House of Flying Daggers Review

I’ve always been a fan of cinematic style. The colours, production design, and camera moves...a perfect combination can work wonders; something that acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou understands like no other. It takes genuine talent to marry breathtaking visuals with thought-provoking story, and Yimou mostly achieved that with Hero - his first foray into the realm of swords and chivalry (or wuxia, as it’s known overseas). The plot was slim, but powerful, and the images defined the term “eye candy”. So fantastic was that films look, that cinematographer Christopher Doyle became an overnight sensation. And how often does the DP get any serious recognition? Therefore, people rightly called Hero a case of “style over substance”. It was, but that was always the driving force behind cinema; its essence. Ever since the silent era, people have reacted to these sights and sounds with fascination, and Yimou handles filmmaking technique with surgical precision.

After a decade of handling low-budget, character-driven pieces, the director was clearly yearning to let rip with stylistic excess. After Hero made a killing in Hong Kong (and later, Europe), his transition from indie purveyor to renowned action helmer was set in stone. His follow-up would continue the style, yet House of Flying Daggers has little in common with Hero. We have the balletic fight sequences, and beautiful vistas, but the pacing and mood has changed entirely. If Hero provided the brawn, then Daggers is clearly the heart. Beneath the vivid compositions, we have a potent love story; once again set to the background of ancient China.

We find ourselves in the ninth century (roughly 859 A.D.), during the days of the Tang Dynasty. Soon, we are told of a rebel group known as the “House of Flying Daggers” - a Robin Hood-like posse who steal from the rich, and give to the poor. Two guard captains, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), are sent on a mission to find the hidden rebel base. To accomplish this, Jin fights for the affections of Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind brothel worker, who may be a key member of the Flying Daggers. Breaking her out of prison, Jin goes on the run with her, but his growing feelings for Mei soon put the mission in jeopardy...

Beginning with a quiet, introspective scene, it’s clear that House of Flying Daggers is a smaller, less-epic film than its predecessor. Yimou places the emphasis on character, with only sporadic bursts of bone-crunching violence. Yet, when the set pieces do arrive, they leave the viewer gasping. First, there’s the astonishing “Echo Game” in the Peony Pavilion brothel (a wondrous example of the films exquisite production design). Forced to dance by Leo, Mei proceeds to perform a variety of outlandish moves, that “echo” the sound of nuts being thrown at drums. On paper, it sounds very underwhelming, but the scene has a beautiful grace, and eye-popping choreography. It’s captured effortlessly by the crew (this time led by DP Xiaoding Zhao), and Yimou finishes the scene with a tense sword fight, setting up the films key relationship.

The first 15 or so minutes are pure build-up, and the story doesn’t move until Jin and Mei are together. Cutting through the countryside, it’s not long before trouble arises. Facing a variety of soldiers, the pair are involved in a few remarkable skirmishes; the best of which is the famed bamboo sequence. Similarities to the tree-top fight in Crouching Tiger... are obvious, but this beats it for pure invention. Using the trees around them as weapons, the pair move through the canopies with superhuman efficiency - it really is a sight to behold. Yimou understands action (which is astounding for a filmmaker so new to the genre), with the expected brilliance in wire-work, and some assured pacing. Although the film features a heavy amount of CGI (for those frequent dagger shots), it never takes the viewer out of the story.

So, visuals aside, what does the film get right? Unfortunately, this is where the kinks start to appear in Daggers’ armour. At first glance, the characters seem to be mere stereotypes, pilfered from many other films in the genre; especially Lau’s honourable guard Leo. The “blind” Mei is also a little reminiscent of Zatoichi, yet Zhang is utterly convincing in the role. Her natural beauty radiates from the screen, and she has decent chemistry with Kaneshiro. The cast is certainly first-rate, yet each of them have played stronger characters. There is nothing complex about the individuals here, yet Yimou trusts his performers to give them life. And they do. The script occasionally falters - a few of the twists are blatant - and the love story simmers into melodrama (yet the conclusion has genuine power, with a palatable sense of loss).

Many viewers will argue that the story is a series of clichés, and they’d be right - Daggers is typical of its heritage; offering nothing new in the Wuxia stakes. It’s also similar to films made by Hollywood - at least on a narrative level - with the characters stating their undying love, before fighting to the death in the name of honour. Yet House of Flying Daggers transcends all of its faults. It’s entertainment of the highest order - pumped-full of memorable flourishes, and the best visuals film has seen for decades. It would be churlish to complain about such a package; especially one that reaches new levels of martial artistry. Hero is still the clear winner, but Daggers solidifies Yimou’s reputation as a master of action cinema...

The Disc

Months after the various Asian releases of the film, Sony jump on the bandwagon with a technically-pleasing disc. It’s a solid debut for American audiences, with some fresh bonus material, and a great transfer. Yet, there is one pet-peeve. As reported here and elsewhere, this disc sports the US theatrical cut of the film. Therefore, the cuts made for the cinema release (to gain a PG-13) are still present and correct. They are:

-- Several shots of Jin attacking and cutting the throat of a soldier have been removed.

-- When Jin discovers an injured Mei, the scene has been shortened, cutting directly to Leo’s attack (the original went on for a little longer, with an exchange between the pair before the battle).

-- A shot of Leo slicing Jin’s torso - with a splash of blood - has disappeared.

-- During the climactic duel, the level of blood spilt has been toned-down. It’s still a violent affair, but not as graphic. It was probably erased in the digital suite.

-- When Mei removes the dagger from her chest, there is no “splash” of innards, only a stain. Again, this was probably erased digitally.

Due to these cuts, die-hard fans will no doubt opt for an Asian release instead (the Edko edition reviewed by Noel Megahey is more than adequate). To Sony’s credit, the cuts are seamless, with no sudden jumps in action. On another note, the forthcoming UK release will be cut too, with shots of injured horses getting the snip. Sony’s release isn’t perfect, but it still has plenty to admire...

The Look and Sound

In my opinion, this is the best transfer of Daggers yet. The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) picture is clearer than the Edko release, with a greater sense of depth, and some vibrant colours. The film looks great, with the photography taking on a crisp and clean appearance. The duller palette might disappoint some viewers after the opulent Hero, but the transfer handles the image with skill. There are some flaws though - on close inspection, you might notice spots of edge enhancement, and haloes appear from time to time. Fine detail is also inconsistent (especially in the background), but it doesn’t spoil the viewing experience. After all, this removes the poor contrast levels found on the Asian release, providing some vivid eye candy. Daggers looks remarkable.

Unfortunately, Sony dispense with the remarkable, ear-splitting DTS track found on Edko’s boisterous disc, but offer the spectacular Dolby Digital 5.1 track as compensation. Available in Mandarin, with English subs, or in its dubbed form (English or French), House of Flying Daggers really does impress with its balls-to-the-walls audio. This is the best 5.1 track I’ve head for years, and I didn’t miss the DTS (its inclusion would have been brilliant, but it wasn’t to be). From the opening frames, this is a wonderful mix. It’s loud, abrasive, and full of atmospheric effects. It has a sense of direction too, and the track handles different elements with alarming panache. Surrounds are also top notch - witness the moment Leo throws the seeds at Mei during the Pavillion sequence; the way the sound spreads across the field transported me into the scene. The film is full of little moments like this, sparking a visceral response. The battles have range and resonance, and the musical score has plenty of clout. If you want to give your home cinema a tough grilling, you should own this disc...

The Menus

Unlike the horrendous box art (what were they thinking?), the menus compliment the films style. The animation is elegant, and the sound perfectly sets the mood, with a pleasing use of colour that recalls the bamboo sequence. They won’t blow you away, but do their job well.

Bonus Material

Naturally, most of the extras found overseas are missing here. Yet, these supplements offer plenty of insight into the production.

Audio Commentary by Zhang Yimou and Ziyi Zhang

The director and star get into plenty of detail in this yack-track (spoken in Mandarin, and subtitled in English). Yimou in particular, is very vocal about the visual aspects of the picture, and the meaning behind those memorable compositions. He also discusses the challenge of shooting the battle sequences, and making sure that the choreography was captured in the best way possible. Zhang offers her two cents too, from preparing for the role, to her opinions on the finished product. This is an enjoyable discussion, with many facts to digest; making it the perfect track to revisit.

“Making of House of Flying Daggers”

This was clearly produced for the press, but has some worth due to the 45-minute run-time. An annoying voice-over (which calls everything “brilliant” or “amazing”), casts a shadow over the proceedings, but there’s a high degree of on-set footage that makes the documentary bearable. Interviews with Yimou and the cast are included, along with B-roll material of action being shot. It’s a fairly enjoyable piece, but could have been better.

There’s also a 4-minute “Creating the Visual Effects” presentation of before-and-after footage of several scenes from the movie (but with no text or commentary explaining it); a clutch of storyboard comparisons, costume galleries, and behind-the-scenes photo galleries, and the “Lovers” music video by Kathleen Battle. Finally, we have the US theatrical trailer.

The Bottom Line

Fans of first-rate martial arts will be well-served by House of Flying Daggers - a beautiful film that gets more satisfying with each viewing. It’s not as good as Hero, and has a few narrative faults, but Zhang Yimou has produced another feast for the eyes. Sony’s disc is pleasing, yet serious fans should go for the uncut “Special Edition” released by Edko. Cuts aside, this is a cracking Region 1 debut.

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