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House Of Flying Daggers – martial arts, honour, heroism, China

a breathtaking dance

the echo dance

House Of Flying Daggers – Director Zhang Yimou

In a film with some extraordinary martial arts action scenes, the most exciting sequence in this absorbing film is a dance: the ethereally beautiful Ziyi Zhang as blind heroine Mei, performs the Echo dance with an elegance, style and riveting tension, that matches anything in HOFD’s predecessor, Hero. Suspected of membership of the anti-government subversive group, the House of Flying Daggers, and in a circle of drums, dancing for her freedom, Mei must echo increasingly complex rhythms set by her would be government captor. A duel of sound, and athletic grace with a sensuous, aggressive charge that simply takes the breath away.

As with Hero, HOFD has many amazing fight scenes containing unforgettable images that linger in the mind’s eye like an after image even when the scene has shifted. Yet for all these marvellous elements, HOFD is for me a much less satisfying film than Hero. The same writing team of Yimou, Li Feng and Wang Bin have tied HOFD to a sentimentalised rather Western style love story that sits uneasily with the cultural context of the film. It lacks the sense of timelessness that made the legendary characters and narrative in Hero so well balanced.

The action sequences in HOFD are if anything even more astonishing than Hero, yet for me, often lack the lyrical quality so special in the earlier film. Perhaps this is down to a different cinematographer – Zhao Xiaoding having replaced Christopher Doyle. But seen simply as technical achievements, convincing you of the impossible, they are wonderful examples of what you might call ‘coup de grace’ cinema.

It simply is the uneasy ‘Weastern’ love story that lets the film down. This confused ethos is re-inforced by some frankly embarrassing, badly conceived and unconvincingly acted sex scenes. These are so ungainly and awkward that one wonders where the physical grace of the actors in combat disappeared. I felt a strong suspicion that Yimou had intentionally diffused his genre and pitched the film for a ‘Weastern’ audience. If so – bad call. Tarrantino-like smash-em-up, beat-em-up Honk Kong Kung Fu flash, may have a certain appeal but not in the genre Zimou is exploring. He’s not there yet but he drifts a bit at times. There is also one apparently trivial but stupidly jarring note for me. I won’t name it as it may not strike you, but it is in the make-up department.

Despite reservations, HOFD is a must see, despite its, for me, narrative flaws (a view with which of course you may disagree). It still has scenes that are at the leading edge of the cinematic action sequence art, which just bemuse the eye and seduce the mind into unquestioning acceptance of the impossible. And that dance scene, a master-class in editing, just haunts me.

(December 2004)

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