Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Li Feng, Peter Wu, Wang Bin, and Zhang Yimou
Cinematographer: Zhao Xiaoding
Producer: William Kong and Zhang Yimou
by Jon Cvack
This is the first action film I’ve seen since getting into Yimou Zhang as the art house Chinese filmmaker who made Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Coming Home (2014), Not One Less (1999) and about a half dozen other acclaimed movies. He’s also made Hero (2002 with Jet Li), The Great Wall (2016) with Matt Damon, and a movie I had never even heard of with Christian Bale called The Flowers of War (2011). It might be the greatest example of the “one for you, one for me” filmmaking philosophy.
I had always thought House of Flying Daggers exploded in America, but in fact it was Hero which was made two years prior and made over $175 million from its $31 million budget. House of Flying Daggers followed it up, offering that unique 00s vibe of special effects that looked pretty good at the time, now in dire need of remastering. Remembering nothing about Hero and therefore only having his beautiful dramas in my mind, I figured that it’d at least be a gorgeous movie to look at. And it is. But damn do the effects bring it down.
The film opens by explaining that as the oppressive Tang Dynasty fades, various factions have risen up in revolt, including the House of Flying Daggers. Later, we meet a blind dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi) who’s been captured by police who suspect she’s connected to the organization. The set looks fake, the colors feel empty, and I got that immediate sense of alarm; made all the worse when somehow the situation leads to the blind girl being surrounded by drums and the judge or policeman says she has to recreate the sounds of dried beans hitting the instruments where she’ll then use her scarves to somehow recreate the sounds. The beans look fake, the scarves look fake, the slow motion looks tacky, and I knew I was watching a film from an era not quite able to pull off the effect; the way it’s hard to watch Futureworld (1976) and how much it leans into the 70s. This is made using the nascent technology from the age which would progress and look exponentially better in less than 20 years.
The story moves on from there with reversals and deaths, but ultimately it’s all about the fights - featuring everything from a sequence in a bamboo field that was pretty cool, in which using the whistling sound the plants would make when soaring through the air, along with the pliability of the stalks, Yimou made a mostly believable sequence as a few of the characters are chased down. The final scene is a bit more difficult to swallow, involving this hyper stylized knife throwing throughout the rest of the film that simply doesn’t look good; by now closer to a video game than reality. Knives are tossed back and forth and slow motion shots dominate the sequence. The final stand off in the snow has its moments, but is mostly forgettable. Writing this a little over a week later, there were few other scenes that stand out.
The thing is, very few films from this era have aged well. Even Lord of the Rings (2001 - 2003) needs a major remastering of about 25% of its material. It’s an interesting era in allowing us to anticipate where it was all going to go, but the film’s themselves are now becoming museum pieces. Perhaps one day they’ll take on the vintage feel of a Universal classic horror or 50s monster movie. Then again, these are also some of the first films sharing a comparable experience with video games, where it seems like these sequences could have found a better home.
I might try out Hero one day in the future. If not, I’m completely satisfied with his dramas. If anything it makes me wonder why he can’t find a better balance between the two, as I’m entirely confident Yimou would create a modern Ran (1985), if given the proper opportunity. As is, it seems best to stick with his smaller stories that contain enough heart to battle and win against any epic.
BELOW: A scene that works with the available tech
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