Reviews

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

Cynthia Fuchs

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.


House of Flying Daggers (shi Mian Mai Fu)

Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Zhang Ziyi, Song Dandan
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2005-04-19

"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 [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, 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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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