Cinema Signal:

Melodrama and Asian Cinema
(Cambridge Studies in Film)

. "The House of Flying Daggers"
(aka, "Shi mian mai fu", translating to "Ambushed From Ten Directions.")

The melodrama in this movie is so thick you could scoop it up with a knife blade. Okay, a butter knife blade. And, while the beauty of the images and faces, and the choreography of dance and battle are truly awesome, the effectiveness of the storyline is diminished as the repetitions wear on.

Near the end of the Tang Dynasty, the dreaded and elusive political movement and guerrilla gang known as "The House of the Flying Daggers" has lost its leader. The government sorely needs to find out who has taken that leader's place. It is also known that the dead leader's daughter Mei (Zhang Ziyi), who is blind, is working at the local "Pavilion", a showplace and house of prostitution.

Police deputy Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who fancies himself a ladies' man and calls himself "Wind" for his "here today gone tomorrow" modus operandi, agrees when fellow deputy Leo (Andy Lau) devises a covert operation that calls for Jin to assume a false identity, visit the pavilion, locate and capture Mei.

She turns out to be one of the great beauties of the land, who can dance and fight with the best of the best. Before the slightly tipsy Jin can arrest her, Leo shows up and agrees to release her if she sufficiently impresses him with her talent. What ensues is a glorious piece of Asian choreography in splendid color, movement and three dimensional CGI wizardry that raises the bar for the art of dance on film. He is obviously very impressed but, before he gets a chance to grant her release, she attacks Leo and is imprisoned.

Knowing they're not about to get any intel out of her regarding the Flying Daggers' new leader or whereabouts, the two deputies devise another strategy. Jin feigns an attack on his fellow police and stages a rescue of the fetching prisoner before her appointment with a torture device. With Jin leading the blind Mei, they flee through the forest, but Mei is untrusting enough to question Jin's true motives.

They're attacked in an elaborate sequence of swordsmanship, velocity, archery and military sting operation. Mei begins to be convinced about her rescuer and now, again, her saviour, but is not quite ready for physical consummation. Jin and Leo meet clandestinely in the forest to plan their next strategy and, then, when Jin is faced with government troops who aren't play acting, the plans, and Jin's feelings about the dangers and deceptions, are altered.

The process of becoming lovers and soul mates is time and again impeded by ever new attacks as the government forces and the gravity-defying cable work of the choreography in the bamboo forest and wild-flowered fields grows in size and in movie-making concept. Until it starts choking on its own excess.

The effect that was introduced to great acclaim and jaw-dropping awe in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which showed us how you use people flying in a fight to the death, is beginning to look a little silly. What director Zhang Yimou seems unwilling to acknowledge is that it's not only not new anymore, but exhausted and near dead. Only burial awaits, while his overuse of it here may well amount to the nails in the coffin. So, too, are knives that go around shields like boomerangs. Fantasy and unreality don't go as far as Yimou would have us accept.

But then, as act two folds into act three, and our interest in the developing relationship between the two very attractive and supernaturally skilled fugitives begins to fade under the weight of tedium, Yimou pulls out a few switches of character and motivation that renders all that went before pretty much meaningless. I don't know which is worse, the deadening repetition of ninja-type warriors on the attack or the dirty tricks in the story telling. One thing is certain... Yimou, and his writers Feng Li and Bin Wang are in sore need of a better sense of what an audience will swallow in order to get a taste of art, exceptional as it may be.

Yimou went from a beautifully quiet character piece in 1999, "The Road Home" (starring Zhang Ziyi!) to the exciting flashes of genius in the currently running "Hero." Methinks he needs to find his way home, in the creative sense, again.

While watching this narrative nonsense masked with technical mastery, what occurred to me was the extraordinary training it took this cast to perform the physical requirements. Being lifted by cable is one thing. What's truly amazing is the level of movement and endurance each performer demonstrates over and over again. These actors are world-class athletes.

Add to that the full-lipped exquisiteness of the Ziyi face and the men of the world with a taste for true beauty will have enough to warrant sitting through this story-telling disaster. No one is likely to argue that she is one of the hot babes on the planet. Among the guys will be a considerable number who will be enraptured by the action sequences, classics of art and fantasy. Which is not to say that women are excluded in all that can be appreciated here but, in addition, they are likely to be similarly intrigued by the handsome virility on the other side, most especially, the GQ looks of Takeshi Kaneshiro.

So, there's reason to catch this high-concept extravaganza of epic scale even though its two hour length will seem like three and the feeling of being cheated by an unending set of directorial switches become as inescapable as those boomeranging daggers.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  



Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review
Site rating: 8

                                                              ~~ Ben D.
I saw this movie only recently. My views about it are that it was pretty, but incredibly silly, boring and vacuous. How bad does a film have to be when it has you wishing over and over that its supposed heroes would just die already? This bad.
                                                              ~~ Andrew M.






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