Alphabetical Movie – House of Flying Daggers
I know that it is unusual for me to spend an entire Alphabetical Movie blog entry talking about the movie that I watched, but I’m going to do it for House of Flying Daggers. Specifically, I’m going to write about one scene because I appreciate the cinematic language of that scene. If you, for some reason, care about spoilers for a film released in 2004, don’t go below the fold.
At the very end of the film, two men battle each other over a woman they both love. Because this is a film by Yimou Zhang, the visual setting is of the highest importance. Zhang never has characters fight in a location that lacks visual impact. In this case, they are fighting in a clearing surrounded by trees in brilliant fall colors.
As they fight, snow begins to fall. By the end of their battle, the ground is covered by a layer of snow that provides a stark contrast to the blood that is being spilled.
While the cinematography is beautiful, that isn’t what sticks with me about the scene. Zhang is a master of visual storytelling and the richness of his color palette will set even his most banal work apart from most other filmmakers.
In this case, what caught my attention was the way the two men’s swords were shown as being more and more chipped and damaged as the battle raged on. The snow wasn’t just falling as a visual effect. The snow was falling to provide us with the indication that this fight went on for a long time.
Zhang has elements of the mythic in most of his films and the idea of a fight that rages on for what we are allowed to imagine is somewhere between hours and weeks is the stuff of mythology. When we are watching wire-fu, we know that what the characters are doing is heightened physical reality.
Still, the idea of the epic battle pushes the characters further beyond that barrier of what humans are capable of and makes these two men a little more like gods. It defines them as legendary heroes who have powers far beyond mortal men. They are the Chinese equivalent of Hercules or Perseus and their conflict reflects the epic battle of Hector and Achilles in “The Illiad.”
If one ignores the fact that Hector spends most of that battle running away.
They aren’t just fighting. They are fighting without food, without water and whithout rest for a very long time. You can either view that as ridiculous or as a story that should be taken as myth rather than simple reality. I feel like Zhang goes to great lengths to visually convey the idea that this battle exists on a heightened plane of reality. Suspension of disbelief isn’t just expected, it is essential.
What has stuck with me for years is the damaged weapons. The beat up metal adds a savagery to the fight that you don’t usually see in a martial arts film. Fights are typically dances. They feel graceful and sometimes a little sanitized. The damage being done never seems completely real.
When I watched this fight the first time, my response was more visceral. Even though there was no blood, it really felt like these two guys wanted to kill each other and it lent considerable emotional weight to the scene. Zhang is very good at painting pretty pictures on film but he used some very nice visual touches to give the scene some additional impact.
I don’t think House of Flying Daggers is a perfect film but I do love the way it looks. The choices Zhang made in this particular scene are one of many reasons why.