[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
As we come to the close of my monthly column over the last four years, I wanted to cap off 2023 with a film that I’ve had mixed feelings about over the years. As readers will know from many of my previous articles, I truly started my journey into Hong Kong and Chinese films in 2004. This is when I transferred from one high school to another and met a few new friends. I had already seen Ong-Bak in 2003 and was familiar with Bruce Lee, but I didn’t earnestly start digging into these movies until Hero was released in the US in 2004.
After meeting these new friends and discussing various films, the most important of them being Master of the Flying Guillotine, it was a big delight to learn that Zhang Yimou’s latest film was getting a theatrical release in the winter. House of Flying Daggers was marketed as being a more “serious” and “adult” version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which I think gave me some unrealistic expectations when going in. It didn’t help that one of my ex-friends truly hated Zhang Ziyi and Andy Lau, which seems blasphemous to even type out.
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So, I went to see House of Flying Daggers on release day and left the film somewhat entertained. It certainly had engaging visuals, but I wasn’t sure I understood the story and I simply parroted my friend’s opinion about Andy Lau as if it were gospel. I never did seek out a home video release for the movie as, in my mind, it was a lesser effort from Yimou and wasn’t worth the time to revisit. With this column coming to an end, I figured now would be the best time to rewatch the film to see if it holds up.
It really should come as no surprise, but the movie absolutely holds up. Zhang Yimou may not always be the most consistent when it comes to scripting his films, but he has a keen eye for visual splendor. House of Flying Daggers is one of the most gorgeous films you’re likely to ever see. The vistas -of which production went to Ukraine and the forests of China- are given a painterly quality that makes every moment feel as if it’s coming from a fairytale. The soundtrack mixes both traditional Chinese music with sometimes jazz-inspired rhythms, giving it a unique quality among its contemporaries. There’s also the operatic style of everything, which hearkens back to classic Peking Opera when the film is going full-on into its wuxia roots.
I think at the time, my exposure to Zhang Yimou was so limited that I expected House of Flying Daggers to be another Hero. It’s strange to compare the two as they aren’t really all that similar apart from editing and color theory (which I’m not smart enough to truly dig into). Where Hero goes grand while having a poetic and political story, House of Flying Daggers is smaller, more intimate, and truly like a simplistic opera. There is a bigger picture you could read into, but the plot focuses on three characters and their struggles to infiltrate the titular Flying Daggers clan.
In some ways, this is a throwback to the Shaw Brothers style of filmmaking. Curiously enough, the day before rewatching this movie, I had rewatched Chang Cheh’s The Blood Brothers with my friend. One of Cheh’s best movies, it deals with a trio of men that form a blood oath with each other, but then get torn apart after one becomes a Qing official and falls in love with another’s wife. There’s a tragic angle there alongside a look at a false understanding of heroics that makes the film very compelling.
Now, House of Flying Daggers doesn’t have the same depth, but if you’re familiar with the plot, you can likely see some parallels. This movie starts with Captains Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) sent on a mission to investigate the Peony Pavilion to look for a blind girl who may be linked to the Flying Daggers clan. Both Jin and Leo have recently assassinated the previous leader of the clan and it seems that they are now looking to recruit his blind daughter. When Jin arrives, he is given his pick of women and goes for Mei (Zhang Ziyi), the blind dancer who is said to be exquisite.
One thing leads to another and Jin is suddenly trying to rape Mei (which is all part of his plan). This brings the attention of Leo and his crew who then put Mei to the test to prove herself as a regular concubine instead of some skilled assassin. She, obviously, fails that test seeing as how she’s ridiculously skilled, so Leo arrests her and he and Jin’s plan is set in motion. To keep up charades, Leo tasks Jin with “breaking” Mei out of custody and then helping her escape, with the idea being that she’ll lead Jin to the new master of the Flying Daggers.
So that’s a little bit convoluted for a setup, but the rest of the movie doesn’t beat you over the head with exposition or drawn-out dialogue. In true Yimou fashion, most of this story is told through visuals and intricately choreographed fight scenes. In fact, the very next scene after Jin breaks Mei out is this elaborate chase through the forest where horseback riding soldiers are attacking Mei while she’s flipping over weapons and rolling on the ground. It’s stunning, made more so by composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s score.
While I was doing some preliminary research for this article, I stumbled upon Roger Ebert’s review of the film from 2004. Summing up his thoughts, Ebert stated, “Forget about the plot, the characters, the intrigue, which are all splendid in House of Flying Daggers, and focus just on the visuals… the film is so good to look at and listen to that, as with some operas, the story is almost beside the point, serving primarily to get us from one spectacular scene to another.” I mean, yeah. He’s dead on here.
I would not say that the plot is unimportant or poorly written. What lets the story down is that it’s pretty predictable and a “twist” at the end isn’t established all that well. That said, everything here is in traditional Chinese melodramatic style. Characters fall in love, betray the oaths they were sworn to take, and wind up causing more pain for themselves. There is no happy ending in House of Flying Daggers and that lands because of how committed everyone is to their roles.
I’m not sure how I could have had a different opinion in the past, but both Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro are incredible here. There is a true palpable sense of intimacy between them that only grows as the film progresses. When you see Mei’s “betrayal” at the start of the third act, you feel Jin’s pain immensely. Even when it’s revealed that Leo was actually Mei’s true lover, that doesn’t feel like some contrived drama to pump up a limp finale. Andy Lau is amazing at conveying his pining love. I do think his villainous turn is maybe not developed enough, but then there does need to be a tragic closer.
That’s really all I have to say about the plot, though. I did learn that Cantopop legend Anita Mui was originally cast in the film, something that flew by me back in 2004. I wasn’t as well versed in Hong Kong cinema then, but the film ends with a dedication to her memory and it hits much harder once you know the sad history there. She passed away from cervical cancer in 2003 after being cast in a major role for House of Flying Daggers. I think she probably would have played the imposter Nia (Song Dandan) as that is the only other character with any significant screen time.
Anyway, Mui’s passing led Yimou to rewrite parts of the script, and combined with the somber ending, this rewatch made me cry. A lot of that is down to the cinematography and score doing some heavy lifting, but House of Flying Daggers is a beautiful film. When the characters stop talking and the action kicks in, it’s almost impossible to not be compelled by what is happening.
Much has been written about these action scenes, but the bamboo forest fight is still awe-inspiring after all this time. Not having seen the film in 19 years, I have bits of it seared into my memory because of Yimou’s keen eye for visuals. When the big action sequences kicked in, it was like I was reliving that first viewing back in my local indie theater. That theater is no longer standing, but its impact will live on with me for the rest of my life. Combine that with the drama and even if you can nitpick certain aspects, you’re bound to leave the film believing you just watched an epic for the ages.
While the film wasn’t a tremendous hit in the US, it did go on to gross around $11 million during its theatrical run. That total wound up making it the third-highest-grossing foreign-language film for 2004. In overseas markets, it earned another $81.7 million, making it a modest hit for Yimou. It’s not Hero level, but most of Yimou’s films aren’t. Still, that kind of success coupled with solid sales of the DVD would make you think its home video release was stellar. You’d be sorely mistaken.
This is the worst part of the story for me as there doesn’t exist any physical copy of House of Flying Daggers that does the film’s visuals justice. While some of the DVDs look great for their time, they are too soft and digitally processed to stand up on HDTVs. Worse still, every Blu-Ray across the world looks like a really poor DVD upscale. Even the stream I found on Hulu exhibits some terrible color depth along with blurry and fuzzy visuals. This is a similar problem that Hero has had on home video, making me hope we can eventually see a 4K remaster soon.
Even with a lackluster home presentation, it’s still very much worth it to seek out House of Flying Daggers. I was very naïve about film nearly 20 years ago and kind of wrote this off as a disappointment. It doesn’t live up to the legacy of Hero, but then Zhang Yimou wasn’t trying to even recreate his previous epic. This film dials things back a bit to give viewers a smaller, more personal story to engage with. In an era where blockbuster entertainment continues to go bigger and bigger while never focusing on dependable and engaging story beats, I think intimate tales like this serve as great reminders of what film can be. Not everything needs an apocalyptic threat to warrant a watch.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.