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'House of Flying Daggers' fails to draw much blood
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-07-21 08:43

The much-anticipated "House of Flying Daggers" (Shimian Maifu), the latest martial arts blockbuster by internationally acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, finally flashed on screen for the first time last Friday.

Zhang Ziyi plays Mei, who pretends to be blind, but is skilled at both dancing and Kungfu. [file photo]
The market response is nothing less than exciting. In many Chinese cities, movie-goers whose curiosity was stirred by the movie's massive media exposure over the past year, are swarming into the country's cinemas.

People are willing to pay twice the ticket price of other movies, so they can join in the gossip, because the movie has already become the talk of the town across the country.

Thin storyline

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, "Daggers" was shown as an out-of-competition entry.

According to reports in Chinese media, the audience broke out into applause on several occasions and the film solicited a long standing ovation at the closing curtain.

Unfortunately, the film is not getting the same kind of favourable comments from local audiences; the same embarrassment the famous director faced two years ago.

In many ways, "Daggers" is very similar to "Hero," Zhang's previous martial arts feature, released in 2002 and the box-office record-holder for Chinese movies.

Both are awesome in their action sequences but fail to touch the heart with their stories. It seems that Zhang Yimou in using the same bucket has failed to draw different water.

"House of Flying Daggers," is the English title used for the film outside Asia. It sounds like a cheap Hong Kong Kungfu production and does not convey the meaning of the movie's Chinese title, "Shimian Maifu," which means "ambush from ten directions."

And "Lovers," the title used for the Japanese market, is also a bad choice, because there are already many movies called "Lover(s)."

According to the director, it is "a love story, but also a martial arts film presented in the form of a timeless romantic saga."

The story is set in AD 859. The once flourishing Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) is in decline and rebel armies are rising in protest, with unrest sweeping across the country. The most powerful rebel group is the "House of Flying Daggers" (Feidao Men) which is now led by a mysterious new leader.

Two police captains, Jin (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, or Gum Sing-mo) and Leo (Andy Lau), come up with an elaborate plan to capture Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a rebel who disguises herself as a blind showgirl at the newly opened brothel Peony Pavilion.

In order to win Mei's trust and to find the headquarters of the rebels, Captain Jin goes undercover, posing as a lone warrior come to rescue her from prison.

While Jin is escorting Mei back to her home, however, the two develop sensitive feelings for each other.

If the director had stopped here, the movie would have been just a bit threadbare.

But Zhang is determined to juggle the "Daggers" in a more complicated, hence dangerous way.

So, in the latter part of the movie we find that Captain Leo is actually an undercover agent for the House of Flying Daggers.

He also turns out to have once been Mei's lover for a period of three years.

The double-crosses and shifts of identity, which are too sudden to be even remotely persuasive, become a touch wearying.

Ultimately, the film's glorious cinematography is obscured by the stupid storyline which turns the whole production into a joke.

Zhang Weiping, producer of the film, claimed before the movie's release that it would move most people to tears.

He is obviously too optimistic about the movie's emotional power. It drew laughter not tears in Beijing.

When Mei "miraculously" recovers from the edge of death several times to talk nonsense with her fighting lover and admirer, the audience just couldn't hold back their guffaws of disbelief any longer.

Attempted breakthrough

Influences of the Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs" (Wujiandao), a three-part blockbuster, can be easily found in "Dagger," although Zhang claims that he began working on "Daggers" long before "Infernal Affairs" came out in 2002.

The latter is about an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang, and a gang member who infiltrates the police force.

Interestingly, Andy Lau plays the gang member who poses as a high-ranking police officer. This is quite similar to his "Daggers" role as an important rebel disguised as a police chief.

Although he works hard at portraying his two-sided character in "Daggers," Andy Lau's great talents cannot really be tapped in the totally illogical, hence unbelievable, portrayal of the self-centred Captain Leo.

Zhang says he wanted to make a different kind of martial arts story so as to explore the full potential of the genre.

"As is the case in most martial arts novels, the story is totally an invention of the imagination," he said. "I wanted a more modern flavour for my film. I wanted it to present a contemporary love story that takes different turns than classical Chinese love stories, and then to inject elements of action to punctuate the romantic saga. It was very important for me to do something new with a traditional martial arts film."

Too eager to add modern elements to his love story under the umbrella of martial arts, Zhang seems to have failed to create a story convincing enough to touch people's hearts.

Lines like "I thought you were hot like fire, but you are actually cold like water" did not help save the film's flagging romance either.

Feast for the eyes

Despite gaping flaws in its plot, the movie, with a claimed budget of US$20 million, is a feast for the eyes.

Bringing together some of the best movie-makers in Asia and the world, the star-studded Kungfu movie outdoes most other productions in the genre, achieving a new height that few will be able to reach.

The action director Tony Ching Siu-Tung has choreographed a set of intricate fights that are almost literally jaw-dropping.

One of the most impressive scenes is the dance sequence early in the movie featuring Mei hitting the drums with her long sleeves.

The splendid costumes of the dancers, musicians and visitors to the brothel, as well as the delicate patterns on the musical instruments and the two captains' swords are calculated to hold the eyes of the audience, who might just catch a glimpse of the extravagance of the Tang Dynasty, long hailed as the high point of luxury in feudal China.

Another sequence worthy of mention is the battle in the bamboo forest, which, unfortunately, is thrust into the audience's faces immediately after the autumn birch forest scene, totally ignoring geological realities.

As is demonstrated in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a fight in a jadeite bamboo grove is essential if a Kungfu film is to have an oriental flavour.

In "Daggers," the director has a troop of dozens gliding above the bamboo forest, hurling down sharpened bamboo sticks at Captain Jin and Mei who must fight and run on the ground.

Zhang Yimou has already displayed an amazing understanding of the colours of natural landscapes. In "Hero" he lets the action unfold amid landscapes as beautiful as oil paintings or ancient Chinese ink and water works.

This time, the film was shot in the wilderness of Southwestern China's Sichuan Province and also in the Ukraine.

The art direction and costumes designed by Oscar-winning Emi Wada, are on a level of artistry equal to the action. Many sequences, for example the Peony Pavilion and the snowfield battle, display an eye-striking lushness.

The music soundtrack, too, is stunning and richly complex.

Zhang Yimou also employs a lot of computer graphic imaging effects to make the action sequences more pleasing to the eye.

The flying daggers zip through the air like radio-controlled missiles. They even twist, plunge, ricochet and change direction, defying the law of gravity.

The three main characters are played by superstars.

Zhang Ziyi, who is better known internationally than she is at home, plays the stunning blind dancer, Mei.

Starring beside her is the dashing Takeshi Kaneshiro (Gum Sing-mo), who is very popular both in Japan and China, with his half-Japanese, half-Chinese origin.

And there is Hong Kong pop crooner and actor Andy Lau. In the early 1990s, he was one of the four most famous male actor/singers in China, and a household name across the country.

It is reported that Zhang Yimou once remarked that no one would be able to guess who the lethal dagger will hit until the very last moment of the movie.

The final trick seems more like a final failure to lead the audience back to the respectful somber mood the grandiose work is supposed to convey.

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