracks and takes him straight to the House of Flying Daggers. It's a reasonable plan, but one with a few possible flaws. The worst could be that Jin falls for Mei, and betrays his cause and country. Of course, since the fleeing couple are played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi, romance is a given. This is a movie; you can't have that much great bone structure in such close proximity without some sparks flying.

Surprise, romance does blossom. Or does it? The plot seems rather simplistic: the two flee under false pretenses, with Jin pretending to be a rebel and Mei at the mercy of her seemingly kind benefactor. Of course, Jin will betray her unless he falls for her first. Or, she could play on his emotions without ever trusting him. She leads him to his doom, and hopefully gets away from the pursuing Leo. Right? Wrong. There are twists afoot, and Zhang Yimou and screenwriters Li Feng and Wang Bin are only too happy to dole them out for minor shock value and even some possible audience incredulity. The inner workings of the characters in House of Flying Daggers—and there are really only four main characters in the film—are given complicated backstory that gets handed out in such deadpan style that the audience can either lap it up or reply with a "huh?" The latter is possible because the big shockers occur with little impact other than some lines of dialogue and instant character turnarounds. If you have the subtitles off, it could be easy to get lost.

The script of House of Flying Daggers is exceptionally talky, and not given to a lot of emotional grace. The actors emote in a static style that resembles a stage play. There's not a lot of character through action; much of the drama is spelled out in dialogue that's sometimes stilted and uninspiring. Furthermore, the opaque narrative renders the characters as somewhat cold, and even unsympathetic. The bigger conflict of the government versus the House of Flying Daggers is ultimately given very little weight, so it's hard to place value on what the characters are doing. We're supposed to find depth through one or two revealing lines uttered at the most crucial of moments, but without anything else to back it up, it feels like we're watching an approximation of cinematic drama instead of the Real McCoy. The story was probably very compelling on paper, but on film its upstaged by the art direction, the costumes and the action sequences. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was so successful because it made martial arts superheroes seem like human beings. In House of Flying Daggers, they never seem like more than stock characters—or worse, caricatures. If this film wins a screenwriting award, then it must be hypnotism at work.

But getting hypnotized by House of Flying Daggers is pretty easy. One would have to be blind to deny that the film possesses damn gorgeous art direction and costumes, and a glorious style that's painterly in its static beauty. The opening set piece at the Peony Pavilion is as visually stunning and enticing as anything you'll see on film this year, and features some physical acting from Zhang Ziyi that's both subtle and dynamic in its graceful beauty. Color plays a large part of House of Flying Daggers, though not in the same manner as Hero. Unlike that film, the color doesn't necessarily indicate emotion; here it just makes for pretty pictures. Flowers glow yellow, the woods transform from a luminescent green to a stark autumn red, and the multicolored gaudiness of the Peony Pavilion is award-worthy on its own. The sound design is brilliantly done, accentuating Ching Siu-Tung's action sequences perfectly. There's plenty of action here, mostly involving swords, bamboo poles, and hidden wires, but it's beautifully shot and elegantly staged. The technical professionals who worked on this film had better clear their shelves come awards season.

However, the technical prowess of House of Flying Daggers could also hurt. The film's emotional center seems more rote than real, and the perfectly arranged sets, makeup, art direction and action sequences do little to dispel the manufactured feel. House of Flying Daggers uses plenty of visual effects to enhance its action sequences, and as a result, passion and energy lose ground to technology. Many of the best martial arts spectacles (i.e., Iron Monkey) thrilled through acrobatic daring and exaggerated action, and not through the keen coding skills of the guy at CG Workstation #3. Getting annoyed at such technical wizardry seems a lot like biting the hand that feeds you, since the advancement of CG means a greater palette for filmmakers to exercise their imagination, but it's arguable that anyone over in Asia has yet found a way to marry art and technology into a truly satisfying martial arts film. After a while, watching CG-enhanced martial arts feels like watching Jackie Chan rely on Dreamworks' SFX staff in The Tuxedo.

But CG-enhanced wuxia seem to be the future of martial arts films, so we might as well get used to them. If anything, the ultra-cool SFX make martial arts look more classy than chopsocky, which will make latte-drinking international audiences get their wallets out. Reportedly, some Asian audiences found House of Flying Daggers to be a pretentious bore, but it's quite possible that western audiences will find its mixture of familiar Chinese cinema rhythms, international-level CG, and Hollywood-inspired romantic histrionics to be eminently engaging. Ultimately, there's plenty to like here because after all, this is a damn pretty film. Everything—up to and including the model-perfect trio of leading actors—should look incredible at your local what the hell, grab a date and go see it on the big screen. House of Flying Daggers is not a film to displace Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it's probably not worthy of the huge critical accolades that Hero got stateside—even though it possesses much more palatable politics than the "imperialism rules" dogma of Zhang Yimou's previous film. On the other hand, its visual splendor is tailor-made for big screen consumption, and the actors and action aren't bad either. House of Flying Daggers is ultimately only good entertainment; nothing more, and absolutely nothing less. (Kozo 2004)

Notes: House of Flying Daggers initially included Anita Mui in its cast, but the Hong Kong actress passed away due to cervical cancer only weeks before shooting her scenes. Reportedly, Zhang Yimou and company rewrote the script around her character, and never actually recast her. She receives a dedication during the closing credits.
Sony Classics International released House of Flying Daggers in North America at the end of 2004. The film received an enormously positive critical response, but its box office numbers were only so-so, and were a far cry from the numbers generated by either Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Also, 18 seconds of violence were cut from the film to secure a PG-13 rating.

2004 Golden Rooster Awards
• Winner - Best Art Direction (Huo Tingxiao)
Nomination - Best Picture
• Nomination - Best Director (Zhang Yimou)
Nomination - Best Sound (Tao Jing)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Video
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Photo Gallery, Trailer
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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image courtesy of Edko Video Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen