House Of Flying Daggers (2004)

Directed by
In retrospect this was a wuxia classic
Reviewed by Simon on 2024-01-01

Starting 2024 as I mean to go on... by rewatching something that came out 20 years ago.

At the time the heightened emotions and melodrama in HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS seemed uncharacteristic of Zhang Yimou, and the film was widely dismissed as "pretty but shallow". In retrospect it was clearly intended to counter the perception of mainland films as portentous arthouse fare, and kickstart a more commercial local industry. Zhang has explicitly said that Curse Of The Golden Flower was a conscious attempt to compete with Hollywood at the box office, but it's clear he was already thinking along those lines when he made this.

That's not to say there is no art to be found here - if nothing else the visual craftsmanship is masterful. The use of colour and movement is as striking as it was in Hero, but this time deployed in service of a more intimate and sentimental story.

The film's narrative is not as complicated or hard to follow as some people seem convinced it must be. It starts off as a tale of political intrigue but is quickly usurped by more visceral concerns - a tale of base human emotions... love, lust, jealousy, rage - the stuff that really makes the world go round.

In lesser hands this could make it easy to dismiss the film as fluff, but the performances of the three leads are so full of passion and conviction they make it work. Takeshi Kaneshiro is the real revelation, showing a range and intensity he hadn't often been called on to deliver before. Zhang Ziyi matches him beat for beat, showing us once more why she should have been the biggest star of the 21st century. We were robbed!

The weakest aspect of House Of Flying Daggers is probably the flying daggers, whose disregard of the laws of physics is not entirely unheard of in wuxia weaponry, but along with the somewhat primitive CGI they are too obviously artificial and whenever they are deployed they break immersion with the otherwise beautifully staged fights.

This doesn't take a way much from a film that has aged rather well now that we can see how it fits in historically. I can't actually think of a better wuxia that's come out since, except perhaps (fittingly) WUXIA (aka. Dragon).