House of Flying Daggers, The: Zhang Yimou’s Lavish Spectacle

Zhang Yimou’s lavish spectacle The House of Flying Daggers is a follow-up to his impressive actioner Hero, which did phenomenally well not only in China but also in the U.S. and other countries. Every element in House of Flying Daggers is bigger and more astonishing than its equivalent in Hero.

House is the most gorgeously entertaining spectacle I saw in Cannes, where it premiered out of competition. When critics applaud enthusiastically at an early morning press screening, you know something magical is happening on screen. In color scheme and production values, House may be China’s response to India’s elaborate style of Bollyhood.

However, House is more than just a string of astonishing set pieces. Zhang knows that he needs to tell a story, and he opts for a universal tale of a love triangle, enacted by three handsome performers.

There’s grand, operatic richness to the swordplay genre made popular for American and Western audiences by Ang Lee’s 2000 Oscar-nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The talented actress Ziyi Zhang, who appears in Crouching Tiger and Hero in secondary roles, provides the link to the new film, in which she’s the center and mesmerizing star. Holding the film together, Ziyi is just as convincing as an action heroine as a romantic ingnue.

One of the most gifted and versatile filmmakers to have come out of China in recent years, Zhang has reinvented himself several times during his career. You may recall his stylized historical drams (Raise the Red Lantern) and his modest, more realistic country fables (Not One Less, The Road Home). Hero, and now House, represent a comeback of sort for Zhang whose late 1990s pictures didn’t find large and responsive audiences.

The plot is set in 859 AD, during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, one of the most enlightened empires in China’s history. The Emperor is incompetent, the government corrupt, and unrest is quickly spreading throughout the country, with many rebel armies forming in protest. The largest, most prestigious of these armies is an underground alliance called The House of Flying Daggers.

Operating mysteriously, a la Robin Hood, the House steals from the rich to give to the poor, hence winning the populace’s support and admiration. Police Captain Leo (Andy Lau) has heard that one of the new dancers at the Peony Pavilion, a local brothel, is a member of the House of Flying Daggers. He sends Lieutenant Captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to the Pavilion undercover, to search her out.

When the house’s madam introduces her, Jin is surprised to find out that Mei is blind. Mei begins to dance for Jin, and pretending to be drunk, he attacks her. Leo charges in, threatening to arrest Mei and Jin for indecent behavior. The madam begs Leo to spare Mei, as she relies on her to bring in customers. She asks that he watch Mei dance before he makes a decision. Mei performs an elaborate dance called The Echo Game, which reaches a climax when she reveals herself to be a member of the House and challenges Leo with his own sword. The two engage in a fierce battle, and after winning, Leo arrests Mei.

After her arrest, a mysterious warrior, Jin, releases Mel. The rest of the film is love on the run, with the duo escaping Leo’s army. Gradually, they fall in love, but not before Mei proves her martial arts skills, of which flying daggers are just one element of her repertoire.

Clearly, House is a commercial film made for Western viewers. To broaden its appeal, Zhang avoids political, or any other specifically Chinese, issues. The story is based on the familiar conventions of mistaken identities and duplicity. All the characters are different than they first seem to be: The duplicitous cop proves more complex, and the initially boorish Leo more heroic and romantic.

For a spectacle, the number of characters is small, only three, but it gives the film an intimate scale. You can fault House for its one-dimensional characters and schematically constructed triangle. However, these are just two elements in a grand, operatic spectacle that operates on its own logic. Indeed, the stunning art direction, costume design, and sound effects, not to mention the spectacular action sequences, are just as important as the characters and plot.

Digital technology enables Zhang to manipulate settings to magical effect. The film begins with a big bang, an extraordinary Echo Game involving long scarves and ricocheting beans. For the Peony Pavilion, a very elaborate set was built to showcase the Echo Game, a sequence in which all the elements complement each other: the fighting, action, visual effects, and even the emotions. The Echo Dance is such a dazzling virtuoso that it throws the film off balance for a while. However, soon there are equally striking and flamboyant routines.

This is clearly the case of a showdown in the forest with sharp bamboo projectiles and flying daggers, which glide through air like missiles. As a setting, the bamboo forest is inextricably linked to martial arts films. For the past 50 years, filmmakers have shot action sequences in such locale. This may be based on the myth that to be considered a true warrior, one has to fight in a bamboo forest. Zhang keeps with that tradition, but like other elements of his film, he does it with his idiosyncratic signature.

In his bamboo sequence, one of the longest in the film, the battle takes place simultaneously on the ground and high up on the bamboo. The two lovers are on the run on the ground, while the massive and outnumbering enemy attacks from above.

The final romantic scene is just as dazzling: A lush autumnal landscape turns white in a matter of seconds. And it gives the film an operatic dimension as the principals confront each other in a snowstorm. The scene was shot in the Ukraine, where snow came very early last year. Though it created continuity problems, Zhang decided to shoot in the snow, which lends the perfect tone for the scene

Zhang claims that he’s not an expert action filmmaker but still an enthusiastic student of the genre. Perceiving Hero as a rehearsal for House, he says, “this time around, I am braver and more accustomed to the genre.” No doubt. Zhang’s direction is masterful in its meticulous attention to the smallest detail. When a director shows such control over every aspect of his production, he ceases to be a skilled craftsman and moves into the realms of art. Amazingly, despite its grand scale, House never succumbs to the level of kitsch.

Zhang has been nominated three times for the foreign-language Oscar: Ju Du, Raise the Red Lantern, and Hero. Bearing his trademark exquisite visual beauty and incisive storytelling, The House of Flying Daggers should confer on China’s most celebrated auteur his fourth Oscar nomination.