Last year I wanted to see House of Flying Daggers, but was advised against it by a couple of fellow writing students. Today I watched it at the school library. It is a mixed bag. I can see how people would come away hating it, but there is much to like as well.
For the first hour or so, I was dazzled. The cinematography is gorgeous, the score crisp and spirited, the sound design mesmerizing. The love story is sweet, the action inventive and thrilling. Zhang Ziyi is the superhero you always wished she could be in Crouching Tiger and Hero. As a blind fighter, she puts Daredevil to shame (though if we’re talking Daredevil the movie, the shame is already there).
It is easily better than Hero. Even the languorous scenes play exactly right—authentically dramatic and deserving of the time they take up. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau are two of my favorite Chinese actors. They have very contemporary faces, infusing this period piece with a modern feel. The half-Chinese, half-Japanese Kaneshiro may just be the most attractive Asian man ever. I don’t know enough about Chinese history to remember exactly when the movie is set, but thankfully, whenever it is, there are none of those awful half-shaved heads I hate so much.
Well past the halfway mark, I was thinking about how this is the best Old Fashioned Martial Arts Movie By A Prestigious Chinese Director And Featuring Zhang Ziyi that I’ve ever seen, and how I would have to buy the DVD.
But then there are the negatives. The first sticking point for some people is the physics. It is a little jarring, initially, when Andy Lau flicks a bean and it travels through the air unaffected by gravity, or when Zhang Ziyi picks up a sword with her long sleeves. The sleeve-fighting was a big dealbreaker for one person I talked to. But that is par for the course in this kind of movie, and I found the sleeve-fighting perfectly terrific.
The real problem is when the twists begin.
First things first: The story concerns a pair of Chinese deputies, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau. Their job is to kill the new leader of a rebel group called the Flying Daggers, who are really great at throwing daggers. They suspect the new girl (Zhang Ziyi) at a local brothel. Kaneshiro goes to meet her, posing as a customer, then sexually assaults her, giving Lau a pretext to arrest them both. She turns out to be blind, but she is an amazingly coordinated fighter anyway. Kaneshiro busts her out of jail, posing as a non-cop, and tries to win her trust in hopes that she will lead him to the Flying Daggers.
Kaneshiro is also a bit of a ladies’ man, and if he figures if can seduce her while winning her trust, so much the better—though Lau warns him not to jeopardize the plan by falling for her. They fight off staged attacks from the deputies, but eventually an unseen General takes over the case and sends soldiers to attack them for real—the idea being that if the fights are not really to the death, the girl might not buy the scam. There are some amazing fights where she holds her own despite her blindness, and the brilliant use of sound helps sell the idea that she could do it.
So as I was saying, the twists.
One of them works, and makes perfect sense, so I might as well not mention it.
But it is harder to forgive when we learn that Zhang Ziyi’s character is not actually blind. It makes irrelevant all the meticulous sound design that sold us on the concept, and it undermines how awesome her abilities were. Part of what makes her fights so amazing is the context that she is blind. Granted, faking blindness isn’t easy, and faking blindness while fighting must be especially hard. But probably it is not as hard as actually fighting while blind. This twist left me feeling cheated.
Twists should make what came before seem cooler in retrospect, not lamer.
Too bad. I’d rather she was never blind at all. It’s too disappointing when she isn’t.
The other problem is that the finale goes on and on. More twists pile up—they’re splitting up—no, they’re running away together—no, she’s dead—no, she’s alive!—no, she’s dead—until all our patience is spent and all impact is lost. The story I was once so invested in, by the end I found tiresome.
It’s a shame. For a while there, it was really a great movie.