Sometime ago I wondered what low-wage workers in China must think as they sew together chintzy stuffed animals – the kind you spend ten dollars trying to win at a local carnival, though you know the toy itself cost less than two dollars to make. Do these workers dream of America as a wondrous place where you can have a decent paying job and share your bed with an oversized Sponge Bob Squarepants doll? Do they even know who Sponge Bob is?
Here in the states your average worker idea what the Tang Dynasty was or when it existed. Even the question of where might draw a blank stare or smart-assed comment about Tang being the drink of astronauts. The sheer lack of knowledge about Chinese history gives a film like House of Flying Daggers a blank slate. Knowing little myself, I cannot confirm or deny Yimou Zhang’s ability to accurately recreate the dying end of the Tang Dynasty. But, I am certain that it never looked as radiant as it does House of the Flying Daggers.
Drawing inspiration more from Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and less from his film Hero Yimou Zhang’s hangs most of House of Flying Daggers on a rather simple love story. The subject matter only feels complicated due to abrupt changes in direction and willful deceit, barring his constant need to pull the rug out from beneath you, Zhang’s story centers itself around two axes. First there is the broader issue of the government’s attempts to uncover and snuff out an organization of Robin Hood’s known as the House of Flying Daggers. On a more intimate level, but dominating the film’s emotional breadth is the relationship between the two police officers (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau) and a blind girl (Ziyi Zhang) with connections to the House of Flying Daggers. Using the girl as a trap hope to avoid her beauty and charm and use her as bait to help flush out the newest leader of this faction of dissidents.
Visually arresting, the films only technical fault is a crushing sound mix. Written off as a technique utilized to let the audience share in the blind heroine’s acute sense of hearing, this excuse does little to explain why the soundtrack sounded so much like a Chinese version of Stomp. I should say that the continual eruptions of gratuitous sound were further stressed by the theater’s need to blare everything they project. The bombastic volume levels of the film aside, this souffle of a story nearly falls under the grandiose mixture of dazzling decor and physics defying martial arts. Combining the fluff of a romance novel with the hard-hitting action sequences comic book, House of the Flying Daggers comes not as a framed masterpiece on a gallery wall, but is delivered like an exotic dessert cart. A sweet collection of goodies with offerings for both male and female, everything in House of Flying Daggers is too delectable to pass up. Yet, the empty calories and the heavy frosting leave you with a bit of a stomach ache. For those looking for something to do after dinner watching this film is the second best thing you and a date can do in the dark. However, if you are alone, with your brain and no hope of a good night kiss – or more – House of the Flying Daggers can be dangerous.
Most Americans will have no problem turning off their brains for a full two hours and gorging themselves on this well-crafted treat. I, on the other hand, had to continually re-engage my willing suspension of disbelief. Feeling as if I were being “Ambushed From Ten Directions” – the literal translation of the title – I left the theater with my head dizzy from over-stimulated from with a sensory sugar rush. What I had just seen was not an accurate representation of China, then or now. Just as a cheap stuffed animal does little to represent America, but with House of Flying Daggers being sent out as China’s choice for a 2004 Academy Award I suspect that what House of Flying Daggers really represents Yimou Zhang’s attempt to make a product for American consumption.