Warriors Battle Lyrical In House of Flying Daggers

Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, from a screenplay by Mr. Zhang, Li Feng and Wang Bin, turns out to be a four-character epic set in A.D. 859-a time when the Tang Dynasty, one of the most enlightened in Chinese history, had gone into decline. With official corruption and popular unrest spreading throughout the land, revolutionary organizations began to form, the largest and most prestigious of which (at least in this film) was called the House of Flying Daggers.

The story concocted by Mr. Zhang and his collaborators begins with two Tang operatives, Leo (Andy Lau Tak Wah) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), being ordered to capture the new head of the House of Flying Daggers after the old one has been killed by the government. Leo has heard that one of the new dancers at the Peony Pavilion, a local brothel, is a member of the group, and he orders Jin to pose as a client and search her out. When Yee (Song Dandan), the madam at the brothel, presents Jin with the beautiful new dancer, Mei (Ziyi Zhang), Jin is surprised to learn she’s blind. As it turns out, none of these four characters is what he or she seems to be, and by the time all the deceptions and intrigues have been resolved almost two hours later, we’ll witness men kill and die for the love of a woman in a wu-xia Liebestod played out in the snows of the Ukraine.

Mr. Zhang burst onto the world-film scene in 1987 with Red Sorghum. His work quickly gained attention from critics, placing China’s film industry on the international map in much the same way that Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu drew attention to the Japanese film industry in the 50’s. Over the years, Mr. Zhang may have shifted his focus and genres, but one element has remained constant in his films-a contemplative passion for women, variously played by Asian beauties from Gong Li to Ziyi Zhang. In the process, the director has taken the martial-arts genre to its ultimate flowering: to ennoble women as full-fledged warriors capable of defending their own honor before deciding on the man they chose to love. No Hollywood romance, Western or thriller has managed to do this quite so masterfully, though Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill reflects an attempt to pay homage to the genre.

That House of Flying Daggers is also a singularly beautiful film is not in contention among its critics. However, some have argued that Mr. Zhang has sacrificed narrative and characterization to the point of almost abstract aesthetics. Certainly, the elaborate set pieces in the Peony Pavilion, where Mei dances up a storm, and in the bamboo forests, where soldiers seem to fly from tree to tree like monkeys and daggers and spears sail through the air like choreographed missiles, virtually demand a suspension of disbelief for the sake of magical enchantment. And yet the human scale of feelings remains intact. Hence, I agree with Mr. Zhang’s directorial statement: “Many directors have told similar stories but my concern is how people fall in love, and what we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of that love. At the end of the day, love is a triumph of the human spirit … ultimately, movies are about people, regardless of genre or style.”

As a devoted Zhang Yimou watcher for nearly two decades, I am happy to report that my doubts about the director over his seeming conformism in Hero have been erased by The House of Flying Daggers.

Bad Almodóvar

Pedro Amodóvar’s Bad Education, on the other hand, disappointed me after the artistic and emotional success of Talk to Her (2003). Here I seem to be at odds with most of my esteemed colleagues, who’ve hailed Bad Education as Mr. Almódovar’s best yet. I found the film devious and confused in its Pirandellian contrivances and shifts of identity.

That’s not to say that Mr. Almódovar’s lovingly informed cinephilia failed to amuse or charm; I haven’t encountered such cineastic exuberance since the early days of the nouvelle vague. But this is much the coldest and most judgmental of all his films as far as the characters are concerned, including an overdone transvestite, are played by the currently hot Gael García Bernal. I won’t go into the plot (or, rather, plots)-see for yourself and decide.

Credible Cartoon

I finally caught up with Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, which will probably gross more than all 10 of the films on my 10-best list this year. I must concede in advance that animation doesn’t go very far with me, however amusing or even insightful it may be, but I was a little curious to see The Incredibles for its alleged red-state tendencies (especially its critique of progressively “egalitarian” rewards for mediocrity in education, rendered here as the Superhero Protection Program), and for the disgruntled fans evolving into monstrously envious superhero understudies à la Eve Harrington in All About Eve.

I certainly enjoyed the expert voices supplied by, among others, Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson and Wallace Shawn. In fact, the often wry and pointed dialogue reminded me of the glory days of radio. But unlike some commentators, I didn’t get the feeling that this was meant more for adults than for children, though Mr. Bird, both as the writer and as the voice of transvestite Edna E. Mode, seems possessed of an impish, retro-metro-postmodern worldview that is a pleasingly nuanced addition to this genre.

Noir Nights, Continued

The “Essential Noir” series of 40’s and 50’s American film classics concludes on several high notes, making it the bonanza bargain of the holiday season.

Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), from a screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Martin Milner, Susan Harrison, Sam Levene, Barbara Nichols, Emile Meyer and Jeff Donnell, is perhaps the shrewdest, wittiest and most cynical cinematic excursion into New York’s pub-crawling P.R. hacks of the 50’s. It centers on Walter Winchell–like gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (played by Lancaster) and his symbiotic relationship with reptilian press agent Sidney Falco (a stand-out characterization by up-to-then much-ridiculed pretty boy Curtis). One of the best lines of the movie: crooked cop Meyer yelling after Curtis, “Come back, Sidney, I want to chastise you!”

Also on the bill is Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), which launched Janet Leigh on a traumatic tour of motels that was to culminate two years later with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Evil stars Welles, Charlton Heston, Joseph Calleia (in the performance of his career), Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Ray Collins and Dennis Weaver (Friday and Saturday, Dec. 17 and 18).

Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), from a screenplay by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville, based on a story by Gordon McDonell, with Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Macdonald Carey, Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Wallace Ford and Hume Croynyn, is one of the three greatest Hitchcock films, along with Vertigo (1958) and Notorious (1946). A favorite uncle comes to town, and his favorite niece discovers his murderous secret-but she’s the kind of nice girl who can’t tell anyone because it would kill her mother. Then the uncle decides that he has to dispose of her, and the suspense arises from the niece’s classically Hitchcockian dilemma of how to save her own life without hurting her mother’s feelings. The various subplots involve, among other things, the heroine’s romance with a detective and a running gag involving her father and a middle-aged neighbor (who lives with a mother we never see, but who resonates as a Hitchcockian skeleton in the closet), with the two men debating how to commit a perfect murder while a real killer is loose among them.

François Truffaut suggested a doubling pattern at work here: the uncle and niece are both named Charlie, and there are two sets of detectives, two suspected “Merry Widow” killers (one in the East and one in the West), two attempted murders, two scenes at the dinner table, two scenes outside the church, etc. In addition, the first shot of Uncle Charlie shows him on a bed in a New York City rooming house, his head on the right side of the screen and his feet on the left, while our first glimpse of little Charlie shows her on her bed in Santa Rosa, Calif., her head on the left side of the screen and her feet on the right, as if she were a mirror image in malaise to her uncle.

As the film progresses, the doppelgänger or doubling effect takes on interestingly perverse overtones in the sexual tensions between uncle and niece. Indeed, little Charlie’s behavior is not entirely plausible without a certain degree of voluptuous complicity in her fate. That a nice girl, however erotically presented, might be attracted to danger and evil is not such a peculiarly Hitchcockian conceit.

Also on the bill is Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb and Dickie Moore, from a screenplay by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring), based on his novel Build My Gallows High. A sense of doom pervades this brilliant melodrama, in which private detective Mitchum is hired by mobster Douglas to bring back mob moll Greer. Mitchum falls in love with Greer instead, and eventually all hell breaks loose. Lyrical moments of deep passion interspersed with treachery and betrayal are endemic to the milieu. One of the all-time sleepers and cult favorites (Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 19 and 20).

Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), from a screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, based on the novel by Mickey Spillane, finds the director and the writer combining to subvert the crypto-fascist Spillane’s pulp detective-sadist, Mike Hammer, by making him an unwitting tool of a sinister nuclear conspiracy in this first cinematic salvo against the Bomb and its ultimate role as the Earth’s exterminator. In addition to the ultra-literate script and a very underrated performance by Ralph Meeker as Hammer, the film features Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Cloris Leachman, Jack Elam and Strother Martin.

Also on the bill is Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. A tennis star (Farley Granger) encounters a psychotic fan (Robert Walker) who suggests that they swap murders to rid themselves of undesirable family members: Granger’s sluttish wife stands in the way of his marrying a U.S. Senator’s daughter, while Walker wants to be rid of his father, who disapproves of his son’s eccentric behavior. Granger thinks Walker is kidding, but he isn’t-and when Granger’s wife is murdered, he becomes the prime suspect. One of Hitch’s most popular films (Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 21 and 22).

Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950), from a screenplay by Jo Eisinger, based on the novel by Gerald Kersh, with Richard Widmark, Francis L. Sullivan, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Hugh Marlowe and Herbert Lom, is the most nocturnal of all the noir classics in the series, tracking Widmark’s American hustler as he runs down London streets and across London bridges to escape the consequences of his shifty deals as a wrestling promoter. Max Greene’s cinematographic rendering of London at night is visually eloquent in its own right.

Also on the bill is Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway (1949), from a screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides based on his novel Thieves’ Market, with Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Oakie and Hope Emerson. This is a lively, ethnically driven melodrama with rising Italian-American lead Richard Conte igniting a flaming revenge plot (Thursday, Dec. 23).

Warriors Battle Lyrical In House of Flying Daggers