Saturday, January 22, 2005

I went to the House of Flying Daggers and all I wrote for you is this lousy review!

OK. House of Flying Daggers has been out for a week. I know this. However, in that week's time, I've seen the movie three times in the theater (twice at the Temple of Moviedom, the Arena Grand and once at the Dirt Theater, aka the AMC). And I watched it once on DVD. Because I'm special.
There's really a lot going on and I wanted to make sure I was clear on my feelings about this movie. I've attempted to write this review four times now, and I'm going to struggle though it as best as I can.

The story takes place in 700 AD. The Tang Dynasty is in decline, riddled with corruption and bureaucracy. A rebel group, the House of Flying Daggers, has been fighting against the oppression of the current regime. However, their leader has been recently assassinated by the local militia.
Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro from Wong Kar-Wai's movies), a young captain of the guard, is assigned by his superior Leo (Andy Lau) to infiltrate the New Peony Pavillion, a brothel where it's suspected that members of the rebel group may be hiding out.
The prime suspect: a new dancer by the name of Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a beautiful blind girl with surprising grace and martial prowess. The old leader of the Flying Daggers had a blind daughter, and she disappeared shortly after his death. Jin hires her for a dance, then attempts to take advantage of her to get them both arrested.

The madame makes a plea to Leo to spare Mei from jail because of her rare talents as a dancer, and Leo consents to play the Echo Game with her. They place drums around a chamber and Leo flicks almonds at them. Mei must correctly match each tone by striking the drums with the sleeves of her robes. It's a gorgeous sequence, from the design of the magnificent chamber to the dance Mei performs. It seems to be what the people I drag with me to see the movie take out with them.
Mei concludes her dance by attempting to kill the police captain, and Leo subdues her and throws her in irons. Then, he has Jin break her out so she'll head back to the Flying Daggers and the army can attack them.

The plot is, of course, far more intricate than that, involving betrayal, lost love, subterfuge and a few phenomenal action sequences. But, to tell you more might let you in on the twists and turns to come. You learn to like the characters, then you learn something more about them and are back to square one with them. Each revelation propels the story forward, and makes the double crosses and betrayals that much more important. There's no clear hero. No true victory. And in the end...nothing but regrets for those involved.
Where Zhang Yimou's previous martial masterpiece Hero was all about the imagery of the old Chinese folk legends, House of Flying Daggers is all about the melodrama. It's still visually gorgeous. I'd say a few sequences even surpass Hero in bold use of color to tell the story.

The acting is top-notch as well. If you've seen Takeshi Kaneshiro in Chungking Express or Fallen Angels, you know he's great at evoking the weary angst necessary for his character. He's charming, duplicitous and in the end, perhaps even true. There's conflict and perhaps even a little bit of hope in his heart...which leads the character down the obvious road to ruination.

Zhang Ziyi is, of course, gorgeous in an ethereal and almost alien sort of way. She radiates a confidence and strength in her performance that one wouldn't expect from someone so tiny and frail looking -- and she's always wholly believeable whupping a man's ass. Go figure.

Andy Lau has long been a fan favorite in Hong Kong, both for his Cantopop (ugh) albums and his wide-ranging film roles. Hopefully this film (and the Miramax DVD of Infernal Affairs) lets the world know he's a guy to watch.
If you haven't seen this movie in the theater. Go. Even if you own the import DVD. Really. It's that spectacular, and it BEGS to be seen on the biggest screen possible with the best available sound. It's a cinematic experience to be savored. You owe it to yourself.

(Besides, you get to see the trailer for Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen Chow's new film!)

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