House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu) (2004)

2004-12-03 (Limited release)

“You’ll never dance again after this.” So threatens the policeman, Leo (Andy Lau Tak-Wah), leaning close to Mei (Zhang Ziyi). She trembles, slightly, as she’s supposed to, then winces as he demonstrates the sheer nastiness of his torture device: a large wooden frame that crushes a bamboo staff as it will her legs. All the while, Mei’s face remains utterly pale, her blind eyes so impassive as to seem unblinking.

And yet, even as this tautly muscled deputy looms over the little blind girl, you know that he shouldn’t be counting his chickens. That’s because Mei has just demonstrated her daunting skills during the previous scene in House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu), when she was captured by her current tormentor. Though she was posing as a dancer in a bordello (in particular, deploying her sleeves to create complex drum patterns), she is actually 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 another deputy, cocky Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) — 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 from the torture has promised her by his fellow cop.

On its surface, this looks like a vaguely more involved version of good cop-bad cop. But the deceptions and misidentifications fly fast and furiously, almost from frame one, when Jin announces to Leo that he’s happy to die “under a skirt, for then he can flirt forever, as a ghost. This seemingly offhanded remark is a joke and a characterization, but it is also a foreshadowing, of the dire passions and sacrifices these three characters, entangled in a web of desire and duty, where the wild woods and the wind serve as perfect accompaniment.

The scheme begins predictably, and with supreme energy: sheathed in black, he swoops into the prison, frees her from her bonds in order to help her fend off the guards, and with that, the two young beauties are off, flying through the woods on a journey that will change both forever, and lead, at last, to tragedy. And the route to this inevitable end is as breathtaking as any in Zhang Yimou’s oeuvre. As the 53-year-old filmmaker moves into martial arts and swordplay (wuxia) films, with Hero and now House, he brings with him the grand themes and precise details that made his much-revered arthouse films so distinctive — the gorgeous billowing of fabrics (Ju dou [1990]), the building effects of diurnal niceties (The Story of Qiu Ju/Qiu Ju da guan si [1992]), the gentle breezes alongside the incessant force of destiny (The Road Home/Wo de fu qin mu qin [1999]). 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 of Flying Daggers, such attention is repaid repeatedly, in scenes that range from grand 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.

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, 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 (and in this, she recalls Zhang’s other great screen muse, Gong Li, tricked out with action movie conventions). “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.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.