House Of Flying Daggers/The Return

In the past two weeks I’ve seen one excellent film, one fairly good film, and one godawful film, and as usual, it’s the godawful film which inspires a blog entry.

Once you accept that House Of Flying Daggers is ridiculous, badly scripted, and incredibly self-indulgent, it’s actually a lot of fun. Perhaps if I’d taken this approach to Crouching Tiger (equally godawful) I’d have gotten more enjoyment from it.

Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character is basically Legolas, except for the black hair and lack of pointy ears. Zhang Zhiyi is Zhang Zhiyi, ’nuff said. Andy Lau is annoying and ugly, but that predates the movie.

Of course, the cinematography’s pretty enough. Lots of panoramic sweeps of landscape to the soundtrack of a gently weeping erhu. People flying, daggers which dodge and swoop like smart missiles, bamboo groves getting hacked to bits – all the usual wuxia suspects. What’s not to like?

Everyone kept bursting into laughter at bits of the movie which were meant to be dramatic, which was a nice change from when I was the only one cringing at Crouching Tiger in the Curzon Soho. An especially hilarious snippet of dialogue was at the climactic showdown between the two male protagonists:

Leo (Andy Lau): It is not I that have killed her! YOU have killed her!
Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), looking incredulously at Zhang Zhiyi lying in the snow with the dagger in her chest which was thrown by Leo: Me??!!
Leo: YES! Because she has betrayed me for you, you have FORCED me to kill her! You must die! (Gimlet glare)
Jin: No. Because YOU have killed her, YOU must die! (Gimlet glare)
Both men, simultaneously, while rushing towards each other with swords brandished: AAAAAAAAAAAAARHHHHHH!!!

In contrast, The Return had no screen idols, no famous director (it was Andrei Zvyagintsev’s first film, to which I can only say HOLY SHIT he’s masterful), and no big budget, but it was one of the most exquisite movie experiences I’ve had lately.

In the same way that every scene in The Girl With The Pearl Earring was like a painting, every scene in this movie was like a photograph. I lost count of the number of scenes I wished I could have stills for, the number of times soundtrack and scene combined to stunning effect.

The actors (adult and children alike) took a screenplay that had already breathed depth and subtlety into their characters, and gave it wings. Not understanding Russian, I obviously couldn’t spot dumb dialogue here the way I could for House Of Flying Daggers, but I have a hunch there were no similar transgressions.

No one could call it a fast-moving film, but I was putty in its hands. As the movie progressed, I was alternately intrigued, tense, and ultimately very sad, but I was always riveted. I know next to nothing about Russian cinema, but I’m keeping my eye on this director from now on, and I’ll go to considerable lengths to watch anything he makes in future. You should too.

[I’ve talked about the “godawful” film and the “excellent” film, but I won’t bother with the “fairly good” film because that was Fahrenheit 9/11 and I’m feeling too lazy to bother with the rigour that its subject-matter would deserve in a review.]


  1. I can’t believe you ‘cringed’ at Crouching Tiger, I thought it was brilliant for the most part.

    Or maybe the question should be framed as: have you ever seen a Chinese period / historical movie that you’ve liked?

  2. have you ever seen a Chinese period / historical movie that you’ve liked?

    Erm, House Of Flying Daggers? Didn’t you read the post? I thought Once Upon A Time In China was good fun too. And of course, I mustn’t leave out all those childhood soap operas!

    I can’t believe you ‘cringed’ at Crouching Tiger, I thought it was brilliant for the most part.

    Well, I’m glad for you then. The only people I’ve met so far who actually thought Crouching Tiger was brilliant are either white or don’t understand Chinese, but maybe that’s just my personal experience.

  3. i thought some bits were pretty, but the rest pretty much befuddled me. eventually the dominant impression i got was extreme irritation with Zhang Ziyi.

  4. Oh don’t get me started on Hidden…Crouching. I thought it was silly. Then I went to America and everyone thought it was the greatest movie ever. *phht*

  5. Erm, I don’t think ridiculing a film counts as liking it.

    Crouching Tiger was a solid wuxia piece, with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ type human interest elements blended in (Lee Ang directed, after all).

    And I think you were SUPPOSED to be extremely irritated with Zhang Ziyi, that was the point. She was representative of the spoilt rich girl who didn’t care who she hurt as long as she got what she wanted, and as long as she got on happily with her self-indulgent angst…

  6. May Ling, I ridicule lots of things I like, including myself. It’s called not taking things too seriously. I highly doubt Zhang Yimou is hiding in his room crying because of my comments.

    If I didn’t make myself clear enough in my post, let me do so now: I enjoyed House Of Flying Daggers immensely, because it made me laugh a lot. I daresay all the other people chuckling in the cinema must have enjoyed it for the same reason.

  7. i know i’m too late and slightly off topic (just for the record i really liked tiger/dragon and went oohhh and aaaahhhh at all the correct moments and laughed a bit also)

    i think the girl with the pearl earing is great, Michelle you are so right about the music and the lighting and contrasts, i spent ages just looking at the menu screen on the DvD and listening to that music, sure, they really filleted the story, but what was left were the choicest pieces and they are delicious.

  8. Crouching Tiger had one thing [and yes, that would be one] other than beauty that I liked about it, and that was that I understood every word of Chinese spoken [although even **I** was confused by Michelle Yeoh’s accent]. This is not a good thing for anyone but me, given that I consistently flunked Chinese after I turned nine.

  9. Crouching Tiger was inspiring in that regard, though. It made me believe for a moment that if this law thing didn’t work out for me, a successful future in writing Chinese screenplays was still not out of the question, despite my C5 and general ineptitude in the Chinese language.

    And don’t even get me started on Michelle Yeoh’s Chinese. People are perennially amused by Kevin Costner as Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves. Listening to Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger was like watching Robin Hood dubbed by Balky from Perfect Strangers.

  10. Michelle,

    I remember you saying that Michelle Yeoh’s Chinese was like someone speaking in received pronounciation.

    I, being white and not able to understand Chinese :-), like the film since I haven’t seen anything like it before. I like it enough to buy it on DVD. What I like is the flying and fight sequences. Yes, it’s not perfect since there are scenes when they noticeably speed up the frame rate.

    I remember you telling me that flying is commonplace in Chinese martial arts films. I guess, if I started watching more Chinese martial arts films and saw everybodying doing the same things in Falling Hippo, Laughing Baboon then I’d probably grow less fond of it…

  11. Russ: I think I was probably trying to say it was like someone speaking Chinese with a RP English accent! (Although I don’t think that is quite accurate either. I certainly remember struggling at the time to put into words what my problem with her speech was, and finding it quite difficult to explain in a way a non-Chinese speaker would understand.)

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