Zhang Yimou’s latest film, House of Flying Daggers is still at select New York metro area theaters. Not without its definitively campy moments, the director’s painterly composition slips from one scene to the next with colors so saturated even the pirate-dvd looks hot, while Takeshi Kanehiro is a beautiful boy and starlet Zhang Ziyi’s willowy figure has prompted the New York Times to breathlessly declare current Chinese film the new orientation of glamour (the original article, written by Manohla Dargis, had a front page spread in the December 5, 2004, Arts and Leisure section but is now inaccessibly archived. Check out the IHT text).
The movie is set in 859 ce amidst the chaos of the latter Tang Dynasty (roughly 618 – 907 ce), an era that has proved an endless repository for the Sinophile (including Japanese and perhaps also Korean literati) imagination ever since its ultimate collapse. The dynasty was brilliance at its most desirable: full of insane elixir quaffing emperors, court intrigue, westward expansion campaigns, Silk Road cosmopolitan decadence, and perhaps one of the most lyricized socio-political apocalypses in world history. The Tang Dynasty poets were the most poetic, the heroines the most heroin, and everyone immortal. So it’s great to see that brought to cinema in loving, precise detail and extravagance. An entire multi-story bordello recreated complete with painted floors and an entire drum brigade deserves major respect and Zhang Ziyi’s dancing is perfected by the most exacting placement of hand to cheek, pinky finger extended just so to set lordly wags twisting in their tombs.
The question of course, after all this beauty-incited longing, is: Zhang Yimou has always been accused of being an Oriental’s Orientalist, making lavishly indigenous films for Western (festival circuit) consumption, what? Stop hating. My own opinion is that if anything, House of Flying Daggers, with its lacquered storyline and forced intrigue, represents a director indulging in a reckless visual excess that transcends criticality. Best to catch it while still in on the big screen.