Zhang Yimou - House of Flying Daggers (2004)

[zhang ziyi] In his 2004 House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou revisits the wuxia of his Hero, but eschewing the not-really-effective Rashomon plot model for that of Infernal Affairs or—better yet—none at all.

As in, say, Dangerous Liaisons, the main source of tension in House is a man who has to pretend to fall in love with a woman but who, regrettably, may have actually done so (the details of the relevant love triangle, as well as the dying valedictions are probably more reminiscient of The Wings of the Dove than Dangerous Liaisons, but with more evisceration than either), but a sudden series of peripities a little later than halfway through give the film a sense of belated paranoia and crushing betrayal; the plot, seen now in retrospective, has more in common with Reservoir Dogs (the paranoia) or its model, Ringo Lam's City on Fire (the guilt and reluctance to betray one's "assets") or, indeed, the aforementioned Infernal Affairs, starring (as does House) Andy Lau as a secret society mole who's not only successfully infiltrated the police, but risen to high rank therein.

There's a whiteface remake of Infernal Affairs on the way (a là Point of No Return), but quick synopsis of Infernal Affairs anyhow:

Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) joined the triads when he was still a kid. His boss Sam (Eric Tsang) had the brilliant idea to have several of his young recruits join the police academy, so that when they were adults they could inform for him and against his rivals. Their records would be cleaner than cops corrupted after becoming cops, and the plan (which only Lau seems to have succeeded at) is to rise as high as you possibly can.

Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) is an undercover cop who's infiltrated Sam's gang. When Sam has Chan's mentor—and the only person still alive who knows Chan's a cop—Wong (Anthony Wong) killed, Chan has to find a way to come out clean. Lau can help him, unfortunately Chan discovers Lau is the mole, and Lau discovers that Chan has discovered that he's the mole, and that's trouble, because by now they'd both rather be cops than crooks, and Lau holds most the cards.

In House of Flying Daggers Lau again plays a mole in the police department, this time the Tang government deputy Leo, and Kaneshiro Takeshi plays the undercover cop, Jin, who helps a member of a secret society, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), escape from the prison where he works, on Leo's orders. Mei, a blind wushu master (sometimes with the formidability and grace of a Zatôichi, sometimes with the mix of perseverance and vulnerability Dong Jie displayed in Zhang's Happy Times), is working at the Peony Pavilion, a brothel/tea house, where Jin goes to establish contact with her (and, admittedly, to live it as large as Doogie in Harold and Kumar) and Leo goes to arrest them both.

Jin of course is immediately released, and even watches Leo interrogate Mei, who we learn is the daughter of the recently assassinated leader of the Flying Daggers. Jin, now pseudonymned Wind, helps her escape, so he and Leo can assassinate her father's replacement.

Jin and Mei make it cross country, pursued by Leo's (and therefore Jin's) men, who stage fights in which no one is hurt. But then a Tang general pulls rank, and brings in men who don't know Jin, and the fights are for real. Jin is wounded, people die, and the anticipation that Jin will go over to the Flying Daggers grows.

Leo, following at a distance, aiding Jin and keeping him posted on developments, admonishes him for falling in love with Mei, warns him of the dangers of it, in what proves to have been a self-interested move, as he and Mei were lovers before he set about infiltrating the authorities. Mei, however, has fallen in love with Jin, which sets off the love-triangle-cum-mexican-standoff that follows Jin's capture by the Daggers, and Mei's subsequent "rescue" (inasmuch as Tom rescues Bernie in Miller's Crossing). In typical romantic hyperbole, Jin and Leo's battle lasts through all seasons, leaves changing then snow falling then more snow falling until that's the point, rather than the time lapsing, then...XXXXXX.

Despite Lau's being a mole and Kaneshiro's embodiment of the ethical quandries of the undercover cop (a Hong Kong New Wave staple), House of Flying Daggers will inevitably be compared to its wuxia counterparts, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with which it shares so much visually, than with Hong Kong gangster films like City on Fire with which it shares so much thematically (as even just the title of Wong Ching-Po's 2004 Jianghu suggests) . There's a tendency amongst Western viewers to think of Crouching Tiger as if it was the first wuxia film ever made, similar to the way that all jidaigeki are spoken of in terms of the elder Kurosawa. That Zhang Ziyi (Occidentally a bigger draw than Tony Leung or Maggie Cheung) is in all three doesn't help.

Visually, House of Flying Daggers recalls both Zhang's earlier Hero and The Road Home, the latter in the grasslands shots and the intimately expressive close-ups of Zhang, the former in scenes like the snowstorm duel or a battle in a bamboo forest (often compared to Crouching Tiger's bamboo forest sequence, but the fight-in-the-bamboo-forest is wuxia's equivalent of action's car chase or horror's the-cabin-in-the-woods) in which everything not skin or hair is livid lime or apple or emerald green. Apart from being camoflauge, it looks good. Part of the problem with Hero is that its color shifts seem contrived and condescending, inasmuch as they imply the audience can't comprehend its plot structure (Rashomon, with a final sequence wherein "the truth" is revealed, the truth being both the truth for real and the story Qindai tells). The greens of the Flying Daggers, the white (and red) of the snowstorm duel, the everthing else pearlescent and opulent of the Peony Pavilion, are beautiful colors just for the sake of having beautiful colors.

And the fights have the honesty of porn. Nothing happens, then they fight. Then nothing happens, then they fight. Porn and kung fu and horror movies all operate under the same poetics of escalation, of buildup-via-inaction and release-via-action, where action is, well, action: fucking or fighting or hacking people to bits (pick yr poison, ey). While vital to the genre, the fights aren't necessary to the story. Jin and Mei could just as easily run away from the authorities without trading blows; Jin could wrestle with his feelings for Mei and his sense of obligation to Leo without drawing a sword or notching an arrow, and the human drama could unfold.

That's not to say that the fights are arbitrarily included or seem random, as some of Suzuki Seijun's might. The soundtrack (similar in some ways to, but far more restrained than, The Road Home's) by Umebayashi Shigeru (of In the Mood for Love fame) helps in that regard: sparse, classical, melancholy. The fights take on the floating quality of ballet, the dreamlike quality of romance that suffuses the film entire, rather than the rock-em-sock-em of a Matrix or a Fight Club (both of which have complexity and low ebbs to their scores) or the wuxia you see on CCTV (some of which make cable access jingles sound good). There's always a certain amount of abruptness to the transition from story to action, the single line "THEY FIGHT" in the script that takes twenty minutes of screen time, but between that dreamlike quality and the simplicity of story (there are people chasing people so they can kill them, which as a lovers-on-the-lam fugitive hunt isn't really alien to anyone) House of Flying Daggers escapes the ridiculousness of shot-on-the-fly chop saki flicks wherein any two people who disagree both have black belts. The result is something achingly beautiful but, like the dream it emulates, forgotten upon waking, a memory of a memory of the sadness in sleep.