House of Flying Daggers: A beautiful love poem
Movie Review – House of Flying Daggers
Thanks to TIFF‘s great programming, I was able to watch House of Flying Daggers in 35mm this month. I hadn’t seen the film in ten years since its release on DVD, but have always remembered how deeply moved I was by its beauty and especially, by the story.
I came out of the theater wanting to read more about the film and while looking online at reviews and people’s comments I was appalled to find that, though the visuals are universally loved, a lot of people consider House of Flying Daggers the lesser entry in Zhang Yimou’s martial arts trilogy (Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower and this one) based on flaws in the story.
This general opinion is clearly reflected in Rotten Tomatoes’ critics consensus of the film, that in spite of having a positive 88% rating reads: “The visual splendor of the movie makes up for the weak story“. After that bit, I wanted to write this piece as I consider it one of the best martial arts movies I’ve ever seen, particularly because of its story.
Since most of the criticism comes from the plot, I must warn readers that I will talk about it in detail here. If you haven’t watched the film and intend to do so, you might want to skip the rest of this post, for it will have spoilers from here on.
“If you can explain it, then it is not love.”
— Zhang Yimou, about the love story in House of Flying Daggers
Set in 859 AD when China’s Tang Dynasty is in decline and unrest is spreading through the lands, the film tells the story of Mei (Ziya Zhang), a dancer who is suspected by captains Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) to have a connection to the underground rebel group who carries the name of the movie, the House of Flying Daggers.
Jin goes to Peony Pavilion, the local brothel where Mei dances, pretending to be a drunken customer looking for a good time, and this is where the first plot surprise is delivered. Mei is blind. Despite that, when Leo gets there to arrest her, she reveals herself as –in fact– being a part of the rebel group, and displays impressive fighting skills while engaging in battle with him, but he eventually wins and arrests Mei.
Since Mei won’t talk while incarcerated, Jin and Leo devise a plan to use her as bait to flush out the leader of the rebel group. Jin will pretend to be a lone warrior called Wind and rescue Mei from prison, thus earning her trust and escorting her to the secret headquarters of the House of Flying Daggers.
Mei and Jin set out across the countryside while being pursued by the deputies at every turn. At first, the pursuers are part of the plan pretending to hunt them. But after a short while, the higher authorities get involved and they send new troops, ones that don’t know the plan or who Jin really is, which is when things get uncertain.
Through their short but intense journey of survival, Jin and Mei fall in love and with much effort, come to trust and depend on each other. At that point, as spectators we emotional connect with them and want them to triumph, both in escaping and in their romance.
In one of the fights with the deputies, Mei and Jin are suddenly rescued by the members of the House of Flying Daggers and taken to their headquarters. Here’s where the complicated plot devices of the film present themselves.
First, it is revealed that Mei is not only not who she claims to be from the start, but that she’s not blind and has been pretending the whole time as a counter-tactic to the authorities’ plan. Jin is captured and -having fallen for Mei- broken hearted by her deceit.
This is the first aspect that makes the audience feel betrayed, we’ve been set up from the start to empathize with Mei. Even in scenes when there are no other characters around to deceive, she maintains the illusion of being blind, scenes obviously intended as a trick for the viewer. This double-crosses immediately provokes detachment from her character and a sort of anger to the story.
As if this wasn’t enough, it is revealed that Leo is also part of the rebel group and that he is an undercover agent in the government for them. But, more importantly, that Mei and he were lovers before that, and that he’s still in love with her.
All these lies, hurtful as they might be for us spectators upon first viewing, are an essential part of the drama. A fact that becomes evident within consecutive viewings of the film, when it becomes evident they are as effective as they are abusive. And if we go back to the Pavilion scene and look more closely, there’s some subtle hinting about the relationship between Mei and Leo, and the love story triangle that will become center stage of the film.
When Leo and Mei have their first encounter, after him being undercover for three years, the reality becomes clear that she doesn’t love him anymore, and that in fact –despite all her lies and deceptions– she has fallen for Jin.
Mei is ordered to kill Jin, but when she takes him into the field to kill him, she cannot do it and they end up kissing and making love. Afterward, she lets Jin go and he begs her to come with him but she refuses, so he leaves but soon realizes he can’t live without her so turns back only to find Mei lying in the grass, bleeding to death by Leo’s hand in a jealous rage.
As Jin holds her in his arms, Leo comes at him from behind. Jin is suddenly faced with the truth the Leo is not his comrade after all, but a member of the House of Flying Daggers, as well as his rival for Mei’s love. Jin and Leo engage in an epic battle and when Jin is on the verge of defeat, Mei rises from the ground kept alive by Leo’s dagger, which is preventing the blood from draining from her body.
She tells Leo that if he kills Jin, she will rip out the dagger and kill him with it. Jin begs her not to pull the dagger out and sacrifice herself, but Leo pretends to throw his dagger at Jin and in turn Mei rips out the dagger from her chest and throws it at Leo, missing and bouncing off a tree. Leo watches Mei die in Jin’s arms, with snow falling all around them.
Harrowing, tragic and poetic, this ending is inevitable given the forces at work. House of Flying Daggers ends up beautifully showcasing not only the complexity of love, loyalty, and loss in relationships but also the tragic tendency of politics to disregard the lives of the individuals involved in its conflicts. All in the name of an apparent greater good, whatever that might be.
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Tags: fantasy, movie review, movies, screenings