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House of Flying Daggers Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 August 2006

Image When color movies first began to become common, they were mostly lavish period melodramas and outdoor adventures, eventually shading into Westerns. So it seems to be with high definition home video. Both HD DVD and Blu-Ray have so far mostly been applied to lavish effects movies, outdoor adventures and the like. This is entirely reasonable, as the process is high amenable to these sorts of things. Also, so far no one is rushing to issue black and white movies, however good, in high definition, probably because the format is immensely favorable to color, particularly blues, greens and yellows. We now are beginning to see more true reds; in the past, much of home video “red” was actually closer to a ruddy orange. But orange, too, is spectacular in home video.

“House of Flying Daggers” is an entertaining martial arts romantic adventure, with more emphasis on romance and intrigue than on big, lively martial arts battles. There’s less wire work in this one than in most such films, particularly those getting relatively wide release in the United States. What battles there are in “Flying Daggers” are more notable for the settings and their intense, sometimes awesome, beauty than for the grace and skill of the hordes of stunt men.

It’s set during the Tang Dynasty, about 950 a.d. There is a bad weak government that has led to the rise of counter-forces such as the House of Flying Daggers who, the DVD case helpfully informs us, rob from the rich and give to the poor. Actually, all that anyone need know is that the House of Flying Daggers represent the good guys—though they’re good in an Asian martial arts movie manner; perfectly willing to kill all enemies and even sacrifice their own members.

Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a government soldier—an official of some sort, anyway—and goes to the local brothel, Peony House, to see if it’s true that a member of the House of Flying Daggers has infiltrated the place. He’s giddily greeted by madam Yee (Dandan Song), who tells him that their best dancer is Mei (Ziyi Zhang). He demands to see her, but the meeting ends up with him trying to rape her. Leo (Andy Lau), another government official, appears and challenges Mei to “The Echo Game.” She stands in a ring of drums; Leo flings pebbles at different drums, soon many drums, and she has to hit the same drum with her yards-long sleeves of rippling salmon-colored cloth. They impress each other.

But then Leo has her arrested: she is, he says, the daughter of the late leader of the House of Flying Daggers, and must be tortured to gain information. However, she’s rescued by Jin and they set out together through the deliriously beautiful countryside, trying to reach the House of Flying Daggers.

Not surprisingly in a film of this nature, the two begin to fall in love. Also not surprisingly, they frequently rescue each other from elaborately staged attacks by government warriors—one battle is in a forest, another in a broad field drenched in white wildflowers.

As the story progresses, there is one surprise after another, and of course there’s yet another battle, this one of the most beautiful in movie history. It’s in a bamboo forest, the tall, thin boles a warm, velvety green; Mei is wearing green, too, as are the government warriors who attack her. Jin (the Wind) returns to help her, clad in brocaded blue. The attackers flit from the top of one bamboo spire to another, as if weightless; they strip and fling bamboo spears at the fleeing couple, who are finally halted when they’re completely encaged in bamboo poles, in a field studded with sharpened bamboo stakes.

“House of Flying Daggers” is one of the best discs to date to demonstrate the ability of high-definition video, here in the Blu-Ray format. The dance pavilion of the Peony House is ringed by mosaic walls, each individual tile standing out in relief, even when only a few pixels wide. Everything is highly decorated; the swords are engraved in filigrees, and when they’re drawn carefully across skin and cloth, the textures can be easily heard on the expertly-engineered soundtrack. There seem to be literally thousands of colors in the Peony House sequence, on the walls and in the clothing of participants and spectactors. Mei and Leo confront each other on either side of a pale blue curtain of fine glass beads; again, it seems that you can hear the whisper of each bead as it glides over Leo’s blade.

The plentiful special effects are occasionally given away by the sheer clarity. When Leo picks up a fragile bowl to fling it at Mei as a test, his fingers momentarily have visible black bars, and the bowl itself like a matte—expert, but still a matte. In a later scene when Leo is temporarily parted from Mei, he gallops along a forest road—but the forest is all too clearly an effect, presumably a drawing created in a digital environment. It’s in a very lovely shade of green, but it’s clearly an effect. In years past, no one would have blinked twice as such a “failure;” you simply accepted this kind of thing as part of the world of movies. But the increasing skill in effects, the increasing clarity of reproduction, including for the home environment, has raised the standards higher and higher. Rude teenagers will shout “fake” at scenes that would have (and may still) dazzle their parents.

“House of Flying Daggers” has a relatively routine martial arts movie plot combined with a lot of political-intrigue twists and a heavy injection of romance. But who could blame Jin and Leo for falling for Mei? She’s played by Ziyi Zhang, star of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and one of the most beautiful and graceful actresses today. She isn’t especially challenged by her role here, but she’s lovely to look at.

So is the movie. At the end, the story leads through another velvety-green forest to one of silver boles, then up a hill to a field for a significant conflict. It ends as the field is covered in soft snow, with you able to count every flake as it falls. Dramatically, the ending is something of a misfire; dialogue suggests there’s going to be a big battle between the government forces and warriors from the House of Flying Daggers, but instead it’s a swordfight between Jin and Leo, which really isn’t very spectacular.

But the rest of the film certainly is, at least in terms of beauty and color; it’s one of the best-looking movies of recent years, and here, high-definition and Blu-Ray deliver the goods.

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