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Non-Review Review: The House of Flying Daggers

Yimou Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers is a wonderful visual and auditory experience. It’s a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the ears, a truly beautiful piece of film that really needs to seen to be fully appreciated. While its plots and characters aren’t quite as rich as the wonderfully saturated surroundings, House of Flying Daggers remains a film that really seems to bask in light and colour, almost soaking in those elements, with each frame seeming like a stunning work of art.

Bamboozled?

House of Flying Daggers is a wuxia film, a film about ancient warriors typically against the backdrop of oppression. The plot and characters are at best archetypal, with the eponymous Flying Daggers a rebel group opposing the oppressive Tang Dynasty. The emperor is frequently discussed, but not seen. Instead, the plot focuses on three characters: a member of the Flying Daggers, a rogue swordsman and the soldier tasked with tracking down and quelling the rebellion.

There are twists and turns, of course. It seems they come simply to keep things interesting, to keep the story pressing forward. None of our three leads are who they initially appear to be, with each revealed to have a hidden nature of some sort or another. This works fine moving from scene to scene, but it does undermine some early scenes. In particular, an early interaction between two people, with nobody watching, makes little sense given what we learn they know of one another.

Mei flowers…

But that’s not the point, of course. The plot and characters take a back seat to Zhang’s wonderful artistic vision. The film was famously submitted as the Chinese entry to the 2004 Academy Awards. It failed to secure a Best Foreign Film nomination, but did receive a Best Cinematography nomination. Zhao Xiaoding’s cinematography is absolutely stunning, a sight to behold. Whether filming on lush sets or in nature itself, the world feels completely ethereal, as if we’re watching a story filmed inside the boundless imagination of a young child.

The environment seems almost empathic, and it’s never clear whether it – like the bamboo – bends to accommodate our characters, or whether it shapes them in kind. Dressed in green, the Flying Daggers and the military troops seem almost part of the forest in which they strike. In the climax, at a moment of anguish, a blizzard strikes, immediately blanking out the rich green colours and leaving the actors against a white backdrop. Whether their emotional states control the world around them, or merely reflect it, is never made clear – but the environment is very clearly as much a character in the story as any of our three leads.

Cutting-edge visuals…

The choreography from Qiang Li and Siu-Tung Ching is breathtaking. Whether it’s the impressive fight sequences, including one beautiful confrontation in a bamboo grove, or even the beautiful dance numbers, the characters here move as gracefully as ballerinas. House of Flying Daggers almost seems like a celebration of movement, and you can see that even in the way the plot is structured. The revelations about certain characters make no sense going backwards, but they do facilitate the plot moving forwards, without missing a beat.

In a way, the plot itself seems to move as gracefully as the characters – defying metaphysical problems as easily as they skirt the laws of physics. Everybody in the film moves with such skill and grace that it doesn’t matter how impossible or unlikely their actions are, the story feels somewhat similar. A character’s suddenly-revealed nature allows the plot to develop in a particular direction, so it doesn’t matter that it makes little sense, or requires a massive logical contortion to make earlier actions fit in light of this new reality.

Going green…

The sound mixing is also fantastic. We’re introduced to the central character as a blind girl, so it almost seems like Yimou Zhang is emphasising colour as if to draw attention to what must be missing from her world, making the beauty we see a source of pathos and sadness, as if we know that Xiao Mei will never experience the world as we see it. However, there’s a very clear emphasis on sound, as if to give the audience an insight into how Mei must function.

Roger Savage constructs a wonderful sound mix where everything seems just a tad heavilier or more substantial than it should be. Whether it’s the string on a bow and arrow, or the wind rustling in the trees, everything sounds a little stronger than it should. Like the hyper-saturation, it combines to give everything a wonderfully ethereal quality, as if to suggest that we aren’t seeing and hearing anything resembling a real world, but some truly imaginary time and place that only really exists within a vibrant imagination.

“House of Handheld Swords” didn’t seem quite as impressive…

The CGI effects appear just a bit rudimentary, and seem quite dated. Unlike other touches, the shots of daggers flying through the air or discarded bamboo stems looks sort of clunky and awkward. They lack the grace and sophistication of the rest of the film. Perhaps that’s where digital technology was in 2004, but it isn’t necessarily an issue with realism. It would have been possible to render those elements in a style that matched the hyper-real aesthetic. The real problem is that the CGI design seems to conflict with the rest of the movie around it, striving for realism and failing to achieve it, rather than trying to appear as fantastical as the rest of the film.

House of Flying Daggers is absolutely stunning. The plot and characters feel a bit secondary to the beauty of the film as a whole, but director Yimou Zhang constructs a lush and lavish romantic fairy tale that is visually sumptuous and a joy to behold.

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