February 10, 2005

All House, No Furniture

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor

House of Flying Daggers:2 stars out of 5

The colour spectrum should put out a cease and desist order against Director Yimou Zhang. While his abilities to produce amazingly varied colour shots seem endless, his artlessness in storytelling is beginning to show. What Hero did at least with panache, House of Flying Daggers does with the barest hint of competence, trading wire-fu sweetness with a droll, uninteresting love story and a war story that falls off the map halfway through. Even the colour scheme, so celebrated by Zhang as a means to conveying emotions and plot development, is gimmicky here, with unintended comedic effect. You know the film's in trouble when you snicker, despite your best attempts not to, during a crucial death scene.

House of Flying Daggers doesn't start out bad. In fact, its first twenty minutes are an intriguing setup, exquisitely filmed and stylized with the kind of interplay of action and drama that are, quite simply, good cinema. Somehow, between the end of its first act and the end of the second act, nearly all plot motion is sacrificed for a love story that, whilst featuring great performances by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Ziyi Zhang, all but slumbers onscreen. If anyone is to blame, it is Yimou Zhang, who tries to juggle too many on and offscreen elements; cohesion is lost and the actors are left to wonder, as well as wander, what their purpose is besides gazing at length and with loverly yearning at each other.

The story could have been quite intriguing, if it had been followed through. During the final years of the corrupt Tang Dynasty, two deputies Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) seek to uncover the revolutionary group known as House of the Flying Daggers. Their plan involves winning the confidence of a blind dancing girl named Mei (Ziyi Zhang), who they suspect is a member of the group, and leading her through the wilderness to the House of Flying Daggers' lair, where they can ambush the group at will with the full might of the government.

Yet not all is as it seems. Mei is a skilled dancer and even better fighter. With soldiers attacking them throughout their journey, what seems a game of seduction and entrapment for Jin becomes a matter of love and honour, and he finds himself falling in love with Mei. But Leo too has his eye on Mei...

As I said the setup is actually pretty good. The story potential is there. And then, like a freshly baked loaf of bread dropped into a puddle, the story falters. Plot lines are abandoned at will, and new threads taken up just as quickly, with the result a finely woven mess. The main story succumbs to the burgeoning relationship between Jin and Mei. When they finally reach the House of Flying Daggers, twists are revealed that further complicate things.

By the time the climax arrives, there is simply no room for suspension of disbelief left in the audience. Thus the fantasy ending, a flurry of nature's winter, seems comical and unbelievable. Zhang and Kaneshiro are fine actors who portray their characters with depth and feeling. Lau is somewhat less extraordinary, though he does well in a supporting role.

The big disappointment here is Yimou Zhang, whose marketing philosophy betrays his artistic and cinematic sensibilities. Zhang admits he makes movies with the global market in mind. It shows here, with a mere nod to story, and all other energy devoted to the visuals. They're high impact, but make little impression on an audience interested in a complete story.

There are a number of decent films that feature spectacular colors and equally impressive stories. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com

Posted by Vanderleun at February 10, 2005 8:42 AM
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