I have to admit that when I first saw House of Flying Daggers, I felt somewhat ambivalent about it. I had somewhat decent expectations for the film since it was a Zhang Yimou film, the man who brought us Hero, and had a solid enough cast of Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi. Yet, while the performances were strong and set pieces impressive, the story was lacking and a great deal of the fighting lacked a certain energy about them that left them feeling too contrived and gimmicky.
Revisiting it, this time on the larger screen and with decent sound, I have to admit I enjoyed it much more. For a start my expectations were non-existant, being a second viewing, sufficient for me to enjoy the film and not be overly demanding. Besides which, the larger screen is where the Zhang Yimou’s direction really shines. He has a very visual style which captures the majesty of a landscape such that there is a sense of loss at merely viewing it and not experiencing it. Despite the lack of Mister Doyle’s name within the film credits, the lighting and colour are still a wonder to behold.
What seems lacking, however, is Master Zhang’s storytelling ability. There is a distinct lack of pacing in House of Flying Daggers that causes it to seriously sag in the middle. This weakness draws extra attention to how ‘clever’ some of the fights are, instead of allowing us to decide whether the scenes are actually any good. There is no doubt that some of the scenes are quite clever however – in fact I thought the sound in the conflict within the bamboo forest much more interesting than the visuals for the scene. Zhang Ziyi (or her double) performs her acrobatics with the level of finesse we’re quite used to seeing. Kaneshiro and Andy tend to be much more grounded in their fighting, so somewhat less flashy.
Despite that middle lull, when the plot starts to kick in, the movie is really quite strong. Thematically it almost serves as counterpoint to Hero and is perhaps more closely aligned to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It just really is a shame that it takes such an arduous time to get to that point. There is even a flatness in plot development following the introduction of all the core characters that could be a reaction to the film’s weakness but is more likely a symptom.
House of Flying Daggers is still a strong film and quite a joy upon the eyes. The film’s strengths lie in the fact it is quite cerebral and emotive. The moments which needed to be more exciting and active are however quite mediocre with only one standout action sequence near the begining. It seems the day of the insane actioner has passed mainstream independent cinema by — but then that is their loss.