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House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers

Zhang Yimou

Swirling Silk, lush forests, vivid colors, porcelain faces. These are the bricks with which the House of Flying Daggers is constructed. Released overseas in 2003, we here in the states are just now getting treated to Zhang Yimou’s new film, which is absolutely breathtaking, while at the same time a bit irritating. I must first express how much I enjoyed this film, before touching on it's minor flaws.

As with most of Zhang’s work, the use of color is fantastic. In Hero, Zhang’s last piece, he used single colors to signify truth, fiction, passion, and reality, creating stark contrast for each version of the same story. In House of Flying Daggers, we are treated to a brilliant swirl of color, meshing and un-meshing on the screen, transporting us to a vivid land from the past. In one scene in particular, star Zhang Ziyi (Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon) is almost swallowed up by color, her porcelain face floating in the middle of a kaleidoscope of hues. This scene, called The Echo Game, is astounding. Beautiful choreography coupled with skilled camera work and editing bring this kinetic scene to life.

There are many scenes like this. Creative, well choreographed scenes in a variety of interesting and spectacular locales are interspersed with romance and intrigue, weaving a tapestry of the colorful life of the Tang Dynasty era. A lush green bamboo forest, wonderful autumn landscapes full of greens, golds, yellows and reds, and a driving snowstorm that immerses both the players and the viewer are some other examples of the incredible compositions in this film. The sound engineering was also top notch, if not a bit too hot at times. I believe this was intentional, as one of the characters in the film is blind, and I feel the director wanted to convey the heightened senses of this character to the audience as well.

A heavy romantic theme runs through the film, and one could say this is a love story with some martial arts and intrigue thrown in, as the romance really is the main theme of the film. For the most part, this was fine, but the creators seemed to have a little trouble balancing the story threads against the romance. I speak of the giant, glaring plot whole at the end of the film, which I won’t give away here, just stating that both my girlfriend and I were scratching our heads, as they leave a major issue unresolved. Perhaps it was the director’s way of telling us the love story was the story, and the other plot threads were just there to help present the romance. Another possibility is that the American version of the film could have been edited down for length (the DVD clocks in and exactly one minute under two hours, including credits). If it’s the former, I applaud the director for his bold, ambiguous move. If it’s the later, shame on whatever lawyer decided two hours was long enough.

And really, the possibly weak ending was one of the only problems I had with the film, aside from some over the top melodrama from time to time, but Yimou can’t seem to get away from that, so I consider it part of his style. Other than those small (and they are small, really) quibbles, I thought the performances were great for the most part, and technically, this is a film full of artistic presence. If you enjoy Yimou’s other work, or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this is a film not to be missed. Exciting adventure, amazing scenery, and yes, kung-fu all make for a highly enjoyable, if not slightly confusing experience.