Judge Joel Pearce will throw daggers at you if you don't buy this disc.
Our review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Curse Of The Golden Flower / House Of Flying Daggers (Blu-Ray), published July 31st, 2009, is also available.
"Every girl in this pavilion has taken the name of a flower. Why is
yours so plain?"—Jin
Because it shares the same director, star, and highly stylized martial arts sequences, House of Flying Daggers has usually been discussed as a continuation of the work director Zhang Yimou did in Hero. In reality, it stands on its own feet, and in some ways surpasses its predecessor with a moving personal story and more intrigue than you could shake a bamboo pole at. The North American DVD does have a few brief cuts, but makes up for it with a stellar transfer and solid special features. I will try to keep this review as free of spoilers as possible, but the nature of the film requires some revelation. I suggest you buy or rent this incredible film, then come back once you have seen it to finish the review and justify the money you've spent. You won't be disappointed.
Facts of the Case
In 859 AD, the central government of China has become weak, creating corruption within the government. A powerful assassin group called the Flying Daggers springs up, trying to protect the weak and topple what's left of the government. The local militia is left to battle this new threat. In one area, two captains are in charge of the local guards. They have recently defeated the leader of the Flying Daggers, and have been ordered to find and kill the new leader as quickly as possible. Leo (Andy Lau, Infernal Affairs) has heard rumors that a member of the Flying Daggers is hiding out in a local brothel. He sends Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Returner), disguised as a civilian, to smoke her out. They capture the blind dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi, Hero), and Jin pretends to rescue her from the militia so that she will lead them to the new leader of the Flying Daggers. There are two problems with this plan. First, Jin soon finds himself being chased down by members of the militia who don't realize the truth. Second, Jin isn't the only character who isn't who he claims to be.
The political situation in House of Flying Daggers is an inversion of Hero's. Rather than facing a powerful totalitarian dictator, the characters in House of Flying Daggers have a weak Emperor, which has caused corruption in the system. It isn't clear which of these scenarios presents greater problems. The Emperor in Hero had a great army at his command, but his hunger for power and his refusal to stop conquering other lands created the need for assassins. In this new film, corruption among lesser officials is caused by the lack of a strong leader. Once again, the result is rebel assassins, but their role isn't to cut the head off the state, but rather to battle it at a low level to defend the people. Both stories involve the deception of characters on both sides of these struggles. In House of Flying Daggers, that loyalty is just as important in the ongoing fight between the militia and the agents of the flying daggers.
Though the political situation is important, what really sets House of Flying Daggers apart is the intensity of the love story at the center. It's not an unusual story: Two men in love with the same woman. The conflict doesn't only come from the feelings of the characters, but also from their political affiliations. Most of the characters are lying to each other, so it's difficult to know how deeply they feel love for each other. Can you truly fall in love with someone if they are not who they claim to be? The answer to that question is never made clear in this film. Because there are so many lies, we can never be sure of when the characters are acting and when they are being sincere. Mei seems to be drawn to Jin at first because it's what she ought to do, as though she is simply playing along with the game that he may or may not be playing. It's only at the end that we understand the depth of love that these characters feel for each other—but by then it's too late.
Each of these characters is conflicted between following their hearts and following orders. In the end, each is forced choose which influence will ultimately win out, but by that point neither option seems desirable. They have been placed in nearly impossible situations by the corruption in the system, and Zhang Yimou uses this love story to show us the conundrum that all soldiers have to face. The final confrontation of the lovers is intercut with a larger battle, and none of them has a choice by this stage of the game. To follow their hearts means turning away from their political ideals. To follow orders means making deep personal sacrifices.
The complexities of the characters and relationships make House of Flying Daggers a challenging film for the actors. Fortunately, all three leads rise to the challenge. This is one of Zhang Ziyi's best roles to date; she somehow makes it completely believable that she could be both blind and a great martial artist. She is famous for her physical roles, and here she proves that she is just as good with subtle characterization as she is with a sword in her hand. Takeshi Kaneshiro is at the top of his game as well, proving that he has as much charisma as Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan. I wouldn't be surprised to see him emerge as the next Asian superstar. Andy Lau is as reliable as always, creating a fully realized character without much screen time.
It seems almost silly to discuss the visuals in this film. Cinematography and choreography are the main selling points of House of Flying Daggers, and with good reason. The use of color is as stunning as in Hero, but is also more subtle and wide ranging. Zhang Yimou never uses camera action to obscure what's happening, but to enhance the action on screen. Every second of this film is beautiful, and he has perfectly mastered when to use slow motion to highlight the skills of his actors. The dance sequence at the beginning of the film is one of the most original sequences I have ever seen, and the fights border on perfection. Sony has done a fine job capturing those visuals on DVD, with a keen eye for detail and color. Although there are no visible print flaws, some compression issues will manifest on a high quality display. Although I'm sure this will be solved in an upcoming Superbit release, the problem is small enough that it shouldn't keep anyone away from this release.
The film's audio design has been discussed a lot less. Since Mei is blind, the sounds in the film become a world of their own, and each small sonic detail has been emphasized. Just as the visuals enhance the action on screen, the breathing of the characters, ambient sounds, whizzing of weapons through the air, and footsteps all tell an important part of the story. It would be possible (except for the language barrier) to follow House of Flying Daggers perfectly without seeing it. Of course, such a detailed audio track requires a good sound mix to convey it. Although Sony didn't include a DTS track, they have nothing to apologize for with their thundering Dolby 5.1 track. Although never overpowering, the rear channels are used frequently and effectively, immersing the audience completely in waves of sound. If you don't have a surround sound system yet, you should either buy one along with the House of Flying Daggers DVD, or else crash someone else's house to watch it. And watch it in Chinese, because the dub isn't nearly as strong. The characters actually sound Asian for once, but they also speak hesitant English.
Among the special features on the disc is a commentary track with Zhang Yimou and Zhang Ziyi, subtitled into English. She asks him many questions, which keeps the discussion focused. It's a good commentary, which only occasionally gets sidetracked. There is a 45-minute long production featurette which covers the film's creation. Some of it is studio fluff, but there are interesting interviews with cast and crew. More footage of the visual effects is housed in a five-minute effects featurette, and there is a series of storyboard comparisons as well. There's a brief gallery of the gorgeous costumes used in the film, as well as a gallery of pictures taken behind the scenes. To wrap things up, there is a music video entitled "Lovers" which gives away a lot of the film. There's definitely enough here that Sony could have made a two-disc special edition, beefed up the video bitrate, and added a DTS track, but it's still a solid edition with plenty of added value.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I mentioned in the introduction, there are a couple cuts in the North American version of House of Flying Daggers. This includes several sword blows to the neck at the beginning and blood sprays in the final fight. Having compared the R3 Edko DVD and this one, there isn't enough lost in the five seconds of different footage to make it worth hunting down an import version, especially considering the strength of the rest of the DVD. Still, I don't see why these cuts were necessary. I can only assume that Sony decided that the additional revenue from a PG-13 cut of the film would be worth sacrificing the small amount of footage. That said, I'm not sure I would have noticed if I hadn't known about the cuts.
Great visuals, great performances, a solid transfer, good special features, and a deeply human script with a long string of twists and surprises: House of Flying Daggers belongs in many DVD collections, both those of martial arts fans and people who love beautiful movies in historical settings. This film is better than Hero in some ways, and has a broader range of appeal. It's also rewatchable, and a great disc to show off to friends. Skip a rental on this one and get it on your shelf where it belongs.
Zhang Yimou can keep making action movies this great for as long as he wants. Not guilty.
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