House of Flying Daggers (shí miàn mái fú)

houseofflyingdaggersZhang Ziyi, Tony Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro star in this epic tale of duty and passion from Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero, Red Sorghum). When translated into English, the film’s Mandarin title (Shi Mian Mai Fu) literally means ‘Ambushed from Ten Directions’. It’s the perfect description of this martial arts love story, whose main trio is both supported and attacked by numerous warring factions.

The year is 859 AD and the great Tang dynasty is waning. Numerous rebel groups are gaining strength, including the infamous House of Flying Daggers. Though the group’s old leader was captured and killed, a new one has risen in his place, his identity unknown. Jin (Kaneshiro) and Leo (Lau), two police chiefs, have been ordered to kill the mysterious leader within ten days.

Their first port of call is a teahouse, home of the blind dancer Mei (Zhang) who is thought to be the dead leader’s daughter. Leo challenges Mei to the ‘Echo Game’ in return for her freedom. Encircled by drums, Leo throws a small bean at one of the drums, which Mei must then hit with the long sleeve of her dress. Throwing one, then three, then countless beans, Mei responds with phenomenal agility in a mesmerising percussive dance, as she strikes the right drum each time without fail. She is arrested anyway, but Jin, pretending to be a rebel warrior called Wind, lets her escape in the hope that she will lead him to the leader of the House of Flying Daggers.

Jin tells Mei he wants to help her return to her fellow revolutionaries. Suspicious of his motives, Mei nonetheless has little choice but to accept his help, and the two form a formidable alliance as they battle against whole armies, fending off knives, swords and spears which, boomerang-like, hurtle towards them at terrifying speed. As Jin and Mei partner up in battle, so a passionate bond develops that could prove too strong for either of them to break.

Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, whose credits include Spring Subway and the 2006 epic Curse of the Golden Flower, is a master of light and colour. Several scenes set in a forest fill the entire screen with vivid green, bamboo trees reaching to the heavens; the teahouse is draped lavishly with silks of every hue; and in a final scuffle, rich red blood is spattered against the pure white of snow-covered fields. The characters’ magnificent costumes were based on those found in Tang Dynasty paintings.

The choreography by Sui-Tung Ching is even more striking. In one of the forest fighting scenes, soldiers swing between the bamboo shoots like monkeys. They swoop down, spears in their hands and fire with breathtaking accuracy to weave a cage entrapping Mei and Jin. With wonderful agility, the rebels retaliate, throwing three, four, five knives at a time which destroy the bamboo cage, but leave the incarcerated lovers unscathed. As well as superhuman strength and accuracy, all the characters possess seemingly magical powers of perception. In spite of (or perhaps because) of her blindness, Mei can sense an approaching army from miles away, just as she can sense when Jin is eyeing up her naked body as she bathes.

An operatic fairytale of warriors and lovers, loyalty and betrayal, Zhang’s film portrays the fervent conflict between love and duty. Obeying ones leader ranks high on people’s agendas. Mei becomes ‘blind’, exploits her beauty in cold-blooded seduction, and risks her life in every scene for the sake of her fellow revolutionaries. When Jin jokes about wooing Mei, his colleague warns him not to get too attached – and no wonder. Love plays havoc with the call of duty, as characters defect and covertly protect the people they ought to kill.

House of Flying Daggers can sometimes throw us into confusion with its plot twists, deception and double-bluffing but, rather like an opera, the story is almost secondary to the film’s artistry, with its grand vistas, soaring soundtrack, dazzling choreography and mesmerising swordplay.

One Response to “House of Flying Daggers (shí miàn mái fú)”

  1. preottory says:

    Solid site=D hope to come back again.

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