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Clemenza's Corner [Featuring Guest Reviewer Vincenzo]

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House of Flying Daggers

Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2004

Rating: 3.4


Posted: January 25, 2005

As astute readers of this space will recall, Shaking Through Grand Poo-Bah Kevin Forest Moreau recently assigned me to review the disappointing Elektra. Man, that movie was so stiff and lifeless, it qualified for rigor mortis. So I told said Editor-in-Chief in no uncertain terms that to make up for giving me an Elektra complex, he should assign me to see House of Flying Daggers. I really liked Zhang Yimou's Hero, which came out last year, so this seemed like a no-brainer. I don't know if it was his natural sense of compassion and fair play, or if he was moved by the steely glint in my eye, the rough edge to my tone and the implied violence in my voice. Either way, bingo, I got the gig. [Editor's Note: I don't remember this exchange taking place in quite the same way Vincenzo does.]

Well, I'm here to tell ya, House of Flying Daggers is no Hero. And it's certainly no Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- even though, just like in those films, there are a lot of eye-popping visual sequences here, not to mention a good-sized amount of Crouching Tiger and Matrix-style defiance of gravity in the battle scenes. It's still a good flick, don't get me wrong, but it lacks the epic scope or the testosterone count of Hero. That's because where Hero was a muy masculine tale, filled with political intrigue and hard-hitting battle scenes (not to mention my man Jet Li, who -- take it from a former bodyguard to the action stars -- that boy can fight!), Flying Daggers is, first and foremost, a (gag!) love story.

Yeah, you heard me right. But first things first. Dateline: China. 859 A.D. The Tang Dynasty is girding its loins to fend off rebellion. Two Chinese policemen -- Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) -- believe they've got a lead that could bring them to a notorious group of rebels known as the House of Flying Daggers: Word has it that a beautiful dancer at a nearby brothel is actually the daughter of a former leader of the rebel group. So Jin goes undercover to the brothel to scope the girl out.

Enter Mei, played by the very hot (in an Asian kind of way) Zhang Ziyi, who has the distinction of having appeared in both Crouching Tiger and Hero. When Jin sets eyes on her, he's immediately struck by her beauty -- and by the fact that she's apparently as blind as a bat. Now, this is the first part where this movie kind of begs you to hang your disbelief on a hook for a little while, because for a blind chick, Mei sure can dance.

She not only dances for Jin, who immediately gets all inappropriate on her, but when Leo and the other cops storm in to see what the disturbance is, she proves quite, what's the word I'm looking for -- adept at the Echo Game, which involves Leo throwing pebbles at these big drums, and Mei matching the movements with these big long sleeves she's got. A bit sketchy, as is her kick-ass fighting prowess. But, hey, you know, Daredevil is blind, and so is Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman, so you're willing to give this little development a pass.

Now, Jin is my kind of dude. He's a bit of a dandy, always talking about what a smooth player he is in the bedroom, and in my experience, guys that got it, don't need to talk about it, if you catch my drift. But the brother has some fly moves. After Mei is arrested and confronted with the possibility of torture if she doesn't give up what she knows about the House of Flying Daggers, Jin goes all Snake-Eyes with the ninja moves, breaking into the police station and breaking her out. Jin tells her he's a free spirit who calls himself The Wind, and that he's sympathetic to the rebel cause.

Of course, this is all a ploy -- Leo and his cronies follow the pair close behind, hoping that Mei will lead them to the House of Flying Daggers. Unfortunately for Jin, some unnamed "General" decides to interfere with Jin and Leo's plan, which ratchets up the pressure: To continue to keep Mei's trust, he's got to defend her from these imperial forces, even if it means killing his own colleagues. This makes for a decent fight scene or two, as well as one of the movie's centerpieces: a pretty damn cool fight in a bamboo forest, with rebel assassin types, complete with those funny conical hats, dealing death high up in the trees, throwing pointy bamboo sticks and even imprisoning Jin and Mei in a makeshift cage made of bamboo spears. Visually, it's out of sight -- maybe not quite on a par with Hero, but impressive nonetheless.

Now, this wouldn't be much of a movie if things were as cut and dried as all that. Suffice it to say, things are not what they seem. Long story short: Jin and Mei get flirty with each other, and turns out there's a love triangle in the works that carries its own nifty little surprise. Ultimately, Jin, Mei and Leo are all forced to make difficult choices.

And this is where the film breaks down for me. The climactic confrontations regarding this love triangle drag on far too long, although they do look pretty damn cool staged against a snowstorm. And there's waaaayyyy too much melodrama, and people getting up with just a little bit of fight left in them after you thought they were dead, and all of this kind of stuff. The whole movie slows to a crawl, and it never recovers. Although I will say that the principal actors all do a great job. And the film's central point -- that the love of a woman can be a more powerful force than war or politics -- is made well, and one worth repeating every now and then. Women: Can't live with 'em, can't do without 'em.

So, yeah, in the end, House of Flying Daggers turns out to be a chick flick disguised as a cool martial arts epic. And again, its cool visuals aren't as cool as the ones in Hero. But if you can get past the romance-novel stuff, it's still a pretty decent flick. And even the lovey-dovey stuff here makes its own kind of sense, which is more than you can say about anything in Elektra.

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 Clemenza's Ratings Key:

 5.0: A drop of bliss

 4.0-4.9: Touchdown!
 3.0-3.9: Close, but...
 2.0-2.9: Box of Rocks
 1.1-1.9: Time bandit
 0.0-1.0: Soul scarring
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