Thursday, July 3, 2014

Movie #260: House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers is a wuxia film starring Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Saying it was kind of riding on the coattails of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn't really do it justice, but as far as the acclaim it got in the US goes, I'm sure CTHD didn't hurt.

The story is pretty tight, and it's a really excellent example of a tragedy (as in A Tragedy in Five Acts, available now at DriveThru RPG). The government has gotten corrupt (yeah, "gotten"), and a rebel group of warriors known only as the House of Flying Daggers is the resistance. The police, led by a serious captain called Leo (Lau) and a smooth undercover op named Jin (Kaneshiro) killed the old leader of the House, but have been given only 10 days to find the new one.

Investigating, Jin discovers Mei (Ziyi), a blind dancer in a brothel, and reveals her to be a Flying Dagger. She's captured, and then he breaks her out, hoping to lure her to the Daggers' base, but the general (whom we never see) kinda goes nuts and sends soldiers after them, and Jin is forced to kill them to save himself and Mei, with whom he is falling in love. They do eventually find the Daggers...

...but - twist! - Mei is not blind, and is not the leader. The leader is Yee, the madam of the brothel except - twist! - it's not really, it's just a decoy. Also - twist! - Leo is a member of the House, planted there by the previous leader, but away on a mission when he was assassinated.

Leo loves Mei and tries to force the issue, but Yee shows up and knifes him in the back (non-fatally). Mei is ordered to kill Jin, but just takes him off and sets him free. He asks her to run away with him, she initially refuses, but then follows, whereupon Leo knifes her in the chest and leaves her to die. Jin returns and battles Leo, and just when they've wounded each other, Mei sits up. Leo threatens to throw his knife (the one that's been in his back the whole time), Mei threatens to throw hers (the one that's in her chest preventing her from bleeding to death). Leo pretends to throw his, and Mei does throw hers...but to save Jin, not to kill Leo. Mei dies in Jin's arms, Leo staggers away, bleeding out, and the soldiers advance on the Flying Daggers.

See? Totally Tragedy. Mei's the Daughter, Jin's the Lover, Leo's the Foil, Yee is the Parent, and the unseen general (personified onscreen by the soldiers) is the Authority.

This movie was nominated for an Oscar for Cinematography, and wow, it shows. The use of color is amazing - the green in the bamboo forests, the blue of the costumes, and the battle in the blizzard at the end are incredible. The story is simple (much more so than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which had a lot more moving parts), and the fight scenes are fun. The love scenes are weird - characters don't so much kiss as rub their open mouths on each other's faces, which is perhaps a little distracting.

I think as far as wuxia goes, it's in my top 10, but not my top five.

My Grade: B+
Rewatch value: Medium

Next up: House of Wax (1953)