Drum roll, please…
Remember when chinoiserie was huge in the late nineties and early 2000s? It’s always been a thing in Western culture, but it seemed like it was in every magazine and fashion trend in some way at the turn of the twentieth-first century.
Of course, those of us who were around then remember when Hollywood did chinoiserie one better. They didn’t want to be left out, after all, and wuxia, which had previously been a fringe-y genre, moved out of the art house and into the multiplex. Suddenly we were seeing films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Curse of the Golden Flower, which were Chinese-made with Hollywood backing. They weren’t OG, but they were unique in that they used traditional Asian narrative devices that may not have been familiar to Western audiences. One such movie was 2004’s House of Flying Daggers, an intriguing mix of martial arts, political intrigue, and the proverbial love triangle.
The movie is set during the T’ang Dynasty in 859 A.D. There is civil unrest afoot, and a resistance group, the House of Flying Daggers has sprung up. The government soldiers are beside themselves to catch the ringleader but they know it’ll be an uphill fight. They also suspect that some members of the House of Flying Daggers are using a brothel called the Peony Pavilion as a front.
Meanwhile, at said Peony Pavilion, a new girl, Mei (Ziyi Zhang), has joined the ranks. She’s blind. She’s also an amazing dancer. She charms a client, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) so much he tries to rape her, but a company of soldiers hears the madam, Yee (Dandan Song) screaming and come running in, led by Captain Leo (Andy Lao). They make a great show of arresting Jin for attempted rape, and try to arrest Mei for being indecently dressed, but Mei makes a deal with Leo: If she wins a game of Echo, she can go free.
I’m pretty sure this game was just a thing for the movie, because I couldn’t find anything about it. There’s a video game called Echo, but that’s about it. Anyway, Leo flicks some peanuts (they look like pinto beans) at a circle of drums ranged around Mei, and she has to match the sound by flicking her sleeve sashes at them. He starts easy with one peanut at a time, and then keeps upping the ante until he flicks the whole bowl at Mei. Literally. He throws the bowl like a Frisbee. Mei is so dialed in she grabs a sword and smashes the bowl to pieces, which sets the entire room gasping and scrambling. Mei and Leo fight it out and Leo arrests Mei anyway because he can’t stand to lose.
While Mei languishes in prison, Jin and Leo hatch a plan. Since they think Mei is the Daggers’ leader’s blind daughter, Jin volunteers to pose as a transient named Wind and seduce her, thus smoking out the mysterious leader. Mei couldn’t see his face, so Jin figures she’ll be none the wiser. Leo’s men will pop up and fight Jin and Mei now and then to keep things looking legit, and as long as Jin doesn’t fall in love with Mei, the plan is foolproof.
Heh. Yeah. Nope. Big ol’ nope.
Mei isn’t who she says she is, not by a long shot. Neither is anyone else, including Jin, but the twist lies in who has the upper hand. I can’t elaborate without giving away some key bits, but I will say this: MacGuffins are a thing.
House of Flying Daggers looks gorgeous, like a fantasy all the way through. The colors are highly saturated, which takes many of the landscapes a little bit out of focus, giving the movie a dream-like quality. Because 2004 was a post-Matrix year, there’s a lot of bullet time going on, whether it’s the pinto beans, argh, peanuts during the Echo game or the many, many blades that zoom across the screen all through the movie. It defies physics, of course: A dagger can block a single drop of blood and then hit its target without missing a beat.
The fight scenes are stylized, natch, such as one sequence that takes place in a bamboo forest. Mei’s not only fighting Leo and troops on all sides of her but she does the splits in mid-air, balancing herself between bamboo stalks and then slides down them, swinging around like a pole dancer. It’s just so danged cool. Time is also not a thing; in one major scene the fight seems to start in the fall and head into winter.
The one thing I would say about this film is that the characters feel a little flat and cold. Extensive backstories don’t seem to really be a thing in fairy tales, but there should be enough info to be able to judge the characters’ actions, favorably or otherwise, not to mention feel for them when things happen. The only characters in the movie who really get this treatment are Mei and Jin, who banter around quite a bit before getting hot and heavy. The other characters are mysteries.
This isn’t the kiss of death, though. Daggers has a way of leading the audience on and dangling carrots from all sides, turning the carrots into apples, shaking them in our faces, and then turning them back into carrots when we’re not looking. It’s not my favorite of the early 2000s Chinese-American features (that would be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) but it’s still pretty epic.
For more epic goodness, please see Heidi at Along the Brandywine. Thanks for hosting, Heidi–it was great! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll check back on Thursday for our first Origins post of 2020. It’s about time, right? Talk to you soon…
House of Flying Daggers is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.
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