“Wow, how many times did we shoot this sword move, flicking the sleeve?” Zhang Ziyi asks, watching the extraordinary Peony Palace dance scene in House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu). This as her character Mei’s sinuous pink sleeve, with blade appended, threatens undercover policeman Leo (Andy Lau Tak Wah). Director Zhang Yimou responds, “I’d say, 30, 40 times… For a second or two of footage.”
While Zhang and Zhang’s commentary track emphasizes the sheer effort that went into the film’s production—training, research, special effects work, hours on the set, physical hardships—it also suggests the good time they shared. Repeatedly, they recall details of their shared efforts. “In this scene,” she says, as they observe Mei dunked under water and out of sight, “You told me I had to keep my eyes open told me to keep my eyes open. I really did. Can you even tell?” they laugh together, as the scene cuts to Mei locked in a wooden device, as she is now a prisoner of Leo. As she stands apart in a separate frame, her face taut with rage and frustration, the camera cuts to Leo, who sits with fellow cop Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro).
The men, both in uniform, sit at a table, Jin before a pile of peanuts. “We were originally worried,” admits Zhang Yimou, “that with [Leo] going from the first outfit into the uniform, that audiences wouldn’t be able to recognize him. So we decided to have him eat peanuts, because at the beginning of the movie he’s eating peanuts. That way people will remember. We were afraid that Western audiences wouldn’t be able to tell Chinese faces apart from each other.” Zhang Ziyi laughs. “Just like we have a hard time telling Western faces apart. I look at the noses to see whose bridge is higher.” Ah, the insights granted by global cinema.
Zhang Yimou and Zhang Ziyi plainly enjoy a mutually respectful and affectionate relationship: he praises her athleticism and development of her character, and she appreciates his well-known mastery of the medium and the business. Their warm and witty commentary track brings yet another dimension to the already layered and fascinating House. (The DVD also includes a 45-minute making-of documentary and a visual effects featurette, both informative if rudimentary.) The film seems an ideal match of talents. Involving deceit, loyalty, and passionate romance, it marks the 53-year-old filmmaker’s double-step into martial arts and swordplay (wuxia) films (along with Hero). To the genre, he brings the grand themes and precise details that made his much-revered art house films so distinctive—the gorgeous billowing of fabrics (Ju dou ), the building effects of diurnal niceties (The Story of Qiu Ju/Qiu Ju da guan si ), the gentle breezes alongside the incessant force of destiny (The Road Home/Wo de fu qin mu qin ). In each of these films, the smallest gesture becomes monumental, made grand in color and scope, the camera lingering over surfaces, insisting on your careful attention.
In House, the combination of detail and expansiveness both reinforces and opens out the genre. At film’s center is Mei, introduced as she is posing as a dancer in the Peony Palace bordello, but she is in truth an agent for the House of Flying Daggers, a dangerous guerilla group working to end the Chinese Tang Dynasty (c. 859 AD). Angry that they are unable to find or contain the Daggers, the police are now conjuring elaborate schemes. Here, they mean to use Mei to locate the group, by sending cocky Jin—the very cop who has previously assaulted her in a seeming drunken rage, after watching her dance, undercover—to aid her in an illegal escape. As they make their way through the forest, eluding police and bandits alike. As the couple begins to fall in love, Mei’s plan is troubled. As Zhang Yimou notes during one especially lovely and odd scene, the lovers-to-be briefly alone in an open field: “The things you say, the looks on your face, it becomes hard to tell between real and fake. You’re using pretension but the real emotions are starting to show.”
“I think even if you took away all the fighting and the choreography,” says Ziyi, “you’d still have a great, artistic film.” Zhang Yimou agrees by way of explaining, “I hoped that this film would depict the feelings of these three people, in a more detailed way, more so than in the usual martial arts film.” Just so, the complications of attachment and morality become pronounced, as the film deals in deceptions and misidentifications. The imagery ranges from magnificent to meticulous: huge golden fields and blue skies, snowy mountains and stunningly green bamboo forests, fight scenes that have armies sliding down bamboo trees and wooden daggers whooshing to hit their targets from around corners. In each, the sound effects are stunning, fluttering robes and background wind, the clang of swords and whomp of feet, the panting of lovers, whether in hungry passion, mounting frustration, or convincing duplicity (“there are so many things,” notes Zhang Yimou, “they can’t say or express”).
At the center of the action—which is inventive even as it is derivative, inspired and fun—is the increasingly heated love triangle among Jin, Leo, and Mei. Their devotions to one another build even as they discover layer on layer of untruths, only making the narrative preposterousness seem more exquisite. Figuring that her valiant rescuer is feigning affection for her at the same time that he asserts his necessary freedom (he is “like the wind,” you know, like so many young men), Mei makes a decision: “I don’t care if you’re true or not. I have to leave. I want to end this.” Astride her horse, disguised again (this time in boys’ clothes), she looks off to the distance. “I’d like to be the wind for once.”
And so, even as the film functions on a rudimentary level—it’s a fight movie, set against ancient imperialism, codes of honor, and vast wilderness—House also refracts generic standards to give them new, slick life. In a sequence of scenes, they’re paired off to suggest that any one couple might rise from the fight dust: the men collude in secret meetings in the murky woods to plan their tactical dismantling of Mei’s defenses; Mei and Leo reveal a shared past (just before he reveals a side of his own character that she could not have anticipated); Jin and Mei risk everything to ride off into a glorious wind that can never embrace them.
While the men’s trajectories seem well delineated (as Zhang Yimou says of Andy Lau, “I think he had a really good grasp on his character… The original version of the character was simpler. He made it much more complex”), Mei’s fate and meaning are both more opaque. With her screen time split among fighting, crying, and resisting one or the other impulse, she remains an object more than anything else. “You can’t force a woman against her will,” asserts the Daggers’ mysterious leader, on seeing one of Mei’s suitors attempt to do just that. The problem for the men is that they seem unable to fathom that will. And that may be House‘s most oddly interventionist point, that their desire is irrelevant.