Saturday, December 25, 2004

House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

The art-house action movie is a strange phenomenon. They are foreign imports almost by definition; a domestic action movie would open in multiplexes, with few exceptions (Equilibrium is the only recent example that leaps to mind); on the other hand, the boutique audience isn't always willing to appreciate a good action scene as something worth striving for on its own, advancing the plot be damned.

Though, to give it its due, House of Flying Daggers holds its own in the plot department. The title refers to a group of rebels operating just outside the capitol; having received information that the rebels have a new agent placed inside the Peony Pavilion brothel, the police send one of their number, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), undercover. When they find out the beautiful new dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi) is blind, well, the old leader had a blind daughter, didn't he? Hoping that she'll lead them to their leader, a disguised Jin breaks her out of prison. As his partner Leo (Andy Lau) informs him during a secret meeting, though, an overzealous general is troops to stop them, or at least make the escape appear convincing. It's enough to make Jin question whether he's on the right side.

Lau, of Infernal Affairs, is once again playing the infiltration game, only this time it doesn't take place in modern China. And, of course, there's a pretty girl involved, meaning that the matter will become personal at some point. It is a believable whirlwind romance, though, even when characters become aware of the multiple levels of deception involved. It may be unnecessarily tragic toward the end; though it makes for grand opera, but do people really think in such operatic terms? I'm not sure.

Visually, this film is a stunner. Director Zhang Yimou saturates the first half with color, with the scenes at the Peony Pavilion a sight to behold, especially during an "Echo Game", in which Leo throws stones at drums and blind Mei must repeat their sequence. He also uses this part of the movie to establish the style of the action scenes: They are unusually digital effects-intensive, with the camera following thrown objects or flying through the scene in slow motion.

As an aside, I find it an amusing irony that the action movies that become boutique-house successes in the United States feature a lot of FX trickery - digital weapons, extensive wire-work - while the Jackie Chan and Jet Li stuff which works based upon the incredible athleticism of its stars is relegated to the grindhouse. Aren't the boutique types usually the first ones to dismiss an American movie for being nothing but digital effects?

Flying Daggers is more, of course - its plot holds together pretty well, aside from being an excuse to string action scenes together. The characters are well-drawn and well-acted, and Yimou brings more artistry to this kind of movie than one might expect. During the final action sequence, for instance, the season seems to change from summer, to fall, to winter. The characters don't fight for four whole months, of course, but Yimou is able to make this metaphorical change in the world work, when in a less sure hand it might seem pretentious or nonsensical. One of the giants of world cinema, Yimou has only recently turned his hand to action/adventure (Flying Daggers is his follow-up to Hero), and he brings more attention to detail and storytelling sense than some of the genre's other practitioners.

House of Flying Daggers serves as a reminder that action movies don't have to be stupid, and that movies about human feelings can be illustrated with bold, physical confrontations. It's the epitome of the art-house action movie, and it would be a fine thing if we could see more like it.

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