House of Flying Daggers DVD cover art

Film:
DVD:

Written by Feng Li, Bin Wang & Yimou Zhang
Directed by Yimou Zhang
Starring Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Dandan Song

Features:

  • Running audio commentary, subtitled in English, by director Yimou Zhang and actress Zhang Ziyi
  • Making-of featurette
  • Visual FX featurette
  • Music video: “Lovers”
  • Storyboard comparisons
  • Photo galleries

Released by: Sony Pictures Classics.
Rating: PG-13
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Excellent flick. Buy it.

It’s the 9th Century C.E. and the Chinese government is having to deal with a rebellious organization known as the House of Flying Daggers. Two cops (or the necessary equivalent), Leo and Jin (Lau and Kaneshiro), have been tasked with cracking open the notoriously hard to crack open House. Their one lead is a new dancer at the local high class brothel: Mei (Ziyi), a blind girl. The former leader of the House was blind, so…worth a shot, right? As they try to trick Mei into revealing her true allegiances, there will be lots of love, invective, fu, and crazy spinning blades.

Amazingly enough, Yimou Zhang has managed to create a movie that’s even more perfect a blend of Merchant Ivory and fu than Crouching Tiger. In fact, now that Ang Lee is seemingly content to make really terrible big budget films for Hollywood, Zhang is our brightest hope for this lovely genre. Whereas Hero was Merchant Ivory meets fu meets Rashomon, this film is Merchant Ivory meets fu meets high Shakespearean tragedy. You know what I mean: by the second act (or reel in this case) at the least, you pretty much get the idea that you’ve said “This does not bode well” often enough that there’s going to be some serious trouble. And it’s a smart tragedy, by which I mean it manages to dodge the problem a lot of tragedies have. Most tragedies happen because people make dumb decisions. And unless you can make your characters make dumb decisions that the audience can understand and empathize with, you’re going to lose them. But here, the whole thing’s organic. It all makes perfect sense.

Andy Lau is a great martial arts actor for whom pure drama like this is apparently a stretch. Takeshi Kaneshiro is apparently a big star in Japan but hasn’t acted the fu before. This was a surprise to me on both counts, since they make it look like they’re seasoned pros in every regard. However, this movie is Zhang Ziyi’s. Not only does she act her ass off and fight her ass off, but she’s doing both while playing a blind woman. On one hand, you’ve got Al Pacino convincingly playing blind in Scent of a Woman–but on the other hand you’ve got Ziyi having to do the same act (without the HOOAHs, mind you) but pull stunts like snatching a sword out of the air and passing out beatdowns with a giant bamboo staff. Yeah. Amazing stuff. No wonder she (not to mention a bunch of other people involved with this film) got nominated for a Chazzie. And the whole thing looks freaking incredible. Xiaoding Zhao’s cinematography, Emi Wada’s costuming along with Yimou Zhang’s direction are all dead-on, as is fight master Siu-Tung Ching’s choreography.

Zhang Ziyi from House of Flying Daggers

The movie all by its lonesome is worth owning, which is a good thing because the features provided here are a mixed bag. The commentary by director Zhang and actress Ziyi is decent, but not a lot of meat on the bone. You get some very interesting tidbits, like how they were forced to use the snowstorm later, or how Kaneshiro’s leg became injured and many scenes where you see him lounging or otherwise on the ground were done to cover the fact it hurt like hell for him to stand. Those things are the nifty factoids you’re listening for. However, there’s some dead air and some times when they’re bantering about themes and whatnot, when you might just fall asleep. I know they can’t help it, but the fact that you’re reading this stuff off of subtitles weakens the content of what they’re saying. So when it’s not completely kicking, it’s barely with a pulse.

Stunt work from House of Flying Daggers

The making-of featurette is also subtitled and has two major strikes against it. One, it rehashes the entirety of the plot of the film over its forty-five minute running time. Nothing hacks me off more than finishing a film and then turning around and having to watch it again, but in Reader’s Digest form. Also, the narrator is subtitled here as well and doing commentary that makes the Food Network version of Iron Chef look inspired–and I think you know what I mean. Maybe it sounds profound as hell in the original language, but it just doesn’t work in translation.

Much better is the effects featurette, which basically takes a shot and dissects it into its component parts so you can see how it was compiled. I dig the hell out of those. There’s also a series of storyboard comparisons, showing both the film and the storyboards on one screen. Most interesting is how dead-on the storyboards are (with the exception of certain bits that were obviously created on set to cover Kaneshiro’s injury), so Zhang obviously isn’t screwing around when he shows up to shoot. Photo and costume galleries are here, sparse, but watchable. Oh, and there’s a music video, but this one’s worse off than most: it looks like it was shot on Super 8 almost. And I didn’t get the impression that was on purpose.

Director Yimou Zhang from House of Flying Daggers

Director Yimou Zhang

Though the features try…they just don’t succeed. Still, the movie carries this one. Rent it first if you haven’t checked it out yet, but for me, I’m saying buy it eventually.

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