A beautiful tale of romance and bitter betrayal, Zhang Yimou’s follow-up to Hero is even better…
It came as quite a surprise when Zhang Yimou announced he was to work on a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon styled wuxia movie. Always considered such a radical director much of his work, like Raise the Red lantern, Story of Qui and Not One Less, are such intelligent and (more dangerously) watchable commentaries on failing Chinese communism, for him to make such a crowd pleaser seemed unthinkable. Yet nearly all of his movies are so different in both style and approach that the only common link they share is the casting of Gong Li (a role more recently often filled by Zhang Ziyi).
The result, Hero, was an accomplished film that took the themes of swordplay to another level, with it’s beautiful cinematography and amazing special effects sequences superior to Matrix sequels, yet without looking overly CGI driven. A box office smash in China and Oscar nominated, which repeated its success in the United States and the UK when (finally) released. When he revealed that his next film, House of Flying Daggers, would be another swordplay adventure many critics declared he had lost his edge. But even if that were true one things for certain – it’s even better than Hero…
Set against the decline of the Tang Dynasty, two royal soldiers – Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) – have been detailed to find and capture the leader of the notorious rebel group, the House of Flying Daggers. Convinced that Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind girl in a local house of pleasure, is the leaders’ daughter, they concoct a sting together they hope will lead them to the Flying Daggers hideout. Jin pretends to rescue Mei in order that he might gain her confidence and they escape together. Yet despite his cohort’s warnings he begins to fall for her in reality, but in this masquerade can anyone be taken at face value…?
A self-confessed homage to old swordplay movies with references to movies like those of King Hu and Zhang Che, Yimou again collaborated on the script with Hero co-writers Feng Li and Bin Wang. The spectacular showdown between the escaping Mei, Jin and royal soldiers in the bamboo forest, for instance, is all too evocative of the most famous scene in Hu’s Touch of Zen. The story combines long-established themes with post-Internal Affairs savvy. True, there might have been plenty of tales about deceptions of identity, loyalty and even truthfulness in love before in Chinese literature, but no romance has ever been this tangled.
Yimou’s powers of storytelling are as strong as ever. Unlike Hero the narrative is less rushed and more encompassing, though the story is still simpler than those of King Hu. This time there are plenty of show-stopping scenes, but none that damage the flow of the film. Though plenty of CGI is used in the film – certainly much more than you’d think – the reality is never broken. And with action choreographer Ching Siu-tung once again helping out, the fight scenes are glorious. (That doesn’t stop the final combat from being as visceral and vicious as it needs to be.)
The film is a beautiful as Hero, if less gimmicky, with immaculate costumes and sets well framed by cinematographer Zhao Xaoding. Strangely one of the most arresting sequences, like last years Zatoichi, is the dance performed by Zhang Ziyi. Her performance is flawless in a role that will no doubt cement her position as the worlds top female Asian actress. Andy Lau is, once again, superb, and Takeshi Kaneshiro every bit as dashing as role implies.
Simply put, this film is perfect on every level, with something for everyone, romantics and martial arts fans alike. A mesmerising experience you must see…
The House of Flying Daggers was cut for UK release by the BBFC for what it describes as “three instances of real animal cruelty (horses made to fall using techniques likely to result in serious injury)”. But was that true? Similar scenes have appeared in many American films over the years (including Lord of the Rings) without the censors feeling edits were neccessary. Or perhaps it’s more of an old colonial, rather patronising attitude, that they wouldn’t worry about animal safety in Asia?
Distributor:Edko Films (Hong Kong)
A great transfer with perfect sound and picture, but there's little in the way if extras, let alone a decent menu screen - unlike Hero. You can't help think this release has been rushed out to beat the inevitable pirate copies.