House of Flying Daggers (2004) – Film Review

House of Flying Daggers Movie Review PosterHouse of Flying Daggers

Starring Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau

Directed by Zhang Yimou

IMDB Rating: 7.6

One of the most famous martial arts movies of all time, House of Flying Daggers is for many people one of those films that they remember the name of, and what it means in terms of legacy, but have never seen it. The question is, twelve years on, does this film still hold the sense of majesty it once did?

Set in 19th century China, the Tang Dynasty holds a weak grasp over the country. A rebel group known as ‘The House of the Flying Daggers’ fights the government’s corrupt forces, stealing from the rich to feed the poor. The story follows Leo (Lau) and Jin (Kaneshiro), two government officials in the army who are fighting against the rebel group. During a visit to a brothel Jin finds a beautiful, blind dancer called Mei (Ziyi), whose martial arts skills cause Jin and Leo to believe she is part of the Flying Daggers, namely the old leader’s blind daughter, who supposedly run away from the group. The two of them hatch a plan to save the girl from their own government prison, hoping that she’ll lead them to the secretive House of Flying Daggers, but the plan gets complicated as double-identities are unearthed and love blossoms between Mei and Jin.

The story itself has something of a traditional folktale about it: a story about love triangles and deception centred on a beautiful woman. Like folktales, this film certainly has an element of fantasy about it, a style perhaps amplified by the oriental culture of the piece. The story, despite some meaningful twists, does feel quite plain despite being very heartfelt (again, like a folktale). It feels like the story is simply a vehicle for what is a visually stimulating movie. The movie uses a lot of slow-motion shots during the action scenes, which I think was something that was popular during the noughties but to a modern-day audience comes across, understandably, as dated. Despite that, during the rest of the movie the incredible colours of the world come across beautifully, and the whole film has something of a flowing feel to it, even outside of the dance-like fight scenes.

The acting in this film is also good. Obviously, with this being a subtitled film and taking into account cultural differences it’s harder to tell if the actors are using the tone of their voice correctly or effectively. While the acting didn’t necessarily look as delicate as you would get in some Hollywood performances (there were times where it started to feel a little bit ‘stage-play’) I never felt like someone was seriously underperforming. Again, I think this was helped by the excellent directing and cinematography, but we’ll get to that. The relationship between Mei and Wind was really good, and I think both of them delivered very good performances. Andy Lau, playing Leo, also looked solid but didn’t have many emotive moments. That, or he just didn’t make the most of his moments, but I feel that that is somewhat down to his character too.

As you can imagine, the directing in this film by Zhang Yimou is really good! There is some really beautiful moments in this film, the majority of which are down to Yimou’s direction, particularly with the camera. Oscar nominated for its cinematography – and in a similar way to recent cinematography success The Revenant – this is a film that is sprinkled with beautiful, still shots that perfectly capture the emotion and serenity of the story and its location.

As mentioned earlier, this is a film that I don’t feel has necessarily aged well. I’m sure at the time all of the Matrix-style slow motion and zooming camera-work was seen as high-tech and cutting-edge, but in this decade there has been a move away from this style of constantly slowing the action down, and you could argue a movment towards speeding up action scenes, which means the action scenes which this film almost completely rely on come across as dated. However, there is still plenty to appreciate about this film, particularly the beautiful scenery and classic – almost fairy tale – storyline.

Would I recommend this? Probably from an artistic, cinematography standpoint, but in terms of film entertainment then probably not.

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