Knife to the heart

Zhang Yimou choreographs fighting bodies that turn every action into the purest calligraphy

House of Flying Daggers. Zhang Zi Yi plays the role of an assassin disguised as a blind dancer

It’s obvious, flying is commonplace in Chinese cinema but certainly isn’t its exclusive domain. The acrobatics witnessed in the Matrix, where Trinity seems to stand in the air like a black angel has been an international trend. We can also witness gravity-defying stunts in “Tiger & Dragon” where the action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping has us rubbing our eyes in every fight scene.

Since the influx of Chinese movies in the mainstream, the action dramaturgy of Hollywood seems to be enriched by the slightly complicated grammar of Asian martial arts. This is most notable in Chinese director Zhang Yimou success in “Hero”, where he has amazed our eyes not only by choreography of the fighting bodies, but by images of action that can only come from the purest form of calligraphy.

The heart wants what it wants

Maggie Cheung once said that while reading the screenplay of “Hero,” she always cried, but did not feel the same when watching the film. She blamed Zhang’s rigid visual concept that drove the drama out of all the characters and into the scenery. You could answer her with an old Hollywood saying: Action is character! And yet, Zhang had his own way of dealing with it by regularly dragging the ground from under his feet because his stories had at least a double ending. The House of Flying Daggers does not veer away from this direction. The story is not that complicated, but their destinies are still doomed, because again and again those loyal to the emperor turn out to be spies and rebels among imperial soldiers. Everything is a well-arranged game in which it’s all about proving that the heart always wins, for better or for worse.

In “Hero” Zhang was accused on various occasions as kowtowing before Chinese rulers by erecting a memorial to the first Emperor of Ch’in. The gesture has embittered many critics even more, as Zhang was actually considered the representative of the “fifth generation” that gave Chinese cinema, which is constantly threatened by censorship, international prestige. At any rate, “House of Flying Daggers” does not show the ruler, and his absence makes the decay of his empire all the more noticeable.

The meaning of the game

The year is 859, the Tang Dynasty is eroded by corruption, and the rebels have joined forces to form the House of the Flying Daggers. Two imperial soldiers (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) are ordered to locate and kill their leader within ten days. Their only clue is a blind dancer (Zhang Ziyi) in a brothel suspected of being the disappeared daughter of the former rebel leader. They let them arrest and fabricate a jailbreak to gain their trust. It is accepted that persecutors perish from their own ranks during the escape. We understand only later the real  price for this action, because fake feelings will eventually become real feelings. Or maybe it’s a deceptive maneuver right from the beginning, in which the biggest sacrifice is denying one’s heart.

The first choreography in the palatial brothel foregrounds the way Zhang captivates her audience. The blind dancer is supposed to prove her skills in the “echo game”, in which she stands in a circle of dozens of drums, on which her tormentors snip beans whose trajectory she has to trace while dancing with her meter-long sleeves. It’s not so much about understanding the meaning of the game as breathlessly watching the camera follow the flight of more and more beans, until finally the image seems to dissolve into its individual bean molecules, which float around the dancer like electron in an Atom.

A powerful play of shapes and colors

This is far from being the most virtuoso scene in the film, but Zhang succeeds in sharpening the audience’s senses for the sounds, which is the only source of orientation for the blind dancer. So, too, when the film goes out on its long journey through the landscapes of China, the sounds heard by those in the periphery come, at least as present as the sword blades in carnage. “House of Flying Daggers” is in the type of film where you not only hear the daggers when they cut the air, but also the wind rushing through the grass. The very presence of the sound gives the stylized movements of the story something that can be irritatingly contemporary.

The fugitives must defend themselves against more and more invaders, with the camera following the trajectory of daggers and arrows, as if to capture the action in its purest form, chiselling it out of the story that surrounds it. However, as the lovers flee through the bamboo forest, the film delivers its choreographic mastery of two schemes in a line drawing of light and greenery, in which the pursuers seem to fall like shadows among the tree tops. In the end, the two are trapped in the middle of the movement, fenced by hundreds of bamboo spears, as if all the trajectories have suddenly solidified into form.

“House of Flying Daggers” is a powerful play of shapes and colors that expresses everything in the story of emotion. You just have to have eyes for it.


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