House of Flying Daggers: an Art Martial Masterpiece

With House of Flying Daggers falling fast on the heels of Hero (2002), Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is quickly establishing his reputation as the world’s premier martial arts movie director.  Zhang’s complexly choreographed and gorgeously shot films are emblematic of a change that has overtaken the martial arts genre in the early twenty-first century.  Although they are as action packed as the films Bruce Lee made for the Shaw brothers and as chock full of wire-based acrobatics as the Hong Kong masterpieces of Tsui Hark, today’s martial arts movies are different because they emphasize the art over the martial.

The House of Flying Daggers opens in a Tang dynasty brothel, with the arrest of a beautiful blind dancer named Mei (Zhang Ziyi), who is suspected of being a member of a dangerous subversive organization known as the Flying Daggers.  Two deputies want to discover the whereabouts of the group so they concoct a plan to have one of them rescue Mei from their prison, gain her trust, and travel with her back to her base.  Deputy Leo (Andy Lau) warns Deputy Jin (Kaneshiro Takeshi) not to fall for Mei, since she is clearly as deadly as she is beautiful.  Initially, teams of government soldiers attack the fleeing couple as part of the ruse, so that Mei’s trust in Jin will grow each time he saves her, but it soon becomes clear that the attacks are escalating and the soldiers really are intent on killing them.  Against Leo’s advice Jin falls for Mei, unaware that Leo is already in love with her, and soon all three fall into a lethal love triangle.

Elements of the plot are certainly familiar from other martial arts classics, but plots are not usually the main attraction in martial arts movies, nor are they in the films of Zhang Yimou.  Cinematography on the other hand is breathtaking in Zhang’s movies.  In particular, Zhang Yimou has that rare ability to capture visual metaphors and counterpoint through color and camera position.  The ornate symmetry of the settings in Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), stands in sharp contrast to the chaotic rivalries of the four wives, suggesting, as their polite mannerisms and speech did, that the serene surface masked hidden violence.  In House of Flying Daggers we see layers upon layers in nearly every shot.  The forests give us layers of trees through which we view the characters, as do the lush green bamboo groves.  But also in fields, mountain ranges, clouds, even in costuming, the motif of layering is subtle, but omnipresent, and the daggers are the only things that penetrate.   Just as our eye is drawn by Zhang’s camera to the daggers, arrows, and swords that whirl through the layers of scenery, our intellect is compelled to see the relevance of the cinematic spectacle to the overall narrative. 

Identities and intentions of characters are equally shrouded in layers of deception and trickery so that the more we learn the less sure we are of who knows what.  Several times during their adventure in the first half of the film, Mei asks Jin, “Are you for real?”  The question has a double edge, because Jin is torn between his growing love for Mei and his loyalty to Leo and the mission.  Ultimately, House of Flying Daggers is a tragic love story, and love turns out to be the most dangerous dagger of all, because it is the most thoroughly hidden in layers of uncertainty.    A climactic snow storm sequence plays this theme to the hilt as distinctions marking time, seasons, love, revenge, life, death, even the resolution of the narrative itself, vanish behind thick curtains of falling snow.     

During the height of the arthouse era in the ‘60s and ‘70s, chatter about cinematic auteurs focused mostly upon European directors such as Michaelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais, and Rainer Fassbinder.  Occasionally, Asian directors with a Western feel, such as Akira Kurosawa or Satyajit Ray, would also be mentioned as masters of screen art.  With Ang Lee, John Woo, and Zhang Yimou, from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China respectively, Chinese directors are now claiming a fair share of art cinema attention for themselves.  The Oscar nomination that House of Flying Daggers recently received for cinematography marked the fifth time that one of Zhang Yimou’s films has been so honored by the Academy.  Shanghai Triad also received a nomination for cinematography in 1995, and Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern, and Hero each received the best foreign film nomination.  With the exception of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), which took four of the ten Academy Awards it was nominated for in 2001, martial arts films don’t often fare well at the Oscars.  Then again, House of Flying Daggers, like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, is more of an art martial than a martial arts film, so who knows.  One thing is certain: we will see more of Zhang Yimou’s films in the future.

This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, February 2005. Joseph Christopher Schaub