In Praise of Pretty

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Director: Yimou Zhang

Written: Zhang Yimou, Feng Li, Bin Wang
Genre: Action / Wuxia

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Movies—or, good movies—depend on a delicate balance between two things: style and content.  As a visual medium, movies obviously can’t get away from what we see, since what we watch is, in essence, the story: it’s one and the same.  It’s not the same when our friends tell us breathlessly about that awesome movie they just saw, is it?  But there’s an important distinction, or nuance, to be made about the linked nature of style and content (or, if you prefer, “form and function”), and that’s this: a normal movie uses its style to tell a story; a great movie uses its style to enhance the story—the style is the story.

 When I’m not helping line the pockets of my local Cinemark, I teach creative writing to undergrads, and one of the discussion points that inevitably arises is the difference between plain-old-fiction and so-called literary fiction: what makes something literature, or literary?  Is there really a difference between N. Scott Momaday and Nicholas Sparks, anyhow?  And what I tell them, when I get the riots to calm down, is this: think about beach reading, or the latest Dan Brown, or something from Mr. Sparks—what is most important in those books, the story, or how that story is told?  It’s the story itself, of course.  We want the narrative, the characters, what they’re doing and saying and how it ends.  We don’t give a hoot about how, in the language, Lula gets to Brody’s mansion, we just want to know that she’s there waiting for him under the live oak.  Literary fiction, on the other hand, cares immensely about how a story is told: about the language, the style, the form.  In literary fiction the style is the story, and vice versa.  Change one, and you’ll have changed the other.  Consider: would On the Road be the same if it were written in a more traditional style?  Would Wuthering Heights have the same panache if Ms. Bronte didn’t spend so much time with lyric descriptions of the moors?  Style is content, and content is style.

And here’s the point: it’s the same with movies.  More so, even, with movies.  Think about the average Blockbuster, or what’s playing down at the Muvie2Go: films like 22 Jump Street or Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Silver Linings Playbook aren’t really about the visual elements.  They’re about the story being told.  And sometimes that’s perfectly ok: the narrative is the star, and the visual elements shouldn’t get in the way.  The opposite end of the spectrum—all style, no story—can be good sometimes too, giving us a visual feast when we’re not particularly interested in a narrative that’s perhaps slow, or confusing, or just a director’s secondary interest (Tree of Life, for all you haters).  It can also be weird and boring and results in the type of movies that I’m convinced have scared many Americans away from “art cinema.”

But it’s the sweet spot, right in the middle, that gives us some of the best movies of all: when the style and content are dependent on each other, and we get movies that are visually stunning, narratively interesting, and a pleasure to watch—to see—over and over again.  American Beauty, that staple of film studies programs everywhere, is one of those movies, or any Wes Anderson film, or classic Westerns experimenting with long-view shots and wide open spaces.  It’s subjective, in a sense, and arguably all films depend on a certain visual style connected to the narrative.  But it isn’t just about camera angles or editing choices (though they’re part of it, certainly), or good lighting and costumes.  No, these are films that use their directing, editing, mise-en-scene, and cinematography in the best way possible in every single instance possible, and the end is a film that has a distinct, recognizable voice—though of course, it’s a voice that we see.

Which brings me to the film under review, House of Flying Daggers.  Before we get too far into it, let’s talk shop: premiering a full decade ago in 2004, HOFD is a Chinese film originally released in Mandarin, with subsequent releases in Cantonese and subtitled English; the film stars Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Ziyi Zhang, and was directed by Yimou Zhang.  HOFD is part of the Chinese wuxia tradition: that is, part of a fiction genre interested in the adventures of martial arts heroes in ancient China.  While wuxia originally was fiction in the written sense, the genre has broadened to include different mediums such as film.  Wuxia stories typically star an underdog hero, a lone fighter protecting the lower classes and the weak—in fact, they’re somewhat comparable to the tradition of courtly knights in European literature and art (probably closer to Robin Hood than to Sir Galahad), or the gunslinging hero in the American Western mythology.  I’ll note here that HOFD is a bit of a twist on a traditional wuxia film since the narrative leans far more into romance than strict martial arts adventures, but it still takes its spine—and hefty action sequences—from the long tradition of martial arts stories in Chinese art, literature, and media.

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 So, a bit of plot: HOFD is set in 859 AD during a time of upheaval: the Tang dynasty is crumbling and corrupt, and the people are rebelling against the government and The Law.  The shadowy House of Flying Daggers, the coolest secret society around, is one group that’s working to bring down the corrupt government, although their former leader has just been assassinated; the police are working to find their new leader and capture him/her.  Enter: Mei, a blind dancer/secret spy/assassin/martial arts girl who, captured by Leo and Jin, becomes their pawn in finding and killing the new leader.  But!  Mei leads the men on a twisting adventure through wood and dale, and eventually they (and we) all find out that nobody is who they expected.  Romance, betrayal, deception, and action galore!  It’s a love triangle of epic intensity with a Romeo/Juliet-style ending sure to satisfy the angstiest of teenagers, but also with enough spears, arrows, daggers, and ninja moves to cleanse the palate.

On a narrative level, HOFD isn’t the most unusual story ever written; the story is entertaining, engaging, and works quite well as a romantic-drama-action film.  In fact, you could take the bare bones of this story and film it anywhere, in any time period, in any language: it’s a classic story.  But what drives HOFD, and what made it a contender for an Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and the recipient of dozens of other accolades and high praise from the bigwigs of film criticism, is its mastery of visual effects, its cinematography, and its beauty as a visual object: this film is art.

There are a couple different aspects of HOFD‘s style that I’d like to discuss, though the first is a bit of mouth-breathing adoration: the colors.  Now, Wikipedia tells me that HOFD uses “wuxia color theory” in a straight and ironic manner, and if I cared to, I’d go down the rabbit hole of research after this little tidbit and probably never come out.  (In seriousness, I’m more than sure that there’s absolutely a fascinating intellectual & cultural system behind the colors in the film.)  But for our sake, I’m going to look at the colors purely as visual effect—and when you put those colors together with costumes, props, and settings inspired by traditional Chinese paintings, you get a stunning result.  Just look at some of these stills from the film:

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Gorgeous muted palates; others with vibrant, shocking greens and blues; intricate fabric design and lush interiors…the film revels in long shots that show panoramic views of scenery with a monochromatic color scheme to set the tone, or wide-angles on rooms and settings that place the characters in them as if it were a painting.  But what the colors do is tie a scene together tonally: whether the eerie, alien green of the bamboo forest (watch out, ninjas in the trees!) or the rich, nearly-oppressive design in the Peony Pavilion, the palates emphasize the emotion in addition to their visual function: as beauty.

Another of HOFD‘s amazing proficiencies is the way that, while (as a film) the visual aspects are necessarily privileged to a high degree, there’s another sensory detail that comes to the forefront in a very interesting way: sound.  And I’m not talking about Casino Royale-style explosions here; sound, in conjunction with motion, is made into a tangible, kinetic element.

Listen to this scene:

No music, no outside sound:  just bamboo, leaves, and the nice thwack of the spears.

Or even just a simple moment during the middle of an exciting fight/chase scene; this is totally unnecessary, but totally cool:

And, narratively, sound also plays a huge role: Mei is supposedly blind, and must rely on sound to guide her—which provides a convenient excuse to have some awesome moments where sound is the focus of the action or the scene:

Through this extreme attention to the smallest sensory detail, the viewer is placed more intimately in the film, creating a viewing experience that isn’t just viewing: it’s everything at once, all the time. We’re put in an interesting position where we’re constantly in two positions at once, both outside the film following a narrative, but also inside that very narrative, drawn in by the system of sight, sound, and movement.

The final thing I’d like to mention is the use of motion and special effects, and the way they move outside the realm of verisimilitude—even the exaggerated reality of a martial arts film—and function as kinetic spectacle and art.  Martial arts films, in many ways, are about the motions of the body and the reality of the moves on display; think of Jackie Chan’s classic Police Movie films, where sometimes a particular stunt is literally replayed two or three times within the film (totally breaking the concept of narrative continuity and emphasizing that it’s a watched spectacle) so we can marvel at it over and over.  These movies are interested in portraying the reality of the stunts, and these actors and actresses pride themselves on performing the moves themselves.  (If you’re really interested, look for the tell-tale puff of dust or flour, to show when someone’s landed a punch/kick/hit.)  So the reality of moves is important in martial arts films.  But HOFD does something a little different, and instead uses self-consciously exaggerated choreography and effects to create an emotional tone and capture the spirit of the moves on display: it’s not about being strictly realistic, but about the feeling of the action.

For example: floating backward through the air, unrestricted by gravity?  Not technically possible.  But feeling like you’re flying through the air?  Very much part of our imaginative consciousnesses.

This happens a lot in the film; it’s like something you’d dream, or part of kid’s play-action.  Which adds, again, to the tenor of the scenes, and to the overall aesthetic: it’s mythological and meant to bend reality in beautiful ways.

And the attention to choreography and minute movement, the visual set-up of motion,  is perfect—just like a dance.

I’m not sure how much I can emphasize how beautiful this film is.  it has a clear aesthetic, gorgeous visual style, and if it bends into melodrama a little we can forgive it: it’s that pretty.  In fact, one of the major criticisms (originally from Ebert, I believe) is that the story is entirely incidental to the visual: that, like we discussed in the beginning of this very post, the style is more important and more developed than the content.  But I don’t think that’s necessarily a critique that should prevent anyone from watching this movie, since the content certainly isn’t uninteresting on its own; and if the visuals sometimes run away with themselves sometimes, who could blame them?

House of Flying Daggers is an amazing example of a film that takes itself seriously within a defined action genre and as art, drawing on history, literature, and cultural iconography / image systems to produce a visually stunning film.  It’s entertaining, tragic, and with a cast of veteran actors never seems to strain for what it ultimately achieves.  While you’re at it, check out Hero,  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonor South Korea’s  Duelist for other East Asian films that use style and content to create some highly satisfying visual feasts.

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