House of Flying Daggers


Reviewed by: sukting

September 07, 2004

Rating: four

Foreword
In Chinese, it is called ‘Shi Mian Mai Fu’ – which means ‘ambushes from 10 sides.’ This is another Zhang Yi Mou’s blockbuster after ‘Hero’. I have also included some translations from other Chinese responses as we share the same thoughts. Being a Mou hap fanatic, how can I miss this?

Introduction on characters

1. Xiao Mei – Zhang Zi Yi
Xiao Mei is vulnerable as a blind courtesan in the beginning. But her daringness comes when she fends off her enemies when she flees from prison. It is later found that she fakes the handicap. Her character masks demureness, hurt, fury, flintiness and sad sensuality. The way she can fight with a ferocity and fluidity – some see her as a young Cheng Pei Pei.

Zi Yi has done her homework well. Her disguise as a blind girl is convincing. I must say that I hated her haughty look in ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Hero’. I had thought of her to be a vase who can’t act but she managed to change my impression of her in here. Moreover with her gracefulness, there is little doubt that she can become a pugilistic expert like Yeoh Chi Keng. Or Yang Li Qing.

2. Jin – Takeshi Kaneshiro
Jin is a cheeky constable who doesn’t take things seriously. The way he projects the playboy image in the peony pavilion is a classic. When Jin rescues Xiao Mei, his true self shows when he inserts the flying daggers slowly into her hand. He is past caring of his own safety and becomes a gallant knight to get injured while saving her in the fields.

He has never been more handsome in here. Elegant, charming, sly, alert and agile, Takeshi fares well for his debut period movie. I marvel at his sparkling performance, how did he do it? His sharp features fit into the era surprisingly.

3. Liu – Lau Tak Wah
Liu is Jin’s senior who is firm and also analytical. He constantly reminds Jin about his mission and tails the couple to protect them. But later, we know why – how can he let his beloved Xiao Mei come to scratch? And obviously he doesn’t trust Jin because he is a womanizer. He is a member of the flying dagger clan and uses the flying daggers constantly to prevent her from being harmed. He is highly skilled and thus she reaches their clan safely. However, he is angered that she has a change of heart and kills her accidentally.

Tak Wah is truly ageing in here. The close raping scene shows his wrinkles clearly. But Gin adds that this shows that he is helpless due to age, as compared to the aggressive Takeshi. His acting is only passable and I find it a great disappointment.

4. Song Dan Dan (This role was formerly reserved for Anita Mui Yim Fong but she passed away)
She works in the peony pavilion but her actual identity is not a courtesan. She is a senior member of the flying dagger clan. She knows that Liu and Xiao Mei is a couple and gives them some time to cherish their old times. However, she is also task-oriented to tell them to get back to work.

Story

The Tang emperor is a weakling and there are many rebels. The House of Flying Daggers is the strongest clan so the court orders it to be demolished within 10 days. The two constables, Liu and Jin, suspect that the blind Xiao Mei is the sect leader’s daughter. Thus Liu gets Jin to test her. By going undercover, he hopes that she will lead her to their target. He pretends to be a lustful man and wants the best woman.

Be welcomed by the best scenes. The whore leader, Da Jie gets the most popular performing courtesan, Xiao Mei to perform for Jin. He tries to rape her in front of all (this is enough to shock you) and later wants Xiao Mei to perform a song and dance for him. He is impressed but Liu comes at this time to throw the nuts at her to knock 100 drums. She tries to assassinate Liu and gets arrested.

Liu threatens to kill her but Jin rescues her out. He gets her all her daggers back. Then they are ambushed again. He gets her to bathe in the lotus pond but lies that he is away. But the fact stays that he is nearby, only tying the bells to create a smokescreen. Surprising she knows and even asks how long he intends to look at her! When she dresses as a man, he gets attracted.

She tells him to leave but he returns as he cannot leave her in the lurch. Initially, he is having an easy time to fend off his own provincial men. But when the court constables come, he is forced to kill them. He demands that Liu settle this for him but Liu is helpless. Liu reminds him to be clear minded and not to fall in love with Xiao Mei otherwise he will fail their mission.

The truth is released. The whore leader, Da Jie is the temporary clan head. The clan leader’s daughter isn’t blind nor trained in martial arts. Thus they need Xiao Mei to pretend to be the bait. Jin is angry to be deceived as Xiao Mei isn’t blind. They capture Jin and Liu. Soon, Liu meets Xiao Mei in the bamboo forest. He starts to kiss her fiercely but she rejects him.

It turns out that they are lovers for 3 years and he is the undercover spy for his clan. Xiao Mei tries to avoid him again as he nearly tears open her clothes. Da Jie stops him as there is no point forcing her. He has not met her since the undercover. He is apologetic for not being able to save the clan leader when he died. Da Jie spars with him and leaves a dagger on his back. This is to let him answer to the court when he returns empty handed. I think it is a stupid act – he could have kept the dagger and not let it sink into his flesh all the way back to the capital!

Da Jie orders Xiao Mei to kill Jin but she can’t bring herself to do it. They spend an intimate moment in the wilds instead. This is a wild scene but it is uninteresting as it is shot from far. He releases her but he stays to ask her to leave with him. She decides to elope with him but Liu stops them. He is angry at her betrayal. How can she fall for him just in a few days’ time? She is seriously injured by him. Jin stops to talk to her …endless times when she struggles to make him listen to her speech. You will be amused – when we think she is dead, she keeps opening her eyes to talk.

Thinking that she is dead, the two men fight from autumn to winter. Suddenly she stands up again and wants to protect Jin with her flying dagger. Liu is in anguish to spar with her. He hits his dagger onto the tree while she injures him slightly. She finally dies with Jin hugging her while Liu walks away sadly.

Song
An unbearable English song 'lover' by Katherine Buter which is enough for me after listening to it once. Those who went to the Beijing premeire were angry with her for turning up 15 minutes late so they found her unprofessional. I will not want to listen to it a second time - it is sung by a soprano. This is horrifying – how can this appear in a period movie?? Whose crazy idea is this?

Interesting facts

Zi Yi never had intimate scenes comfortably on the bed. In ‘Crouching tiger, hidden dragon’, she shot it with Zhang Zhen in a cave. In here, she shot it with Takeshi on the grass or among the flowers. Being intimate in the midst of escape is like portraying how wild animals will behave. Takeshi had no love experience and asked Yi Mou how to do it. Yi Mou didn’t know how to explain and blushed. But Takeshi ended up being too forceful on her and even tore her sleeve. She felt as if she was being raped and was in tears. When asked, he was also shy bout it – if he did too little, she might say that he had not done his homework. If he was too rough, he would get complaints.

The bathing scene was supposedly romantic with Takeshi taking care of Zi Yi. But we had to face the harsh reality. The temperature was only 10 degrees. Zi Yi had to remove her clothes to bathe in the muddy and stinky water. After both finished the scene, they felt very cold.

Tak Wah cried 5 times to get the role? Tak Wah corrected the rumour – Yi Mou only discovered this after choosing him. Actually he is a person who cried easily. No one expected him to be as scared as Xi Yi of mice. One fan once gave him a book and he suddenly sprang because he saw a picture of a mouse. He could not explain why – maybe it was inborn.

Jokes flew at the Taiwan press conference at the renowned National Palace Museum. Zi Yi said Takeshi massaged her to keep her warm. He brought on laughter when asking her innocently where he had jabbed her. Their intimate scenes sparked talk because it had said that she felt really violated when he was too forceful on her during the shoot. Tak Wah also embraced her but he joked being the winner because he took 5 takes. Yi Mou said Takeshi has killer eyes that make him good for farewell scenes.

The cast had tried to raise funds for Ah Mui’s charity funds in Hong Kong during the premiere but the public response was bad. Tak Wah’s parents bought tickets to avoid embarrassment while Ah Mui’s fans tried their best to get the tickets. Tak Wah wondered why the major companies weren’t interested – is it because of poor promotion? Still, the venue placed one of Ah Mui’s acting costume that she tried out for the movie to show that her role was unrepeatable. The Hong Kong premiere had Zi Yi absent because her mother had a heart operation. When asked who was better in intimate scenes, Zi Yi said both had a draw as both were perfect.

Yi Mou was thankful to be given the honour to hold the press conference in the ancient palace in Taiwan. 10 wore Takeshi’s costumes while 10 wore Zi Yi’s costumes to offer drinks using blue China. The VIP guests had the ancient palace treatment to continue watching Dun Huang’s dancing and pipa performances. But using S$200,000 to rent the place made the palace staff unhappy. The person in charge commented that the movie company needed not pay the sum if they follow the rules. Yi Mou received famous sculptor, Zhu Ming’s sculpture piece as a souvenir. The event received S$250,000 charity funds.

The China premiere had the cast showed up without the film clips but only dancing performances. Tak Wah sang ‘the moon represents my heart’ over the screen that had Ah Mui. He hoped that she would be with them although she could not take part in it. He sang a total of 4 songs. Many commented that Zi Yi’s singing was terrible but Tak Wah stood up for her, saying that she had tried her best. The public should give her another chance. He recalled the past of him singing poorly and nearly wanted to give up.

The movie scored bad reviews from well acclaimed directors – Hui Gun Mun, Even famous Taiwanese director who was a supporter for Zhang, Zhu Yan Ping said that ‘Yi Mou is dead’. The scenes are beautiful but they don’t represent Zhang. This kind of film can be shot by anyone using money. He faced strong opposition but still insisted on shooting period movies in future as he liked them. It looks like he had to come up with a better script.

The producer Zhang Wei Ping had boasted that those who couldn’t cry after watching could look for him. It became the joke of the century. Many laughed at the scenes instead. There was another joke – Chen Kai Ge and Feng Xiao Gang (a mainland director whom Ah Mui wished to worked with but never had the chance) watched it too. Feng even commented that someone had tried to compete with him in comedies.

The Peony place spent S$46,000 and 2 months to build. The pool alone spent 6 days. The bottom and the sides used glass while the 8 folding fans had Tang maiden drawings on them. The duel made Yi Mou spent more money. The crew spent US$2000 to buy the flowers and made 80 florists grow yellow sunflowers. It was unexpected that the soil was used wrongly and they had to reshoot elsewhere. Why use flowers in here? Women get touched easily by flowers. Xiao Mei is in dreamland when Jin rides on horseback to get her a grip handful of flowers

Yi Mou engaged 3 wushu experts to teach them in China, Japan and also Hong Kong. When they reached Oakland, it was October and the weather changed fast. Although it should be autumn time, it started snowing. To make it look convincing, the two used real sabers at 5 kg each. Thus they got injured instead. The pugilistic director, Cheng Hiu Dong added that it would look unreal using fake ones. However, Tak Wah’s strength wasn’t as great as Jin so he sometimes ended up injuring himself.

When asked on how Takeshi felt, his reply was he wanted to knock off early. The hitting and turning parts on the ground froze his arms and legs. Although he managed to create expressions, the cold temperature almost caused him to drop his jaw.

The mainland audience disliked Zi Yi to wear over revealing clothes and having too many seductive scenes. She had tried too hard to be sexy and was unprofessional in seductive scenes. But others felt that she deserved praise for having the most scenes in the movie. They found the sewing of the clothes magnificent. The half-dressed image when Xiao Mei was running away from enemies and the male disguise or the regaining sight scenes were outstanding – although it seemed that she must reveal her shoulder in every scene.

Zi Yi spent 2 months with a blind girl who suffered from brain cancer to do many things with her in the dark. It wasn’t easy to feel around. There were 300 media reporters present when the cast promoted it in Korea. When asked what their unforgettable line was, Zi Yi answered for Takeshi jokingly. It must be – ‘I ask you to start touching from the head but you do it from the bottom instead.’ Takeshi was shy and frowned – actually it should be ‘I am back because of a person’.

An observant viewer surfed the net and discovered that one of Zi Yi’s costume was actually from Qing dynasty. The designer was Academy award winner for best costume, He Tian Hui Mei. She had said that the idea came from Tang Dynasty. The producer even bragged that the film allowed younger
people to love it more.

I watched it with a friend, Gin on a weekday afternoon. I was exhausted after work but the film perked me up. Not entirely due to the fighting scenes but also due to the silly jokes created. We paid a price of S$5 per ticket and the dolby stereo effect was close as in other cinemas although not totally soundproof. My feeling is the same as some viewers – we really ‘zhong mai fu’ – caught in an ambush. I also wondered if this movie really worth 3 billion ‘ren ming bi’. Although may complained about the movie, the China audience still brought in $702,000 of earnings in the first 3 days.

10 attractions

Although Zi Yi has practiced Chinese dance during her younger days, she has never tried dancing with sleeves which are 3 m long. After 2 months of training, she acted convincing as a pugilistic opponent who could use the sleeves to hit 100 drums. I agree with others that the most beautiful scene is one which Tak Wah flicks nuts at some drums surrounding the lovely Zi Yi. She twirls, swirls ad flip-flops in a gorgeous outfit with long sleeves with splendid beauty. The matching is simply flawless.

This is the highlight of the movie. I wonder whether this advantage caused her to defeat Gong Li to act in Steven Spieberg’s movie on ‘artistes’? She acts well in fighting scenes too – to do a straight stunt in mid-air between two bamboos was no joke. Many were not surprised that Zhang chose her here.

Takeshi can pull arrows with his left hand (some criticised that this move imitated Legolas’s fabulous shooting skill form ‘Lord of the Rings’) and use the sabre using his right hand. Who doesn’t get impressed? Many were impressed by his outlook – looking free and his eyes contain vulgar. Seeing him never missing any target on houseback or on ground was a pleasure.

He also got injured after falling from a horse in Ukraine before sending back to Japan for close observation. Who knows how hard he had worked? I must also comment that Zi Yi had also done an awesome job. Many were also impressed by his lust look at women – so do I. This is sure a daring move. Especially in Zi Yi’s bathing scene in the lake!

The bamboo forest almost appear in every movie – no exception here. Every bamboo can kill anytime. It required 10 sports stars to get the roles complete for the scene. Many loved the scene where Jin loves Xiao Mei. I like the qigong killing by the soldiers. Fascinating and intriguing to see them coming up and down!

The other fighting scenes are also eye-opening. The shots where Jin is supposedly to kill his men to win Xiao Mei’s trust are well-done. You will laugh upon seeing them lying by the lake or in the forest but when they move far, they start to stand and remove all his arrows from their bodies! However, when the real court officials are sent, he is forced to kill his own man. The anguish and reluctance is well depicted too.

Many felt the actors’ voices should not be dubbed. Many knew that their Chinese dictation was undesirable as many knew their voices well. But to me, there is the necessity because Zi Yi and the rest speak with a Beijing accent. The guys’ accents will go out of place.

Why was Xiao Mei normal again in the end? Many dislike the change as they wish to see her blind. To me, it is still a good move because it shows the versatility of Zi Yi’s acting. The way she looks blind, trying to focus her thoughts and how she looks normal allowed me to make the comparison.

The way that daggers and arrows fly impress me. Zi Yi handles the daggers with coolness. Whenever she places her hand on the daggers, her blind look still show determination. As for Takeshi, his cool aiming also shows how calm he is to target at his prey.

The scenery is breathe-taking. You will marvel at how the shots are taken.

10 flaws

The scene that made all laughed the loudest was how Tak Wah and Takeshi fought because of one woman. The weather changed too fast. We only saw the autumn leaves and suddenly it snowed! This takes too much screen time (although I don’t mind but I am not sure for others) and is going against the nature. 90% was done by special computer effects. The duel was simply too long.

Yi Mou arranged the two actors’ lines to be as refined as Gu Long’s style. Whenever Takeshi called himself Following Wind (Shui Feng) and cited that he returned because of a person. It didn’t give the touching feel but I nearly laughed till tears rolled down. Tak Wah’s replies in the movie become
normal exchanges. Some ask – why don’t they preserve the recording to distribute the rights overseas?
Although Chow Yun Fatt and Yeoh Chi Keng also created similar jokes in ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, the love scenes were touching that compensated for the loss. Many wondered why the movie received cuts on the intimate scenes before screening on Singapore screens – if the movie could be shown in China in full, how violent could it be?

Can Dan Dan replace Ah Mui? She tried her best but she looked more like a leader in charge of whores and lacks the leadership. Elder Sister Mui’s arrogance could never be replaced. Many commented that she looked too refined and her Beijing slang failed her.

Was this the period version of ‘Internal Affairs’? The story started in the 13th year of Tang Dynasty. The emperor was a weakling with poor management on his corrupted subordinates. When the film continued, all the spies started showing their real identities – Jin was a court spy while Liu was a Flying Dagger clan member. Two actors fought because of love and career. Isn’t this similar to it?

Tak Wah said the director gave him a lot of room to act. All doubt so and even thought that he was playing a supporting role. Liu’s 3 year love with Xiao Mei wasn’t mentioned clearly and used the undercover incident as a lame excuse. Yi Mou disagreed as without Liu, the story had no development. He loved and hated his lover to the extreme. But I doubt it. I heard someone saying that the only breakthrough was the rape scene – isn’t this sad? Takeshi not only admired his talent in this area – he also admired Tak Wah’s good stamina because he never huff and puff after running for a long time.

Many felt Tak Wah’s dressing was bad – so did I. Liu’s rank was close to Jin. But Jin’s dressing was elegant while Liu’s clothes were the same blue uniform as the normal constables. Some said it was only fit for a low grade palace guard - with the big Chinese character ‘ capture in front. The more serious he tried, the more laughs he created. This was an insult to Tang dynasty’s rule differentiation.

Was Xiao Mei so unbeatable to come to live repeatedly? She climbs up repeatedly – alive! She even manages to injure Liu while trying to protect Jin. No one beats that! Yi Mou explains that Xiao Mei is only seriously injured. Although she sounds like she is dying more than once, she returns repeatedly. Is she a cat to have 9 lives??? She must be having magical powers. If we were watching old movies by Hu Jing Quan, that wasn’t a surprise but for a modern era……I wasn’t convinced. Yi Mou said filming swordsmen movies was his dream – was he showing respect to the old movies to reprise the formula?

In the fugitive run, Jin requires the blind Xiao Mei to save him for so many times. If the Flying Dagger clan wants to kill him, why take so much trouble to save him and yet pushes him close to the grave? Is it that worth the effort to deceive only Jin while the others already know the answer or buddies well?

The last unbearable scene had Liu to return to court with a back injury to answer for the mistake. Do you remember the scene where he fights with Jin among the flowers, the dagger is still intact on his back??? Doesn’t he feel the pain and discomfort?? I was baffled to see him still fighting with ease! No blood flowing and no disturbance shown. Is this possible? This is utterly nonsensical!

The most ridiculous part was having an English song at the end –Yi Mou is mad! Although I was metally prepared for that after reading movie critics, it still sent engulfing waves to me and I was badly shaken. I didn’t get it when I saw Chinese words ‘we tried to catch butterflies from young’. When it said that it was dedicated to Ah Mui, all of us thought it was a joke. Maybe it was best for Ah Mui not to sing it at all. She could have suffered lots of heartache upon seeing how this appeared in a mou hap movie.

Conclusion

The scenery is beautifully shot and shots are terrific. It is like treating a big feast with the eyes. Going to a Yi Mou movie is like going to s photo exhibition. He can shoot such pretty pictures. One reviewer once joked that he could make an orang utan look like a swan in a lake.

The clothes, movements and the ornaments reach 100 marks due to the high standards. They give the ravishing effect. You may think that you are having sharks’ fins or abalone when you watch them. Colours wise, it surpassed Hero but it was more of commercial film substance.

The changes in the plot was simply too much to tolerate. I could hardly swallow it. It was really bad. From the beginning to the end, you could not feel the genuine and deep love between the casts. It seemed that they only wanted love just because they needed it. The twists in the plot were definitely shallow and dull.

Ignoring the flaws above, Takeshi and Zi Yi build an authentic chemistry and a love story worth investing in starts. Her mix of steely resolve and girlish vulnerability serves her well. Takeshi looks every inch a natural born flirt who succumbs unexpectedly to love. Tak Wah as the unlucky third party to this love triangle does not fare as well. He is acting over the top. He has to struggle against the script’s constraints and limited screen time.

On the whole, this movie is considered a blockbuster for its nice shots but more could be done to salvage the diluted, weak plot. Yi Mou should have done a better job in the novel adaptation. I heard that the novel is a true masterpiece and I long to read it one day. Hopefully, his next movie will give better results.

Sukting’s ratings :

On acting : **** (Scale of 5)

On story : ***(Scale of 5)


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