Saturday at the Movies: House of Flying Daggers
A sudden change in plan this afternoon saw me on a solitary trek to the Summit USJ where I decided I'd give Zhang Yimou's latest epic-wannabe a look. In total I think there were only about 10 people inside the cinema, and that suited me fine.
Before I continue, I'd just like to say this: I really wanted to like the movie more than I did. Seriously. During the first half I was already composing lines in my head about "how if Zatoichi is Japan's contribution to the new Asian film renaissance then this is China's answer" or something like that when then it struck me that there's not much else one can say about The House of Flying Daggers.
The cinematography is beyond reproach and the actors well suited to their roles but beyond that, it's as if somewhere along the line Zhang Yimou (or rather, the script) ran out of steam and there is no choice but to rely on good old wire-fu and scenery to pad the plodding second half of the movie. Maybe it's me. After Hero one would expect the same balance of storytelling, emotion and fights. Sadly, this is not the case, and THoFD (as I'll call it) suffers from being too good-looking for its own good.
For the uninitiated: the story takes place during the final days of the Tang Dynasty, where government investigators Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are charged with the task of penetrating and weeding out an anti-goverment group known only as the House of Flying Daggers. As Jin infiltrates the establishment that is the organisation's front, he meets the mesmerising Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind dancer who is as deadly with the blade as she is performing. Realising she may be the daughter of the group's leader, him and Leo plan an elaborate deception to ensnare the whole clan. Little does Jin know that things are often not what they seem, and love throws a nut into everything...
In essence, astute viewers (and readers) will be able to pretty much sum up how the story moves on from there. The rebellion that's supposed to be taking place pretty much fades away mid point as the story focuses solely on Jin, Mei, the assorted battles they have to wade through and Leo, in that order. It isn't that the story is bad, it's just underutilised. By the time Jin has to rush to rescue Mei for the umpteenth time (in the same way) you begin to fidget and wonder "is this it?". No matter how pretty and well-designed the sets and the costumes are (and yes they really are pretty) or how many arrows Jin can put into the air at one time, by the second half of the movie one begins to crave something meatier, something that is more significant than the follies and petty jealousies of a love triangle...or am I giving too much away?
Not all is lost, however. In between the padding one sees the promise of a better movie hidden somewhere. The fight scenes are superb, with an air of comicbook wire-fu goodness hidden inside something that approaches dance rather than fighting. The gimmicry is rarely evident, and again Yimou proves that the surrounding environment can be as effective a story telling element than any inane dialogue. The scenery is lush, with colours reflecting the mood of the scenes, and also bringing their own symbolism into the mix. But then again, a movie is more than the scenery and fights, no matter how good they look, need to bring the movie to some sort of a finale, which sadly is missing from the film.
At the end of the day, THoFD is a commendable effort, but Yimou seriously needs to rethink some of his decisions in making it. On the whole it feels stretched out, as if his creative juices are overreached in thinking of some new cinematic scenery plot device to add. So until something better comes along this year, I'll have to retrack that whole Asian renaissance bit. Sorry, but no go.
The Ox gives it a 2.5 out of 5