Sunday, April 02, 2006

Looking daggers

Having rented the much-acclaimed House of Flying Daggers last night, I almost switched off in disgust when I realised that it was dubbed into sort of Oriental American accents instead of Mandarin with subtitles -- and in a lousy 4:3 format to boot, the local distributor being wont to use the videotape master because of occasional release date anomalies (what is the point of pretending there are still inviolate zones?). But this was soon forgotten as I was drenched in the first lush and extravagant setpiece in the Peony Pavilion knocking shop. The sets are a sumptuous example of Chinese design aesthetic in full flower. And the dance sequence with its electrifying wraparound drum notes is easily the most breathtaking piece of choreography I have ever seen on a small screen (a rather big small screen in my house). I didn't think this could be bettered, only to be knocked about by the fight in the bamboo forest, a scene entirely in shades of green apart from the faces. Again, this is heightened by spectacular sonic effects, placing the viewer amid cracking and splintering bamboo, lashing foliage and zipping knives.

The fights outdo those in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in every respect: the editing is almost symphonic, the movement whirling, balletic, with close-ups of slow-motion savagery. The love story that propels the plot is sweet and sad. Every movement and gesture of the thwarted and feuding lovers is delicate, affecting and beautifully paced. The final duel and denouement rage through a change of seasons, autumn trees becoming fountains of white, heavy-boughed with falling, swirling snow that finally whites out the screen and its two main protagonists.

Zhang Yimou's direction is masterly. There are no gimmicks. Cuts between scenes are formal and clean. Curiously, a Japanese actor was chosen to play the romantic lead; the same kind of cultural blurring which had a Chinese actress playing the lead in Memoirs of a Geisha. Ziyi Zhang, as the rebel girl Mai, has a luminous presence. Her face conveys much with the subtlest movements, a slow raising of the eyes, a parting of the lips. In contrast, her body is lithe and mobile as a cat's, blurring through the fight scenes, and she seems to do a lot of the work herself. A considerable performance.

I guess it's obvious I loved this movie. Now for the proper widescreen collector's edition with subtitled Mandarin.


Blogger Wyndham said...

The movie is absolutely wonderful to look at but the narrative is banal and trite. Try writing that plot in a Western setting and you'd be laughed off the block.Ah well, can't have everything, I guess.

11:44 AM  
Blogger DavetheF said...

Sure, but I don't enjoy opera for the words either -- or the plots!
Surrender to the action, I say.

1:54 PM  

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