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House of Flying Daggers

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro

Written by Feng Li, Bin Wang and Zhang Yimou
Directed by Zhang Yimou

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Zhang Yimou's follow-up to his sumptuous martial arts epic Hero is what critics like to call a "visual feast" — an eyeball-wringing orgy of cinematic beauty within which the acclaimed director explores many of his favorite themes while paying homage to the tradition of wuxia filmmaking. House of Flying Daggers (2004) is a big film, and the finest-looking movie to be released since, well… Hero. It's also rather dim-wittedly plotted and outlandishly self-indulgent — although neither of those flaws is significant enough to outweigh Zhang's gorgeous visual achievement.

The stunning, ethereal Zhang Ziyi plays Mei, a blind showgirl in 9th-century China who happens to be the daughter of a leader of a group of famed assassins, the titular House of Flying Daggers. An undercover policeman named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), posing as a bandit named "Wind," flees with Mei to the House's secret headquarters — on the journey, the two fall in love while battling soldiers who are unaware of Jin's mission. As Jin sneaks off to plot with his partner, Leo (Andy Lau), it becomes apparent that there's far more involved in this mission that just finding the notorious Flying Daggers, just as it becomes equally clear that Mei is far more canny than Jin suspects.

As with Hero, the film is more about the stunning set pieces than it is about the plot — which is as it should be, since the melodramatic soap-opera tale of Flying Daggers is kind of stupid, overly simplistic, and sadly transparent as to where it's headed. Essentially an exploration of sexual jealousy, the story at its foundation is a fable about a virginal warrior-priestess who must give herself over to the desires of her captor/ravisher in order to escape the brutal clutches of other dominant males, with Jin's love for her challenged by the proclaimed ownership of a previous suitor. What makes this rather heavy-handed theme work is the textual addition of themes of fiction vs. truth, making it a perfect companion piece for Hero, which operated on the same playing field, only with a political bent rather than a romantic one.

But ah, those set pieces. We first meet Mei in the opulent brothel, the Peony Pavilion. After dancing for Jin, he challenges her to the mesmerizing Echo Game — the circular room is ringed by drums on poles and, as Jin flicks beans at the drums and the blind Mei whips her impossibly long sleeves out to echo the percussion in a spectacularly choreographed performance. A battle in a bamboo forest offers the sort of brilliant climbing, flying, flinging, death-defying martial arts action that would be the absolute show-stopper in any other film, yet Zhang also presents a final, lengthy (perhaps too lengthy, truth be told) battle between the principals in the snow that outdoes everything he's presented before it.

A beautiful film, at times even besting the visuals of Zhang's previous wuxia effort, Flying Daggers suffers, unfortunately, from some truly awful third-act script flubs. Still, it ranks as one of the most dazzling films released in recent memory, even if it is less satisfying than the masterpiece Zhang offered before it.

*          *          *

Columbia TriStar offers a truly impressive DVD release of House of Flying Daggers, starting with a transfer that's color-soaked, crisp, and virtually flawless. The anamorphic presentation is one of the most detailed, rich, and clean that this reviewer has seen, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is superb as well, although the original Mandarin has a richer, more detailed sound quality than either the English or French dubbed tracks (there are optional English or French subtitles). It's hard to ask for a better-engineered DVD than this.

The commentary track with director Zhang Yimou and actress Zhang Ziyi is presented in Mandarin with subtitles — it's detailed, lively, and impressively informative. There's also an extensive "making-of" featurette (45 min.) in subtitled Cantonese, which offers a lot of the usual happy talk but also includes some interesting looks at how scenes like the Echo Game sequence were set up and shot, while Ziyi offers some interesting anecdotes about preparing for her role, including taking instructions from a blind woman on how to carry herself. There's also some detailed, side-by-side storyboard-to-film comparisons, the requisite photo galleries devoted to production stills and costume designs, and a music video for the song "Lovers."

— Dawn Taylor

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