Shi mian mai fu House of flying daggers ( Zhang Yimou / China, Hong Kong / 2004 )
The first scenes of "House of flying daggers" seem to suggest an "old school" martial arts film, as we are thrown into an ancient chinese brothel, in which the male protagonist is searching for a female assassin, presumably the main attraction of the house, a blind dancer. There is plenty of beautiful photograpy and costume design as the viewer gets to see three great choreographies, first of a dance, than of a game, and finally of a fight between the assasin and a royal guard. There is little dialogue, which is mostly banal, and not only the setting is gorgeous, but also the actors.
Although there are hints of the following events, and the three main protagonists with their relations to each other are presented, the viewer isnt yet prepared for the events that will follow, overpowered by the eye-candy that is presented to him not only visually, but also accustically. The game scene, which is too complex to explain to western viewers unfamiliar with this kind of exercise (sufficient to say it involves beans, drums, and a quite remarkable dress), the viewer is put in the blind girls place, concentrating on every sound caused by movement.
His latest feature finds chinese director Zhang Yimou at the height of his power, having in the past achieved both critical acclaim and economic success inside and outside of his country. House of flying daggers seems to be an attempt of globalisation, by which I mean that the film tries to cater to a wide audience through high production values and a seemingly cliched presentation of a melodramatic love story, combining actionscenes for the male and lovescenes for the female part of the audience, underlined by an orchestral score, and with three asian superstars. Combined seem the most commercial factors from Asia and the Western World also in a huge international advertising campaign, which had the desired effect and swept the masses into cinemas all over the world.
But Zhangs ambitions were also artistic ones, and he enriches the film through commenting on cuurent global issues like terrorism, patriarchism and the repression of women, and the threat that springs from all ideologies which forget about the people and follow a the end justifies the means policy.
But in the midst of these issues Zhangs main concern is a universal love story, and unbelievable as it may seem he succeeds with all of it, giving the viewer one of the best cinematic experiences he is to encounter this year.
The prologue of the film which ends with the fictitious rescue of the heroine Mei (played by Zhang Ziyi) through the male protagonist Jin(Takeshi Kaneshiro), has some subtle foreshadowing of the issues that will be dealt with in the following, though.
As Jin is ordered to find out the truth about Mei the blind dancer by his Boss Leo (Andy Lau), who will later bcome his antagonist, he responds that he will have a good time in the brothel, falsly assuming an easy task. So the first thing we get to see is him sitting in the middle of a huge circular hall, already heavily drunk and surrounded by concubines. After calling for the houses newest attraction, he tells Mei that she will be taken outside if she succeeds to entertain him, telling her that after a successful performance she will also have the honor to @#%$ him, and after witnessing her dance he tries to rape her. Though this is a staged attempt in order to succeed with the plan devised by his Boss, the viewer isnt so sure if Jin is entirely acting rational. Suddenly in rushes Leo with other royal guards pretending to install order to the chaos, but he decides not to arrest Mei, if she shows him her remarkable abbilities through a game in which she must follow the movements of objects only through sound. During this second performance, Mei attacks Leo with a sword, and an extended fight sequence follows in which we also get to see Meis talent to handle weapons, though she hasnt a chance to win against the superior soldier, who shows his arrogance in a scene where he abandons his weapons to fight Meis sword with only his fists he succeeds.
The audience is presented a patriarchal society through a male point of view, in which women are objects of sexual desire, the weaker sex that has to be rescued, and can only find happiness in the arms of a man. For being raped the woman is punished along with her persecuter, and when she tries to rebel this is only a futile effort against a superior opponent. The motive of the rape is repeated two times, and on both occassions Mei must be rescued without weapons she seems powerless.
The condescending view of women can also be seen in a scene where Jin makes a compliment to Mei, when he says that in the future he will order his concubines to dress like her, and even more through conversations between Mei and Leo, where he repeatedly states his wishes to possess her. His idea of love seems to be based on ownership, and when he kills her at the end of the film, he states that he had to do it because of her betrayal of their love. Only when Mei frees herself out of societys limitations through losing her virginity, there is a glimpse of hope, and though she states that she wants to be free as the wind, she doesnt survive.
Nevertheless when facing her death she succeeds in forcing the male leads to rethink their positions, and the audience is challenged to accept that women have the right to a free will, and the necessity for both men and women in giving up role models of victim and perpetrator.
What follows after the escape of Mei and Jin, is a complex investigation of the state of the battle of the sexes, during which the characters switch their identity many times, appearing at times as rebels and at others as royal warriors. The viewer finds out that Leo and Mei know each other, Leo and Jin love Mei, while she cant decide on one, and there are so many plot twists, that the viewer doesnt know the true emotions of the characters until the last scene of the film.
The film deals with identity, as everyone turns out to be someone else than he appeared, but rather than answering these questions, even the characters themselves dont know who they are, and they have a long way to go until they discover that identity can only be found within oneself, and not in the outside world through applying clothes or ideologies. Freedom comes only through self discovery not self denial, and the characters in the film only become human when they become individuals at the end of the film, acting on their own emotions, and not following the orders of their groups.
Though the royal soldiers are all men, while the rebels appear to be women only, the opponents act with the same set of rules, have the same goals, and apply the same morals in achieving them. But in order to bring a change to society, Zhang Yimou suggests that one has to break free from these restrictions, and while the characters dont succed ( one of the last shots is of the royal army marching to battle the rebels), the audience is expected to learn from them, and avoid the same mistakes.
Real emancipation is a tricky business, and both sexes can begin with the process, when they have accepted each other as equals, and the same means are available to both. Though the film ends with this premise, it also tells us that only true love may be powerful enough to actually bring a change in society, a change that hopefully blossoms after the film, while the film remains unchangable.
An extension of fiction into reality that is very much needed.
***3/4 / **** (16.02.2005)