Movie Review: Shi mian mai fu [House of the Flying Daggers]

HouseOfFlyingDaggersThumbby Brad Nelson
2005 Oscars: Nominated for “Best Achievement in Cinematography.” Apparently it didn’t win which shows you how utterly worthless the opinion of the Academy is. And I mean utterly worthless.

Forget every little bit of knowledge or opinions you have regarding acting, directing, screenwriting, etc. Throw them out the window. These are useless notions regarding this movie. This movie is, for all intents and purposes, just an excuse to look pretty. And it does. Every frame is a painting. Rather than a motion picture, this is a series of pictures in motion.

It’s a visually mature movie, which is in high contrast to the rather bland and downright stupid plot elements. A model may be dumb as a brick, but if he or she can make the clothes look good, that’s the point. And that seems to be the point of any acting or plot in this movie. It’s just scaffolding for the cinematography, and it’s the best cinematography I have ever seen. Bar none. It’s breathtaking. I have never before seen such aesthetic care and skill taken with each frame of a film.

Eventually some type of half-watchable story does develop. But it takes a while. Certainly the first thirty minutes of the movie is nothing but a celebration of color and movement. And it’s a nice party that they throw. But you wonder how long you can get by just being jazzed on the color and movement.

Fortunately enough of a plot develops to bail this overindulgence out. And then the story continues into the forest, and we see the real stars of the movie, the trees, leaves, and shadows. And they are spectacular. I know a thing or two about framing photographic shots and, although the scenes were rushing right by at a fair clip, I couldn’t help noticing how smartly and thoughtfully everything was composed and lit. Such attention to detail.

And what made this even more remarkable was how unselfconscious and unpretentious this was all done. Very little (especially the forest scenes) screamed “look at me” even while you couldn’t help taking joy in looking at them. All the fancy (and rather dorky) weapons magic and martial arts moves that were on display were nowhere near as dexterous and nimble as the photography itself.

The ending was rather stupid and didn’t match the subtle command of emotional nuance that some of the rest of this film showed. Aesthetically, this film needed to fade out in a gentle whimper, like a passing breeze, rather than go out in a big bang. The film’s strong suit was definitely not story.

At times they overindulge with too much of the unbelievable and not-even-interesting-as-fanciful effects of flying through the trees and such. There probably is no fine line as far as what works and what doesn’t work. It’s a style that is what it is. I’ve seen it work just once in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And then never again. Not even in this movie.

House of the Flying Daggers is a martial arts movie and it is thus full of the completely implausible. And if you like that sort of thing, well, then it just is what it is. But, again, it was such an odd contrast at times between a movie that had such a mature visual sense but a rather juvenile sense of story. And the movie doesn’t reconcile the two. The visuals are simply stunning enough to help prop up the rather weak story and kung-fu gimmickry and allow something to emerge from it all that at least is entertaining as a whole.

But you might be tempted to simply freeze-frame nearly any scene of this movie and leave it on the TV (hopefully a high definition one) as a work of art unto itself. I did at times. I give it 4.7 out of 5 for the cinematography and 2.0 for the story.

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Chinese director Zhang Yimou fuses a martial arts action-drama with a tragic romance in this elegant period piece. In the year 859 A.D., as the Tang dynasty is beset by rebellion, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are a pair of lawmen who have been given the task of ferreting out the leaders of a revolutionary faction known as the Flying Daggers. Working on a tip that members of the group are working out of a brothel called the Peony Pavilion, Jin arrives there in disguise and is introduced to a beautiful blind dancer named Mei (Zhang Ziyi). More »

Available on widescreen DVD ($14.99 new, $0.01 used), Blu Ray ($12.13 new), or Amazon Instant Video ($2.99). Not available for streaming on Netflix.

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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