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Variety review of Zhang Yimou's House of Daggers

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Variety review of Zhang Yimou's House of Daggers

Old 05-19-04, 01:18 PM
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Variety review of Zhang Yimou's House of Daggers

In his second trip to the martial arts well after his landmark "Hero," mainland Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou draws different water with the same bucket in "House of Flying Daggers," a more crowd-pleasing but less abstract dip into the genre directed with equal calculation. The tangled tale of love and disguise is awesome in its action sequences but doesn't touch the heart to the same degree, making pic of broader appeal than "Hero" but unlikely to be a second "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," at least in Western markets. Set to open in China this summer, with a Beijing premiere July 16, film goes out Stateside through Sony Pictures Classics.


Zhang is on record as saying that "'Hero' was an experiment, 'House of Flying Daggers' is the real thing," which pretty much sums up the difference between the two movies. The comparison won't mean much for some Western viewers -- Miramax has yet to release "Hero" (2002) in the U.S. 18 months after its Asian preem -- but it's a valid one.


Set in A.D. 859, when the once-prosperous Tang dynasty was torn by unrest, film gets straight down to business, with a tiny cast of three main characters and no huge sets or thousands of extras. Two police captains, Leo (Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau (news)) and Jin (Japanese-Taiwanese hunk Takeshi Kaneshiro (news)), have been assigned to pry out the leader of the Flying Daggers, the most prominent of the anti-government rebel groups. Acting on a tip, Jin goes undercover to Peony Pavilion, a house of pleasure where a suspect is meant to be working.


Posing as "Wind," a young libertine, Jin asks the owner, Madam Yee (Song Dandan), to bring on her newest girl, a blind dancer called Mei (Zhang Ziyi). In the first of the film's many set pieces, and with an almost Bollywood-style visual richness, Mei entertains him with a number performed to a female orchestra of pipa players, after which Jin attempts to publicly rape her.


Mei's honor is saved by Leo, who shows up as if on cue and berates his colleague for ungentlemanly behavior. After Jin has been hauled away to sober up, Leo takes his place at the table of honor and -- in a classic test of mutual skills, as well as her claim to blindness -- challenges Mei to the Echo Game. This involves Leo bouncing a bean off a circle of drums and Mei identifying the drums with the flowing sleeves of her garment in an improvised dance number.


This is classic martial arts stuff, as protagonists size up each other at an early stage, but Zhang stages the confrontation in a much more aestheticized way -- through music, dance, color and design -- than is usual. Though Mei proves his match even when he tries a final trick with the beans, Leo bests her in a subsequent encounter, through sensory overload.


With Mei under lock and key, and told she'll be tortured to reveal info, Leo and Jin cook up a scheme to get her to lead them to the head of the group unawares. Posing as a sympathizer to her cause, Jin busts Mei out of prison, wins her trust and accompanies her on a journey through forests and landscapes to the Flying Daggers' headquarters, secretly followed by Leo and his men. En route, however, Jin and Mei start falling for each other.


Zhang has described the picture as "not an ordinary martial arts film, but a love story inserted into an action movie." (In Japan, the film is to released under the English title "Lovers.") That will broaden its appeal to distaff audiences, especially given Lau and Kaneshiro's large following in Asia. But for a director who's shown he's more than capable of tugging the heartstrings ("The Road Home," "Not One Less," "Happy Times") "Daggers" never really engages at an emotional level.


Like "Hero," the pic has a basic hardness and rigor that marks it as northern rather than southern Chinese in flavor, however much the colorful lensing by Zhao Xiaoding ("Spring Subway," plus an assistant d.p. to Christopher Doyle on "Hero") and the lyrical score by onetime Japanese rock musician Shigeru Umebayashi ("In the Mood for Love") tries to convince otherwise. Dialogue between the characters is also functional rather than inspired.


The action set pieces really are the core of "Daggers," and these hit the mark with eye-popping accuracy and sonic elan. From Mei's musical gymnastics in the Echo Game, to a balletic bamboo-forest fight that tops that in "Crouching Tiger" and equals the classic sequence in King Hu's "A Touch of Zen," to the heroes' final mano a mano in the snow, Hong Kong action maestro (Tony) Ching Siu-tung pushes the envelope in the combination of wire-fu and CGI, to much more gutsy and realistic effect than in "Hero."


Putting her dance training to supple use, Zhang more than earns her stripes as a full action heroine after her relatively small role in "Hero."


Kaneshiro cuts a dashing figure as the easygoing Jin and fills the role with proper physical presence. Of the three leads, the least convincing is Lau, who's always been more at home in contemporary pics than in costume dramas -- though he's come a ways as an actor in recent years, especially in the recent "Infernal Affairs" trilogy.


In a first for a swordplay movie, a sizable chunk of the pic was shot in a pine forest near Lviv, in Ukraine, whose soft pastels and New England-like fall colors contrast memorably with the green-suffused tones of the bamboo forest, lensed in Yongchuan, southwest China. Studio interiors, in Beijing, are smaller in scale than in "Hero," with only one standout, the ornately colored, circular Peony Pavilion set. Other credits are top drawer, especially costumes by Emi Wada (another "Hero" returnee), whose use of fabrics and leather has an almost tactile flavor.


For the record, the Chinese title literally means "Ambushes From Ten Sides," title of a classic pipa virtuoso solo, which describes a battle between two ancient warlords. Here, it reflects the continual skirmishing through which the two lovers travel -- an action journey that's the real heart of the movie.



Pic is dedicated to the memory of actress-singer Anita Mui, who was to have had a role in the film, but died of cancer at the end of last year.

Camera (color, widescreen), Zhao Xiaoding; editor, Cheng Long; music, Shigeru Umebayashi; theme song ("Lovers") sung by Kathleen Battle; production designer, Huo Tingxiao; supervising art director, Han Zhong; costume designer, Emi Wada; sound (Dolby Digital), Tao Jing; action director, Tony Ching Siu-tung; martial arts co-ordinator, Li Cai; dance choreographer, Zhang Jianmin; visual effects, Animal Logic Film, Digital Pictures Iloura, Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design; associate producer, Zhang Zhenyan. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (news - web sites) (non-competing), May 17, 2004. Running time: 119 MIN. (Mandarin dialogue)

--

A Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.) release of an Elite Group (2003) Enterprises presentation of an Edko Films (H.K.)/Zhang Yimou Studio (China) production, in association with Beijing New Picture Film Co., China Film Coproduction Corp. (International sales: Focus Features, New York.)

Produced by Bill Kong, Zhang Yimou. Executive producer, Zhang Weiping. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Screenplay, Li Feng, Zhang, Wang Bin; story, Zhang, Li, Wang.
Old 05-19-04, 01:34 PM
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I can never tell if Variety reviews are fresh or rotten, this one seemed mixed with a nudge toward the fresh.

Pardon the terminology, damn you rottentomatoes.
Old 05-19-04, 01:42 PM
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I know what you mean.

My opinion of the review is that the film is more than competent in its production but doesn't live up to the heart and emotion of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

It did mention that "House of Flying Daggers" is better than "Hero"....I think that says a lot.
Old 05-19-04, 01:46 PM
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Originally posted by Cardiac161
I know what you mean.

My opinion of the review is that the film is more than competent in its production but doesn't live up to the heart and emotion of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

It did mention that "House of Flying Daggers" is better than "Hero"....I think that says a lot.
I dunno if it so much as says it's "better" as just Hero was the more experimental (which can be a good thing) and House of Flying Daggers a bit more on the hollywood/"mainstream" side of things. But yeah I caught the heart/emotion of CTHD bit (I'm one of the seemingly few that loved CT,HD). House of Flying Daggers looks great to me and the teaser/trailer was quite cool, so I'm pretty psyched either way.

Out of curiosity though, any clue what the budget was for this? I remember CT,HD had a "massive" budget of $15m a few years ago and Hero apparently went above and beyond that.
Old 05-19-04, 02:34 PM
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Never base your opinion on one source...and this is especially true when it comes to Variety's reviews. In fact, the critics seem to really like HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS by Zhang Yimou.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmp...annes_china_dc

CANNES, France (Reuters) - Celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou dazzled Cannes on Wednesday with a spectacular martial arts epic that could match the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

The eye-popping fight sequences in "House of Flying Daggers," including one set in a bamboo forest, were greeted with gasps of astonishment and spontaneous applause by critics at the renowned movie showcase.


http://www.thehollywoodreporter.com/..._id=1000496934

Now that he feels comfortable with "wuxia," or martial-arts movies, following "Hero" -- his first foray into the genre, which Miramax has yet to release in North America -- Chinese master Zhang Yimou creates a gem in "House of Flying Daggers."

While the action sequences are right up there with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Zhang uses the genre to relate a touching and tragic tale about star-crossed lovers caught up with forces that threaten to overwhelm them. Filming with an international cast in China and the Ukraine, the director lets the action unfold amid landscapes so beautiful they feel like paintings.

The film is certain to be a worldwide hit, but whether it will approach the boxoffice figures of the "Crouching Tiger" phenomenon is an open question. Certainly, Western audiences hungering for more have a great meal headed their way. Sony Pictures Classics has domestic rights.
Old 05-19-04, 04:41 PM
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Sounds and looks great. Counting down the days until I can see this (either the Chinese DVD release or US theatrical release, whichever comes first)
Old 05-19-04, 09:45 PM
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This will be great. DEFINITELY.
Old 05-19-04, 11:19 PM
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I've heard a lot of good things about this movie. I can't wait to see it.
Old 05-19-04, 11:25 PM
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I personally didn't like Hero as much as many people did, but if indeed Yimou is now comfortable with the Wuxia genre, this is the movie to watch!

once a director (or any person for that matter) gets comfortable with a genre, they tend to get better. Confidence can really make a big difference.

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Old 05-20-04, 01:37 AM
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Variety reviews are not so much reviews as they are "pre-mortem" examinations.
They are designed to tell its Entertainment Industry audience what MIGHT happen upon release.
Remember this the next time your read a review from Variety.
Old 05-20-04, 06:48 AM
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What? This film WILL NOT be "Presented" by Miramaxe and Tarentino?

I am MAD! [sarcastic]

Last edited by ftsoh; 05-20-04 at 06:53 AM.
Old 05-20-04, 12:37 PM
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Yah, Ebert added his comment on this, stating that it was an excellent example of the genre, but still a genre flick. Good with good visuals but nothing new with the exception of the bamboo fight.

He also beat down on Old Boy a bit, but that was expected.
Old 05-20-04, 01:12 PM
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Sounds great. Let's hope it doesn't take 2 years to get shown in the US. I love Hero, so if Daggers is the "real thing" I'll be crying tears of joy like a little bitch.

That Variety review is exactly the type of review I hate. They pretty much summarized the entire film. I had to force myself to stop reading it because of all the plot points it was giving away. I skimmed through trying to read just the parts that didn't talk about the plot.

Great to see Ziyi is in this flick also.
Old 05-20-04, 05:08 PM
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Does the movie have a US distributor yet? Anybody know.

I know for sure it won't be Miramax after what they did to "Hero".
Old 05-20-04, 06:15 PM
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LorenzoL,

It has already been confirmed that Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing this in the US, the same company that distributed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I am so happy and relieved that it was Sony who picked this up. They know how to market a movie like this without chopping the film into pieces, or dubbing it, or changing the soundtrack.

You guys might want to check out MonkeyPeaches website. They have a link that shows clips from the premiere of the film at Cannes, numerous interviews and a scene from the movie itself.

Zhang Zi-Yi is just ravishing!!!
Old 05-20-04, 06:18 PM
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Yes, I was very relieved to see Sony getting this instead of Miramax. Monkeypeaches has extensive coverage of the film. Great site.
Old 05-20-04, 06:21 PM
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Any movie Miramax DOESN'T get is a relief to me, they screw up so much.
Old 05-21-04, 12:07 PM
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Originally posted by Cardiac161
LorenzoL,

It has already been confirmed that Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing this in the US, the same company that distributed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I am so happy and relieved that it was Sony who picked this up. They know how to market a movie like this without chopping the film into pieces, or dubbing it, or changing the soundtrack.

You guys might want to check out MonkeyPeaches website. They have a link that shows clips from the premiere of the film at Cannes, numerous interviews and a scene from the movie itself.

Zhang Zi-Yi is just ravishing!!!
Thanks for the news.

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