House Of Flying Daggers

Director    Zhang Yimou
Starring    Tony Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Ziyi
5 stars

8th January 2005

Chavs. There are chavs everywhere. The cinema used to be the last bastion of the adult, untouched by the burberry legions, I'm sure it did. Didn't it? Hordes of sportswear-clad teenagers swarm around the lobby, chattering, giggling and making vaguely threatening gestures to any poor soul who happens to enter their theatre of conflict. Lord knows what film they've come to see (one suspects it doesn't matter -a cinema is as good as a street corner is as good as a Burger King car park) but surely they can't have come to see House of Flying Daggers? Their alcopop-tainted ape-like intellects wouldn't be able to comprehend the beauty of this latest 'wuxia' martial arts fest, right? I'm not wrong, and the assembled masses all file noisily into the latest Tim Allen comedy. See, he really does have a purpose.

Strangely enough, it isn't just the chav who is put off by foreign films these days - there's still an alarming number of intelligent moviegoers out there who can't be fussed with following subtitles and chopsocky nonsense - but no one has done more to try and change their minds than Zhang Yimou. Hero was a breakout martial arts film; hallowed by all those who were lucky enough to see it, it was as visually arresting as it was poetic and enchanting and pretty soon, it had the whole movie world in a spin. Characters like Harry Knowles and Quentin Tarantino sang its praises from the highest Hollywood hills until eventually it received a decent cinematic run in the West and touched a whole new audience in the process. House of Flying Daggers is its companion piece, an altogether more complete cinematic experience which matches Hero blow for blow, without losing any of the sparkle.

Anyone who's seen Hero will not be surprised, but the story is constantly changing direction, sending you in one direction only to clout you round the other ear with full force. We follow Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), an undercover member of China's ruling dynasty, as he fakes a prison breakout so he can gain the trust of Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a female member of the House of Flying Daggers, an elite group of what can only be badly described as anti-establishment super ninjas. Hoping to follow Mei to the group's new leader so he can bring them to justice, Jin's mission is endangered further when his own soldiers turn on him, believing him to be a traitor. As he's led further and further into the unknown, Jin's feelings for Mei become apparent and his true allegiance becomes clouded. When Jin's faithful partner Leo (Andy Lau) is captured, that's when Yimou lays on revelation after revelation after revelation, blindsiding you with a barrage of twists that will simply leave you breathless by the closing credits.

House of Flying Daggers will inevitably be mentioned in the same breath as recent classics as Crouching Tiger and Hero (for obvious reasons) but it definitely deserves to be recognised on its own merits rather than piggyback the success of others. Hero's beauty was largely down to Director of Photography Christopher Doyle and his rather unorthodox methods (for 'unorthodox', read 'drunken') but even without his Aussie partner, Yimou succeeds in creating a film that tops even its predecessor's incredible set pieces with some aplomb. Here you have a sensual and lavish dance scene in a brothel, a heart-racing ambush in a tall cornfield and a fight amidst the trees of a bamboo forest to name but a few. Each scene is sumptuous in colour and choreography, none more so than the final confrontation - a battle through the changing seasons, charged with more emotion and raw energy than a dozen Kill Bills could muster. Sequences like this show up pretenders like Tarantino and friends for what they really are - derivative and vastly inferior.

Yimou's usual cast are again up to the task, with Kaneshiro and Lau on top form as the soldiers tasked with bringing down the nefarious knife-flingers. However, any actor sharing a picture with Zhang Ziyi is going to have to work extra hard - coming off the back of the two most popular martial arts films of the last 5 years, Ziyi again delivers as the delicate Mei, with a smile that positively radiates warmth and a rather dapper range of long-sleeved jumpers (both of which would have been handy, thanks to the cinema's faulty heating). The entire movie revolves around her slender frame, and she owns every minute of it. When the swords clash and the fists fly towards the film's closing moments, you don't doubt the intent of either party - Flying Daggers is as much of a love story than it is an action film, and although other movies in the genre will claim to have successfully married the two elements, only Yimou can really have claimed to have pulled it off thus far. The only possible grumble is the lack of faces to put to the members of the House, with the group swathed in mystery where perhaps a little more in-depth investigation was needed.

Don't wait for a fat ginger man to rave about it, or for a big-chinned motormouth to slap his name in front of it on the poster - House of Flying Daggers is a beautiful and constantly engaging film that deserves to be seen now, and deserves to be seen by everyone. As I walked shell-shocked from screen 5, with swordplay and chivalry still pumping through my veins, I even briefly considered recommending it to the chavs loitering by the front door. Even an Umbro-wearing pikey couldn't fail to fall in love with a masterpiece such as this. Throw in a car chase and I reckon they'd be sold.

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