Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2011 Cannes Marathon: House of Flying Daggers

(Premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Out of Competition)

2002’s stylized wuxia film Hero helped raise the profile of Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s love for Yimou’s work that allowed the film to be shown in the U.S. in 2004, Hero became an international hit for the director as he decided to create another stylized wuxia film that was to come out in that same year. This time around, Yimou takes the stylized action of Hero with a love story between a police captain and a blind dancer called Shi Mian Mai Fu (House of Flying Daggers).

Directed by Zhang Yimou and written by Yimou, Peter Wu, and Bin Wang, Shi Mian Mai Fu is set in the 9th Century during the Tang Dynasty as two police captains plot a scheme against a group of rebels who are fighting a corrupt government. Using a blind dancer to lead them to the rebel leaders, the move becomes complicated as one of the men fall for the dancer. Starring Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Zhang Ziyi. Shi Mian Mai Fu is an extraordinary yet visually-dazzling film from Zhang Yimou and company.

It’s 859 during the Tang Dynasty as its corrupt rule is in decline leading to a rebellion. The most dangerous rebel group is the House of Flying Daggers who has a fearsome reputation only to be recently sidelined by the death of their leader by police officials. With a new leader taking charge of the House of Flying Daggers, two police captains named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) are given the assignment which will take them 10 days to do. Before the mission, Jin gets drunk at a brothel where he asks the brothel lady (Song Dandan) to bring him someone new. The new girl is a blind dancer named Mei (Zhang Ziyi) who Jin likes only to get into some trouble until Leo arrives to calm things down only to have a dance of his own from Mei to be entertained by.

Mei is eventually arrested following a duel with Leo as he asks her about the whereabouts of the House of Flying Daggers. She refuses to tell as Jin decides to go undercover by pretending to be a rebel by freeing Mei from jail and gain her trust so she can lead him to the House of Flying Daggers’ hiding place. Calling himself Wind, Jin helps the blind Mei lead her across the country to the secret compound while he is followed by Leo secretly gives him orders on what to do. Even warning Jin not to get too close to Mei as an attraction between the two happens. During another encounter with soldiers, things become more complicated as Jin and Mei get closer.

Another secret report to Leo has some harsh revelations about who is after Jin and Mei with Leo unable to help them as more soldiers are approaching. Jin and Mei have a spat where they break up for a while only to be surrounded by more soldiers from a general as they’re saved by the House of Flying Daggers. For Jin, he and a captured Leo learn some shocking discoveries about the House of Flying Daggers along with the people who are in the group.

The film is about two police captains during the Tang Dynasty charming a blind dancer to the whereabouts of a rebel group where one of them falls in love with the dancer. Yet, that is the film’s plot but the progression of the story becomes more intriguing as the relationship between one of the captains and the blind dancer starts to gel though at times, there’s tension. Then there’s the other captain in Leo, a man who is trying to keep his follow officer in check but the warnings he gives about Mei are very strange. Even more intriguing are the identities of the House of Flying Daggers.

The screenplay Zhang Yimou and his co-writers Peter Wu and Bin Wang create definitely plays up to the momentum of the identity of the House of Flying Daggers group. They’re known simply by the way they throw spinning boomerang-knives at their enemies and they’re not seen until the third act. By the time they’re revealed, the entire tone of the film changes somewhat along with the characters that are presented in the story. What happens isn’t just a series of twists and revelations but also the motives of the two characters. Yet, this would lead to even more complications over loyalties with Jin suddenly stuck in the middle of what is happening.

Zhang Yimou’s direction is truly mesmerizing not just in his presentation but also in his approach to a lot of the dramatic elements of the film. Yimou is known for vast compositions with wide shots and lots of action flourishes. Yet, he is also manages to present things in a very simple manner such as scenes of Mei in a field of flowers or Mei and Jin just talking. Largely because he wanted the audience to soak in the landscape of China though a scene set in the snow was shot in Ukraine. There is a heightened atmosphere to the look of the film where it’s not only gorgeous to look at but also plays to the world that the characters are encountering.

Then there’s the action which is presented with not just a great degree of style but also in such precise choreography that is presented by Tony Ching Siu Tung. The movements in the action and fight scenes play like a ballet where it’s not just about the rhythm of the movements but also the staging of it. This is where Yimou really lets the film shine as the stakes in the battles are just as interesting. It’s not just about survival but also the fact that there’s two people in love fighting for their love. Even as there is a climatic duel towards the end of the film that intensify the stakes. Overall, this is a marvelous film from Zhang Yimou who creates a film that is entrancing from start to finish.

Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding does an amazing job with the film‘s photography from the look of the brothel interiors to the gorgeous shots of the forest with its naturalist yet heightened look. Particularly with the scenes in the bamboo forest where the greenish look of the film is extremely awesome to look at. Xiaoding’s work is definitely the technical highlight of the film. Editor Cheng Long does an excellent job with the film’s editing from playing up to the intense rhythm of the action and fight scenes while maintaining a straightforward approach to the editing in the dramatic scenes. Even as the pacing for the film is very leisured without being too slow or too fast.

Production designer Huo Tingxao, along with art directors Zhong Han and Bin Zhao, does a great job with the set pieces created for the film. Notably the brothel that is rich in its look and color along with the intimacy of the secret home of the House of the Flying Daggers and its forest. Costume designer Emi Wada does a spectacular job with the costumes from the dignified clothes the men wear to the array of colors and layers of clothes that Mei wears throughout her journey as the costumes are another highlight of the film.

Visual effects supervisors Andy Brown and Angie Lam does a very good job with some of the visual effects needed for the film such as Mei‘s drum-dance with nuts flying around or the bamboo battle scenes with soldiers throwing bamboo spears though the latter sequence looked rough in some spots. Sound designer Tao Jing does a superb job with the sound design from the way swords hit each other to the movement of the fights and battle sequences.

The film’s music by Shigeru Umebayashi is another highlight of the film Umebayashi‘s lush yet flourishing score ranging from traditional Chinese music to sweeping orchestral pieces that plays to the dramatic elements of the film and its action sequences. The song that is sung early in the film by Zhang Ziyi is later sung by Kathleen Battle in the final credits that alludes to a legend that is told in the film.

The cast is definitely phenomenal with a large array of extras that are presented in the film to play up to the ambition of the film. For the main cast, there’s only four principle actors as they all do a great job in their performances. Song Dandan is very good as a brothel owner who is keen on pleasing her customers. Andy Lau is great as Leo, a police captain intent on making sure his fellow partner does his duties while giving him vague warnings. Takeshi Kaneshiro is excellent as Jin, a police captain who takes Mei by pretending to be a rebel warrior only to fall for her and be conflicted by his role. Finally, there’s Zhang Ziyi in a radiant performance as Mei. Ziyi brings a wonderful sensuality to her role while bringing something even more remarkable by being blind throughout the film as well as being very agile in her fighting and ballet dancing in what is one of her finest performances of her career.

Shi Mian Mai Fu is a stunning yet exhilarating film from Zhang Yimou featuring a superb cast led by Zhang Ziyi. Fans of Yimou’s films will no doubt enjoy this for this visual splendor, stylish action sequences, and heightened drama. It’s a film that is entertaining but also stimulating in its visual presentation with a third act that really changes everything about the film. In the end, Shi Mian Mai Fu is a brilliant film from Zhang Yimou.

Zhang Yimou Films: (Red Sorghum) - (Codename Cougar) - (Ju Dou) - (Raise the Red Lantern) - (The Story of Qiu Ju) - (To Live) - (Shanghai Triad) - (Keep Cool) - Not One Less - (The Road Home) - (Happy Times) - (Hero) - Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles - Curse of the Golden Flower - A Simple Noodle Story - (Under the Hawthorn Tree) - (The Flowers of War) - Coming Home (2014 film) - The Great Wall (2016 film) - (Shadow (2018 film)

© thevoid99 2011

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