House of Flying Daggers ★★★★

Wife: Why are you watching House of Flying Daggers again?

Me: It's been awhile since I've seen it. I've watched a lot of martial arts and Hong Kong movies in the last couple of years and I'm curious how it holds up.

Wife: How is it?

Me: Kinda weird. It's so ornate, rococo in costumes and sets and plot and everything. So pretty, but it feels like there's something missing. The plot is so ridiculously convoluted and hard to follow: everyone is lying to everyone else all the time so no one's motivations are ever really clear and even the ostensible conflict of the film, the fight between the rebellious Flying Daggers movement and their Tang Dynasty rulers, is totally abandoned and left unresolved in favor of the love triangle, which is acted with great slow-motion melodrama but doesn't ever feel natural.
It's almost that it looks too good, but that's not really fair. It isn't as if the great martial arts directors of the past wouldn't have made something this elaborately gorgeous if they were given the chance. Shaw Brothers directors like Chor Yuen or Li Han-hsiang and even King Hu would have made films every bit as self-consciously decorous as Zhang Yimou did.
But I think they would have done something else too. Added a layer of depth or perversion or a grasp at transcendence or for God's sake humor to it all. This is the only martial arts film I can think of that doesn't even mention religion or spirituality or philosophy or folk custom or anything. It takes place in an ideological no man's land between actual Chinese cultural and cinematic tradition and some kind of bland international humanist cinema. Zhang's films, and not just his 21st Century wuxia films like Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower, but all those 90s films with Gong Li that made him an art house superstar in the US have kind of this same problem: they look great, but aren't particularly filling, they're either too simplistic or too calculated to be truly moving.

Wife: I like pretty.

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