Volume 23, Number 02, Winter 2005

Martial Arts Movies and Freedom—Movie Review

The House of Flying Daggers

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kineshiro
Sony Pictures Classics, 2004
Reviewed by Anders Monsen
October 2005

Reviewed by

Martial arts movies usually are dismissed by critics as little more than chop socky revenge dramas. Poorly dubbed 1970s movies have gained fame and legend for oft-parodied bad translations and contorted facial gestures. The recent success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2004) owe much to the infusion of mainstream directors to the martial arts world. The approach by directors such as Oscar nominees Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger) and Zhang Yimou (Hero, The House of Flying Daggers) extend the story-telling aspect of action-centric martial arts movies, while also refining their style and look.

The House of Flying Daggers opens with two police captains (Takeshi Kineshiro and Andy Lau) tasked with tracking down the new leader of a rebel group called The House of Flying Daggers. They follow rumors that the new blind dancer at a local brothel might be the daughter of the old leader, whom they helped find and kill. They arrest this girl, Mei, played by the incomparable Ziyi Zhang. In a ploy to gain her trust, and perhaps lead them to the Flying Daggers’ headquarters, Captain Jin (Kineshiro) “breaks” her out of prison. In order to prove himself Jin must reluctantly kill members of the security forces who pursue them.

Jin slips away from time to time and reports to Captain Leo (Lau) as Jin and Mei head north. When they finally meet up with the Flying Daggers we discover hidden motives and identities. The three days together spent by Jin and Mei forged a fateful relationship with terrible consequences. The choices that each of the three characters must face will determine not only their future and their own lives, but also the lives of their pledged social and amorous allegiances. The climactic battle—a core feature of martial arts movies—spans seasons from fall to winter, like the battle of ancient gods.

The music, color, and pacing of the movie makes you forget you are watching a period piece from China. Yes, there's wire-work and flying through bamboo forests, but these tricks never trump the story or the characters.

The implications of this movie to liberty and culture are two-fold. In the element of plot this movie sets up a confrontation between government and an underground group that opposes the current regime’s corrupt ways. The movie also explores constraints and rebellious conflict within the group itself, with an autocratic leader and harsh rules of conduct and obedience. Director Zhang Yimou stated in a recent interview:

“The film itself is a betrayal of traditional martial arts films, because a lot of the martial arts tradition is based on a code of conduct. They have their rules of the game and all the fighting and revenge has to be in accordance with it. However here, we have a girl that betrays her code of ethics for love, pointing to a larger rebelliousness and an individualistic freedom. In the West, when you’re watching this, you might not think of it as anything unique or special. In China, it’s actually something very different from other martial arts films because these are values that aren’t usually espoused in the genre.”

The second implication in terms of liberty is the source of the movie. China, after all, is a totalitarian communist country, severely limiting speech and conduct. Imagine being an American director dealing with this. In the same interview, Zimou alluded to what's involved:

“There is a censorship in place, and you have to submit the screenplay and then the finished film for approval to the government censors. With films like House of Flying Daggers and Hero, which are both classical costume dramas set in the past, there isn’t much of a problem because there’s nothing really dealing with contemporary society that they would deem inappropriate or too sensitive. Usually, these things go fairly smoothly since martial arts films are a very big genre in China with not too many subversive elements.”

On another note, thankfully, Daggers is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, not Miramax. Miramax butchers the American versions of Chinese movies in the editing room. They delayed the American versions of Shaolin Soccer and Hero, both major cinematic box office successes in China, by two years. The American version of the former ended up a shell of its former self; view both versions on DVD and witness the horror.

Fans of the Hong Kong (and Chinese) martial arts movie genre long have bemoaned this heavy-handedness. Such movies need to be seen as intended by the director in the original format, in order to truly understand and appreciate the form. Given the relatively quick US release of Flying Daggers following its Asian distribution, it seems that Sony Pictures Classics embraced this belief.

I had great expectations before seeing House of Flying Daggers. The movie succeeds on every level. If you seek adventure, suspense, heartrending emotion, and superb fighting scenes, go see this movie.

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