indieWIRE REVIEW: Duels in the Sun
by Ken Chen (with responses from Nick Pinkerton and Michael Koresky)
[indieWIRE weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. Founded by four friends in the winter of 2003, Reverse Shot (http://www.reverseshot.com) is a new kind of online and print community aimed at the next generation of film lovers. Reverse Shot's unique symposium format allows writers an unprecedented flexibility in choosing the films they get to write about which leads to better, more exciting articles. Irreverent, intelligent, rigorous, not rigor-mortised.]
An opera on helium, "House of Flying Daggers" is a wondrously weightless melodrama -- not really a martial-arts movie but a detective story using martial-arts conventions. Captains Jin ("Chungking Express's" Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) want to stop a rogue group of dagger-throwers -- called, obviously, the House of Flying Daggers -- from messing with the Tang Dynasty. What's their plan? Captain Leo sends Jin to infiltrate and extensively hit on Mei (Zhang Ziyi, who still lacks Gong Li's iconic singularity but makes up for it by seeming shiningly, exploitatively young), a blind brothel dancer who may or may not be the daughter of the former Dagger House head honcho. This uncertainty converts the film into a mystery, as Jin must find out the location of the House of Flying Daggers, the mysterious identity of Mei, both his ultimate loyalty and that of Captain Leo, as well as -- hell, why not -- the fate of the Chinese empire! While the Chinese troops, prone to tossing around sharpened bamboo poles, and the practically invisible, circular-hatted, dagger-throwing rogues close in, what do Mei and Jin do? They fall in love, of course! The film starts as a glamorous wuxia epic, springy, floral, excited with possibility, as alive as, say, "Indiana Jones" or "Star Wars" and more startlingly beautiful than either, and ends up as "Titanic" -- a silly, pompous love story where the audience nods obligatorily and says "Okay, I guess we're supposed to feel sad now."
Like many great but not good films, "Daggers" limps with flaws. As in "Hero," the characters are still not really free agents or people but couture furniture items gliding along Zhang Yimou's pre-assigned tracks. These faults arise because "House of Flying Daggers" is -- like "Hero" -- an aesthetically self-conscious, surprisingly intellectual movie, a film that, like "Hero," takes its patterning (the dittoed motifs, the color-coded robes) far more seriously than the contents of those patterns -- the people who would fill those robes. Instead, "Daggers" offers a purer, more self-consciously aesthetic world whose component atoms aren't characters but the light pouring out of Zhang Ziyi's skin, the colorfully mortal forest, mud and leaves flung into the air. The film has a Turing machine's idea of character, an idea too novelistic, rambunctious, and thorny for poetic purity. In "Daggers," Zhang Ziyi's Mei is blind or is not blind. Mei is the daughter of the House of Flying Daggers's leader or she is not. Mei is Mei or someone who calls herself Mei. Mei loves Jin or she does not. Jin and Leo are Chinese soldiers or they are not. Jin and Leo are the protagonists or they are not. Zhang Yimou toggles these facts back and forth, like those children's books where by manipulating a series of horizontal flaps, we can give an elephant's head to a giraffe or hooves to a dolphin. We sense that these are not factual details of a fictitious world -- they are variables.
Characteristic of their shrugged-off artsiness, Zhang's martial-arts movies have had their own aesthetics as their main subject matter -- an almost meta-fictional suspicion of their genre. "Hero" deconstructed martial arts; "House of Flying Daggers" deconstructs movies. In "Hero," the two greatest fighters in the world die, intentionally, after choosing not to fight, both having decided that domination was the highest form of peace -- "Hero" is a martial-arts movie skeptical about the ultimate efficacy of fighting. Similarly meta, "Daggers" appears to be a film "about" theatricality and the fakeness of acting.
Both these films belong in the martial arts-plus genre -- a category that includes "Kill Bill," "Ashes of Time," "Musa," and "Crouching Tiger." Martial arts-plus movies tend to be fun, hysterical, and lifeless -- they conflate Hong Kong exoticism, choreography, and zany exploitation-flick bloodletting, ILM production values and the most potent Hollywood commodity of all: rampant sentimentality. But, like many martial arts-plus movies, "Daggers" is also never really touching, willing to trade emotions (a thing so intrinsically ascetic that we cannot even see them) for the aestheticism of production values, spectacle, and homage. Because these films quantify lyrical effects, they hoard them rather then save them up only for the most crucial, tactical moments. Because these effects end up micromanaging the movie, these style-anthologies rarely meld together into the larger, mist-like whole we get from the comparatively austere films of, say, Renoir. The problem with martial-arts-plus aesthetics is that they are not aesthetic enough -- if by aesthetic, we also mean quirky, individualistic, deviantly fresh. "House of Flying Daggers" has to settle for merely being the most beautiful martial-arts movie ever made. It gives us no people to fall in love with‹or better yet, understand.
[Ken Chen is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot and is currently studying law at Yale University.]
By Nick Pinkerton
Let it not besaid that Zhang Yimou is a filmmaker who does things by halves. In his "House of Flying Daggers" no peril is simple; death descends in dense sky-darkening volleys, in plagues of spears and flocks of daggers, and no escape from fatality is made by a margin greater than a centimeter. The movie has the precisely calibrated tension of a cliff-hanger canvas by Frank Frazetta, always teetering on a violent resolution which could go in any direction, and Yimou manages to admirably maintain this ludicrous tautness right up to a bravura three-way standoff finale.
Watching "House of Flying Daggers," one never has the feeling -- as with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" -- of a name director slumming in a genre for which he has little-or-no feeling: the wuxia seems to have acted as a genuine agent of regeneration for Yimou since "Hero," and his screen-filling, decorative visual style is well-suited to CGI myth-making. He's also gifted with a hugely appealing ménage-a-trois cast who can put over the movie's Shakespearean dimensions: Takeshi Kaneshiro's dimple-flashing bachelor gracefully deepens as the story unfolds, Zhang Ziyi is a concentrated, pale wisp that controls the screen, and Andy Lau emerges as a hard, vicious vision of agonized rejection. Best are Kaneshiro and Zhang's early, careful moments of pastoral romance among gilded autumn landscapes, scenes that vibrate with the discreet, flirty sexiness of 1930s American cinema. When the lovers finally embrace -- in some of the finest onscreen lip-locking in recent memory -- Zhang looks lovely; she's delicate enough to melt under Kaneshiro's breath.
Still, with the absurd critical contests of one-upping hyperbole that these high-profile chop-socky operas tend to attract, it's certainly worth playing devil's advocate and wondering how future generations of movie lovers will look back on these buoyant, romantic, medieval rhapsodies of fluttering silk. Remember "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"? "Legend"? "Ladyhawke"? You see my point.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Staff Writer for Reverse Shot magazine. He is currently employed in spreading holiday cheer throughout Greenpoint, Brooklyn.]
By Michael Koresky
Zhang Yimou came as close as it ever seemed possible to a household name throughout the Nineties. The "Fifth Generation" Chinese filmmaker's perfect synthesis of sociopolitical commentary and eye-popping three-strip reds and blues almost single-handedly created an accessible and artistically viable Chinese cinematic product for Western eyes. As magnificently technicolor and sweepingly epic as Zhang was becoming in the halcyon days of "To Live" and "Shanghai Triad," I was thoroughly delighted to watch him grow more intimate and practically neorealist as the Nineties wound to a close. 1999's "Not One Less," as charming and elemental and vivid in its own way as "The Bicycle Thief," was discerning in its socially aware simplicity, and overwhelmingly emotional in its teeny-tiny gestures of provincial desperation. But Zhang's inner David Lean (he began his career as a photographer and DP) soon reared its ugly/beautiful head as he retreated into another mode as the millennium crashed through with force.
Undoubtedly, Zhang's martial arts films, presented to American audiences just this year with unequivocal commercial and critical success, are thrillingly accomplished; Zhang's appropriation of martial arts folderol is pulled off with an efficacy that makes Ang Lee's acrobatics seem like Keystone Cops. The "Rashomon"-like perspective that invigorates and makes appealingly abstract the otherwise austere "Hero" gives way to "House of Flying Daggers's" more narrative-based twists and turns. Thrillingly mounted and painlessly executed, "Daggers" forthrightly dives into genre conventions with a tenacity and hunger not unlike substitute teacher Wei Minzhi's desperate, arduous trip to Jiangjiakou City to locate her missing student in "Not One Less." Ultimately, the "Titanic"-like proportions of the star-crossed romance between gorgeous Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi register far less than the procuring of a single box of chalk for "Not One Less's" deprived rural village. Perhaps Zhang should again start to narrow his lens a bit -- and therefore widen his scope.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment. He has also written for Cinemascope, Filmmaker, and Westchester Journal News.]