House of Flying Daggers is an excellent name for a martial-arts film. In Japan, Zhang Yimou’s follow-up to Hero is known as Lovers, and in China the name is something like Ambush from Ten Directions. But House of Flying Daggers is a much better name than either of those.
The catch is that it ultimately turns out to be a less than entirely fitting name for the film that Zhang actually made. It’s an excellent name for the film I thought he was making until the last thirty or forty minutes, and for the film I ultimately wish he had made instead of this one.
In the end, though, it turns out that the House of Flying Daggers is something the film doesn’t actually care about that much. So much is this the case, in fact, that the last time we hear tell of them, the warriors called the Flying Daggers are about to get into this huge climactic battle with the enemy soldiers, whom we see advancing slowly into the bamboo forest where the Flying Daggers are hiding… at which point the story cuts to another plot thread, never to return.
That’s irksome, because I cared about the Flying Daggers. How could you not care about an outlaw band of Merry Men-like resistance fighters living in hiding in the forest, working to oppose a corrupt, oppressive government regime? Especially with such a cool name?
What in fact is the subject of the film’s final act is its love triangle between the two male leads and the heroine, once again played by the lovely Zhang Ziyi of Hero and Crouching Tiger. For much of the film, the relationships among these three characters have some poignancy and emotional weight, and as the film develops themes of selfish lust versus selfless love and shallow attraction versus deep devotion the question who will finally get the girl is one that carries some urgency.
Yet in the end all three characters have made such dreadful decisions that it’s all moot, and which of the two guys gets the girl, or whether either of them gets her at all, is a question that seems hardly to matter one way or the other.
The movie, though, cares strongly who gets the girl — on a disconcertingly basic level. Although this is now the third art-house wuxia film in a row with Zhang Ziyi as the subject of violent sexual advances, it’s the first in which the film itself seems to take an unhealthy, and unpleasantly aggressive, interest in the whole business.
Mei (Zhang) is introduced in the opening scene as a blind dancer-prostitute; and, if her considerable martial-arts prowess makes her an unlikely victim, House nevertheless contrives to victimize her repeatedly throughout. On at least three or four different occasions she finds herself on her back struggling under one or the other of the film’s leading men (one of whom she has flirted pretty aggressively with, and the other of whom she allows to go quite a way before beginning to resist) before one of the two rivals finally gets lucky (and, again, by that point it hardly matters which one).
That’s not counting being tied to a torture device in a prison cell or getting repeatedly ganged up on by several male assailants at once. Of course in Crouching Tiger Ziyi could take on any number of non-Wudan attackers without breaking a sweat, but here combat is far messier and more dangerous than in Crouching Tiger or Hero, and even flying warriors aren’t invulnerable to attackers in sufficient numbers. Mei’s desperation as she struggles to hold off four male attackers in the woods is palpable, and seems somehow exploitative. (Subsequent revelations change the meaning of this and other scenes, but not the emotional force.)
What almost makes it worse is that visually director Zhang has created some of the most overwhelmingly beautiful action sequences ever filmed — above all a combat scene staged in a bamboo forest that, astonishingly, goes so far beyond Ang Lee’s poetic, contemplative bamboo-forest duel in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as to beggar description.
Yet while Crouching Tiger had characters and relationships one could care about to the end, and Hero offered a compelling exploration of Chinese sensibilities and moral affections, House leaves me finally without anyone or anything to care about. The characters are chilly and distant, for reasons that make sense to be sure, since everyone has secrets and reasons for keeping them, but chilly characters don’t make for engrossing melodrama.
Despite its weaknesses, House remains reasonably diverting, sometimes hauntingly beautiful, until the catastrophically misconceived final act, at which point it goes spectactularly off the rails. Abandoning both the dramatic promise of the Flying Daggers conflict and the romantic tension of the love triangle, Zhang takes a stab at operatic tragedy that fails to generate any real sense of grandeur or dramatic weight. For this gambit to work, the protagonists would have had to be noble, larger-than-life, but tragically flawed figures; but what they actually are, in the end, is rather pathetic — and pathos is fatal to grand tragedy.
What makes the abandonment of the Flying Daggers storyline even more disappointing is that Zhang’s last film, Hero, has been criticized for presenting an uncritical view of unifying government authority, even when that authority is brutal and oppressive. A follow-up film focusing on a Robin Hood-like band of rebel heroes opposing evil, oppressive governement military forces could have provided an interesting counterpoint. Alas, that opportunity has been largely squandered.
The story is pure Hong Kong melodrama, set at the dawn of the Chinese Imperial Era in the third century BC. … Yet there’s nothing even marginally conventional about Hero’s overpowering visual splendor, its effulgent riot of color and texture, its overwhelming spectacle of scale.
The story is said to be set in 19th-century China, but its roots are older, reaching for a mythic age of larger-than-life heroes and superhuman derring-do. Heroes with paranormal abilities were also a theme of the recent Unbreakable; but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has what was lacking in Unbreakable: a sense of wonder, of exhilaration, of mystery and beauty and hope.
What is it about this film that’s pulling in ordinarily subtitle-phobic U.S. audiences and eliciting cheers and applause from jaded American critics and festival audiences, yet leaves the kung-fu fans of the East cold? Is this a good martial-arts movie, or not?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.