After my experience with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I was more than a bit trepidatious about approaching this thing but I needn’t have worried on that score: more than just being visible throughout, even in the night-time scenes, House of Flying Daggers was a visual riot throughout, light, bright, clean, vivid and rich in colours.
It’s a film with a glowing reputation, received with tremendous praise when it was released in 2004 and apparently having given Channel 4 it’s biggest ever audience when shown three years later. Yet though it was ebxcellent on the terms it set out for itself – one might say flawless – it ended up not quite disappointing me but rather failing to fully impress me the way I was looking for it to do.
The story is set during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, against a background of corrupt government and revolutionary factions, one of which is the Robin Hood-like titular House of Flying Daggers. Two Captains, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who have already assassinated the old leader, are ordered to identify and kill the new leader within ten days. Believing that Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind dancer working in a nearby brothel, is a member of the House, they contrive to arrest her then have Jin free her, intending that she will lead them to the House.
The story was set within a particular period of Chinese history, but I never got the feeling that this historical specificity was more than the traditoional Hitchcockian McGuffin. In part this may be been down to my lack of understanding of Chinese history, and the mnative audience may have derived a greater importance from that, but I doubt it was that great a factor. This was a martial arts film, a thing of action, perfectly choreographed movement, not just in combat but in an extraordinary dance scene early on, beautifully filmed, without CGI, with contained and controlled slow-motion – no Zack Snyder excesses here – and intent on dazzling the eyes.
But the problem inherent in this film was that it was an action spectacular. It dazzled the eyes, but that was really the only one of the senses it sought to dazzle. The period was an excuse to host a story that, in its first half, was not much more than an extended, episodic chase-and-fight scene. I couldn’t help, from an early stage onwards, wondering how the film differed, in that respect from any CGI-laden superhero film.
Once the film reached its halfway point, more or less, its nature transmuted almost abruptly, not abandoning the martial arts spectacle but instead leavening it with multiplre revelations, betrayals and other plot twists on the way to diverting it into a love story, based on the eternal triangle.
The first revelation I had seen coming, not with certainty but with a high degree of suspicion. Zhang Ziyi as the blind Mei was astonishingly convincing (before filming, she spent two months living with a blind girl, observing her). We knew the actress wasn’t blind but there wasn’t the least flicker of a suggestion that the character wasn’t. Yet, if only because my relative naivete about martial arts films wouldn’t let me belkieve a blind woman could do all that, I doubted all along, and I was right to do so.
Because Leo and Jin’s conspiracy to use Mei was part of a larger conspiracy masterminded by the House of Flying Dagger’s new leader, Nai, to draw out an open military force for a confrontation. Though as presented, the House of Flying Daggers onscreen were all female, Captain Leo was a mole, planted three years earlier, to set this plot in motion. And Leo was in love with Mei, and she with him (in Wikipedia it has them as betrothed but this wasn’t stated in any of the sub-titles), but in the three days she had been on the run with him, Mei had fallen in love with Jin.
Complications arose. Mei was supposed to kill Jin so he could not reveal Leo was a double agent, but she couldn’t. Instead, she released him, but refused to go with him. Except that, after a scene that stretched things out a bit too long, heralding an ending that got out of hand, she changed her mind and rode after him, only to be intercepted by the jealous Leo, hurling a flying dagger to, literally, her breast, and fatally wounding her.
Sadly, I thought the ending excessive and in some respects ridiculous. After waiting for her to catch up, an unnecessary chauvinistic touch that presupposed that the little woman had no choice in the matter, Jin comes back and finds Mei’s dead body. He and Leo fight, furiously, giving each other many wounds. Out of nothing, an amazing snowstorm appears, symbolic but unconvincing. The General’s troops surreptitiously approach the House of Flying Daggers but we’ve gone beyond the outcome of that. Finally, the fight ends the only way it could, with jin and Leo simultaneously giving each other fatal wounds.
Only they’re not fatal, any more than Mei’s dagger has been. Leo prepares to kill Jin with a Flying Dagger. Mei threatens to kill him with the dagger dragged out of her breast. Jin drops his sword, pleading with her not to do so, the dagger is the only thing preserving her life from her blood pouring out (I so could not avoid flashing back to John Cleese’s The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It). He limps towards Leo so he’s too near: if Leo throws his dagger Jin will be dead before Mei can retaliate. Jin throws his dagger. Mei drags her out and throws it. Not to kill Jin but to intercept his dagger. Only he’s faked throwing it, to get her to kill him, he’s only launched a globule of blood. Mei dies. The two ‘fatally wounded’ Captains live. Jin cries over Mei’s body, Leo stumbles off into the trees, and thankfully it ends there, the over-developed melodrama having quite ruined the film’s cohesion.
I was gratified to see that amongst the general praise for the film, plenty of critics did agree that it is about spectacle and overwhelming the audience to carry it over the weak story, so for once it wasn’t just me with the contrary opinion. Though I can understand the appeal to the film-msakers of the trapdoors thrugh which they wanted to send their viewers, in the end for me it derailed the film and led to an incompatible ending that failed to ever really make the emotions it depicted properly convincing. I shall retain the DVD, for now at least but, except for Zhang Ziyi’s grace and beauty, I doubt I’ll have much of a reason to watch it again. Curse of the Golden Flower is still, for me, the best movie to come out of China.