Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the big deal?
House of Flying Daggers is an epic historical martial arts film released in 2004 and was directed by Zhang Yimou, the man behind earlier martial art film Hero. The film depicts two lawmen trying to apprehend a young blind woman, one with apparent links to the eponymous House who are leading a rebellion against the fading influence of the Tang dynasty. The film stars Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro and was submitted by China as its entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at that year's Academy Awards, although it did not earn a nomination. Despite a limited release in the US, the film was an unexpected success with global takings of $92.9 million in spite of the film being entirely in Chinese. The film was released to almost universal acclaim from critics with many comparing it favourably to Hero and the film did achieve a nomination at the Academy Awards for its cinematography courtesy of Zhao Xiaoding.
Chinese language trailer
What's it about?
In 859 AD, during the dying days of the Tang dynasty, several rebel groups were formed to challenge the rule of law. Based in the city of Fengtian, the House Of Flying Daggers is one such group of rebels and the largest of these groups that regularly battle the local authorities and violently redistribute wealth to the poorest citizens. Desperate to prevent the group growing in popularity, lawmen Jin and Leo are ordered to infiltrate the House and assassinate the group's leader in ten days - a seemingly impossible task given that nobody knows who the group's leader actually is. Their only lead is a blind young woman called Mei who is possibly the daughter of the group's previous leader.
Leo arrests Mei while his partner Jin later manipulates a prison break to free her in order to win her trust. As Mei and Jin flee to safety, Leo leads a group of officers in pursuit. Unbeknown to Leo, the plans fall apart after Jin and Mei fall in love while they travel to the hidden headquarters of the House of Flying Daggers. Can anyone stop the rebels from toppling the ruling house or do the rebels themselves have one final trick up their sleeve?
Li Feng, Bin Wang and Zhang Yimou
Release Date (UK)
28th October, 2004
Action, Drama, History, Romance
Academy Award Nominations
What's to like?
Viewers of other wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the epic Hero will know what to expect here - fist-bitingly beautiful scenery, wondrous action scenes that simply take your breath away and a romanticised vision of old China that embellishes fantastical tales of legend. Even if you are used to such things in films, House of Flying Daggers makes a new benchmark in all of these categories and more. It is truly a work of art, using colour and framing to make every shot feel captivating and a pure sight to behold. Even the costumes are fantastic, if a little impractical at times. The martial arts are, naturally, accomplished and rapid-fire in their delivery but also use technology to deliver some story-telling in such moments instead of simply allowing our heroes to bash some bad guys. Take the scene depicting a sword fight in the midst of a bamboo forest with characters climbing the tall stalks and swaying back and forth in videogame-like movement. I loved it.
But what I enjoyed more about this film compared to its predecessors was its accessibility. It didn't feel as though you needed to understand the depth of history involved because, at its heart, the film is actually more of a doomed romance than a historical smash-and-grab. The film is more simplistic than its overblown forebears and this allows you to enjoy the film more without struggling to follow the story. The principal actors involved are as adept at playing the roles dramatically as they are in the more physical scenes, especially Zhang Ziyi who demonstrates her skills as a dancer and proves that you don't have to be Jet Li to excel in these kind of films. Although Crouching Tiger... and Hero are better known, this would be the film I would direct people to if they asked me to recommend an authentic and stunning martial arts film that offered a bit more than simply fight scene after fight scene. It's a rare film that didn't feel oversold by the trailer or felt like a let-down after viewing.
- The film was originally going to star the great Anita Mui in a supporting role but she resigned from the role as her health declined before her death from cervical cancer at the age of just 40 in 2003. Without any of her scenes being filmed, Zhang Yimou decided not to recast the role and wrote her character out of the script out of respect for Mui. The film is dedicated to her memory.
- The film is partly inspired by a famous poem by ancient Chinese poet Li Yannian. Roughly translated, it reads:
From the north comes a ravishing maiden,
Whose beauty stands alone.
One look at her, cities fall
On the second glance, empires collapse.
Care not whether cities fall or empires collapse,
Such beauty never comes around twice.
- When the film debuted at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, it reportedly received a standing ovation from the audience that lasted 20 minutes.
- Zhang Yimou was initially concerned that Western audiences might struggle to tell the similarly-dressed Lau and Kaneshiro apart. To get round this, Kaneshiro's character is often seen eating peanuts in the beginning of the film.
What's not to like?
The more bloodthirsty of viewers might feel a little short-changed that martial arts don't take up the majority of the running time but like Crouching Tiger.., this film is more interested in quality than quantity. If you want a frantic and energetic beat-em-up than there are literally thousands of titles to choose from - my personal favourites would be The Raid 2 (although the first one is also superb) and Police Story 3: Supercop. House Of Flying Daggers feels like a different beast entirely - a smooth and smoky whisky as opposed to the most popular tequila shots. This is a film to savour and enjoy but if you are expecting quick-fire action then you will be disappointed. What action is in the film is exceptional but it's not the only thing that drives the film.
Other than that, I can't think of much I would change about the picture insomuch as my opinion matters on such things. The film does end on a bit of a downer and, in something of an oversight, doesn't actually finish telling its story so anyone wondering what happened once the film finishes will possibly need to brush up on their Chinese history. But viewers won't be hugely interested in that - this film is just far too magical to leave viewers feeling underserved. From the moment I first saw the trailer at the 2003 London Film Festival, I knew that I had to watch this film and thankfully, it did not let me down.
Should I watch it?
If you like your martial arts, then House of Flying Daggers puts the art back into it. It is a bewitching and fascinating film that encourages you to follow its story and marvel at its stunning visual prowess. It also demonstrates that martial arts film don't have to be exclusively about violence, combining such scenes with a tender and dramatic love story that makes the film easy to understand in any language. Trust me on this - you will absolutely love this film!
Great For: martial arts fans, Chinese viewers, anyone who enjoyed Hero
Not So Great For: subtitle readers, Hollywood studio executives hoping to imitate Asian cinema, anyone who thinks Steven Seagal is the best
What else should I watch?
Wuxia films are those concerned with the adventures of legendary martial-arts heroes in ancient China so as you can imagine, there are no shortage of films that qualify. With some films dating back to the 1920's and the famous Shaw Brothers studio, the genre saw an explosion of interest in the west following the success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which brought international fame to the likes of Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. It also brought attention to fight coordinator and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping whose work can be seen in Crouching Tiger... as well as other films such as The Matrix trilogy, Kill Bill, Unleashed and Ip Man. Today, stars like Yeoh, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Tony Leung are well known all over the world for their work and rightly so.
Although he is not just a martial-arts director, Zhang Yimou is now heavily associated with the genre thanks to this film and Hero. His next big wuxia picture after this was Curse Of The Golden Flower in 2006 which was another epic historical piece that became the most expensive Chinese film ever produced at the time. While the film still earned a positive response from critics, some felt that the film was too overblown for its own good and too reliant on its visuals. His next notable release in the west would be The Great Wall in 2016, a historical fantasy film that had Matt Damon transported back to medieval China to battle huge monsters. Despite taking an impressive $335 million worldwide, the film was a bomb that failed to make a profit and critics lambasted the film for sacrificing story for decent visuals.
© 2021 Benjamin Cox