Monday, 21 February 2011

The House of Flying Daggers

I revisited "Daggers" as Nebular had listed director Zhang Yimou as his favourite: I hadn't really remembered much about the film other than the famous dancing sequence near the beginning of the film, so felt I should re-familiarise myself with it.

The House of Flying Daggers are a group of rebels who aim to bring down the failing government. The government guards are continually trying to track down the leader of the Daggers; having recently been successful in this venture they are now out to find the new leader. One of the guards (Jin, played by Takashi Kaneshiro) is sent to a local brothel, as there is talk of a new girl (Xiao Mei; Zhang Ziyi) who may have connections to the Daggers. Jin's boss Leo (Andy Lau) allows Jin to help Xiao Mei (who happens to be blind) leave the brothel and escape from the city guards, so that she may lead Jin and Leo to the Daggers' hideout. As Jin and Xiao Mei flee, they have various adventures, including many battles with guards from other districts, until finally they find the Daggers' hideout. Plot twists and double crosses lead to a climactic showdown between Jin and Leo.

Kaneshiro and Ziyi are both fantastic, Ziyi demonstrates that the talent which brought her to the masses in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, was not a fluke. She is able to act completely convincingly as a blind girl alongside Kaneshiro, and her sense of balance and fighting technique while staring off into the middle distance is amazing. Kaneshiro plays Jin wonderfully as the ladies man who first sets out on this quest because he fancies Xiao Mei, then falling for her, then realising he is in deeper than he had counted on as he has to kill guards from other counties. I felt that Andy Lau as Leo was less convincing early on; but now I think of it this could have been because of  how he was trying to play his character who was actually deeper into the conspiracy than we know at the outset.

The style of the film is absolutely phenomenal! Both the fighting and the cinematography. The fighting is wonderfully stylised, with a lot of other post-production techniques to make it even more dynamic. But the look of the film is simply stunning. The costumes are all very richly coloured; from the opulent dresses in the brothel to the blues of Jin's travelling gear to the greens of the Daggers' robes. But what makes it really stand out are the trees. The trees aren't just there for the sake of it, Zhang Yimou uses them as a canvas for almost the entire film. A lot of it is shot against the greens and browns of bamboo, but not always.

I would like to post loads of shots, it may get a bit gratuitous, but I could look at them all day! The whole film is gorgeous, lush, and beautifully shot; cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao is someone I should watch out for in future.

As I've intimated, there is very little I don't like about this film; great characters, great acting, intriguing plot (seemingly straightforward, but twists and turns towards the end), beautifully designed, shot, and executed. The only niggle I have is the fight between Jin and Leo at the end. Not the fight itself, that's perfectly choreographed,  it's the fact that it seemingly goes on for ages!

**Spoilers!** Initially the two fighters square up in field backdropped with an autumnal forest of typically stunning colour. Then a moment later, there is snow everywhere! Are we to believe two or three months have passed and still the combatants stand there? Not only that, but towards the end Xiao Mei comes around (she was stabbed, seemingly to death), to help solve the battle. Again, are we to think that she was at death's door for two to three months, just for her to recover enough to influence the fight? It just all reminded me of the Long Big Punch Up from the Fast Show:

Also, the snow that is falling relentlessly is only falling in front of the screen, it doesn't seem to land on any of the characters!

As I say, this is only a small niggle, but as it is the finale to the film I felt a bit let down. But overall this is a film not to be missed, I could watch it again and again simply because of its design, the fact that everything else about it is great is a huge bonus.