Shi mian mai fu / House of Flying Daggers

This weekend's film of note was House of Flying Daggers. It's directed by Yimou Zhang, and is similar to his previous film Hero. That tells you it has a lot of physically unlikely fight scenes against hoards of opponents. It doesn't disappoint. The story is a bit like Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where love and martial combat mix into a sad ending. Worth seeing for the beautiful scenery, fluid fight sequences and fatally doomed loves. Chinese with English subtitles.

It starts ordinarily enough (no supernatural powers) with a police force captain coming up with a plan to kill the rebel leader by assigning one of his officers, Jin, to befriend the previous leader's daughter, Mei, rumoured to be working in a local house of entertainment.

The next scene reveals the luxurious, spacious and visually pleasing Chinese interior of the Peony Pavilion - with balconies, mosaic floors and all the trimmings that say luxury brothel. The undercover squad expense account must be huge to afford visits to a place that classy! Sure enough, after playing with several other women in a game of tug-of-war (about a dozen women on one end of the rope and him on the other), Jin asks the Madame to bring in the new girl, Mei, who's blind.

Mei's specialty is supposed to be dance, so he asks her to dance after using his sword to toy with her clothes. While Mei changes her costume, a live band of 10 women swooshes in (8 plucked strings, 1 bowed string and 1 bell player) and the dance begins. It must be a really huge expense account, and a special kind of place where you can get a band on demand. But visually and audibly it works well - watching the players in combination with the dancing did enhance the scene (the camera work seems to be designed to show you that pairing).

The end of the dance degenerates into a pile of arms and legs when Jin lunges and tries to take Mei unwillingly, making the other women charge in to help her. The captain then bursts in and arrests them both. However, the madame says that Mei is only a blind dancer of exquisite qualities and shouldn't be arrested. The captain asks her to prove it with an Echo dance. The staff then move in and make a huge circle of about 40 drum heads mounted vertically on carved wood post and pedestals - odd what sort of things they have readily on hand here.

The captain flicks a bean at one drum, Mei spins and hurls the sleeves of her gown several metres across the room to hit the very same drum. The captain then does a double flick, ricocheting a bean off two drums. Mei hears the beans flying (so do we) and echoes the drum beats. Drama dictates that gravity doesn't deflect the path of the beans at all, so when the captain flings the whole bowl of beans at all the drums, they hit all the drums. Mei does a longer dance to repeat all those bean impacts, ending with a sword fight. Surprisingly she uses her sleeves to grab the sword off the table where the captain is sitting and flings it around the room and into the captain's throat, though he dodges that one and the next dozen thrusts in a ballet of fabric, twisting flesh and flying steel.

We're now in the world of a Wu Xia Pien genre film. Wizard warriors, or in the modern version, characters whom are exceedingly proficient at martial arts skills. But that doesn't stop the captain from getting the now proven rebel Mei into jail, where she's threatened with torture.

After breaking out of jail, Jin stages a fight with the pursuing soldiers in the forest. They've surrounded Mei while Jin was going back to fetch her dropped dagger set. He rescues Mei by rapidly shooting arrows at all four soldiers from a fair distance, and amazingly hits all of them. After they get away, we see the soldiers getting up. Jin's aim was more than amazing; he hit each one in the fabric of their clothes in a spot where they could pretend to be skewered.

While on the run, the romance between Jin and Mei is brewing. Is Jin just acting or is he really falling in love? Can you really tie a squirrel to a sword? He says his name is "Wind", a playful wind which goes wherever it wants to. But is he that flighty?

However, things get out of control when some uninformed soldiers attack them for real in a field of flowers. That is another big fight scene where sword, quarter staff and flying daggers wipe out most of the soldiers. However, enough survive to win the battle, until wooden stakes flying from an anonymous helper in the forest kill them all.

Jin thinks he's got Mei when she says she owes him her life, but Jin's passionate hugging and kissing isn't returned - she puts her hand over her mouth when he tries to kiss her, making him stop. Perhaps she has someone else as a lover? She then takes her horse and goes on her own way the next morning, telling Jin to leave her.

He does leave, meeting the captain who's been following all this time. The general has taken over the case and has a large force set up to kill them. Jin just wants to quit when he hears that, but then changes his mind, perhaps he has fallen for Mei!

That leads to a marvelous fight in a bamboo forest, with Jin arriving in time to help Mei fight the soldiers. Unlike Crouching Tiger, the bamboo choreography is more realistic - you see people actually climbing up or sliding down the bamboo trees, as well as holding on when they're riding a bending tree down to the ground. It goes on for quite a long thrilling while, and is one of the highlights of the film. Unfortunately I can't describe it well enough to do it justice. It's got good sound (whooshing as large spreads of bamboo spears fly though the air), marvelous chases through the tree tops and down to the ground, the realism of occasional falls, and finally defeat in a network of pointy bamboo shafts for Jin and Mei.

After that the plot twists in ways I don't want to spoil, ending up in an elegant final snow storm battle between Jin and Mei's former lover, over Mei's dead body. Blood and snow in a windy storm - a good mix from the art design point of view, and it even reflects Jin's nickname of Wind.

By the way, does the spoken "Su-Mei" mean something like "Miss Mei" or is the extra sound some other sort of honorific? The subtitles just say Mei.

- Alex

Copyright © 2005 by Alexander G. M. Smith.