Zhang Yimou's decision to move into action pictures raised some eyebrows. Snootier observers will often do this Mr. Spock Shuffle when confronted by a much-acclaimed director of "arty" pictures deciding to go pop on them. Such directors, reads the Gospel of the Pretentious, debase themselves by making films for the unwashed masses; they cast aside their souls for a paycheck. No one likes a sell-out, not even me. I just don't have much use for the excruciatingly narrow definition of "serious" cinema on which this particular breed of judgment is founded or of the elitist pretensions of those who offer it. Show me someone who thinks art and popular motion pictures are inherently at odds and I'll show you an obtuse chauvinist who hates Cinema. As it turned out, Zhang did pretty damn well with his first foray into genre. HERO was a damn fine movie. Significantly less fine, however, was his follow-up, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, which did, indeed, play to the prejudices of those eyebrow-raisers. My remarks on it, composed in the immediate aftermath of my viewing of it:
April 20, 2005
What if we had images Salvador Dali may have doodled in his spare time? Not when he was busy creating some masterwork or other, but at more mundane moments like when he was vegging out, maybe laying in some hammock popping grapes or sitting on the toilet. Maybe those doodles would be interesting. No one would ever confuse them with masterpieces. They're just things that offer some glimpse into the mind of the artist at some random moment when he was working an idea, goofing off or or just wasn't terribly concerned with creating art.
They'd probably look something like HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.
I went into this one cold, having seen nothing from it and knowing nothing of its story. With Zhang Yimou behind the camera, I suppose I'd have had a right to some high expectations. A few of his films have been real classics; HERO (2002), his previous foray into wuxia, was one of the best films of the previous year. I was terribly curious to see HOFD.
I just finished it.
And it ain't good.
HOFD is difficult to simply dismiss outright as a "bad" movie only because Zhang Yimou is a master craftsman who is clearly present in the work. Sort of like the Dali doodles. While calling it "bad" poses some difficulties, it would be hard to understate the case for its "ain't-good"ness; for a film about which I knew literally nothing going in, I haven't been this let down in a very long time.
First and foremost--and this represents a major break by Zhang with his previous work--the film isn't about anything. Whereas HERO was, to paraphrase one of reviewer, "exploring a profound theme in a very ambitious way," HOFD is a lot of sound and fury (and vibrant colors), signifying nothing. There are no underlying themes, grand or modest, to be found anywhere in its two hours. It's barely more than a series of random scenes thrown together. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. There have been good, even great, movies made up of such scenes but not when they're as frequently tedious as in HOFD, or when, as in HOFD, they make such a show of being ambitious in this department then don't deliver anything. About an hour into the film, you get a "big reveal." Most movie goers will, I suspect, have seen it coming from only minutes into the film--I certainly did--but when it finally arrives, you think you're about to see a major theme emerge having to do with identity. Everything has been heavy-handedly pointing toward it for a while. Unfortunately, it's dropped, immediately and permanently, and a cloying soap opera introduced, which is allowed to consume the rest of the film.
And it isn't even a good soap. To be effective, a soap must be emotionally engaging on at least some level. The best wuxia is great at this. HOFD goes out of its way to be exactly the opposite. The structure of the film denies the viewer even the most basic knowledge necessary to have any feelings at all for the characters. Everyone is lying about who they are for most of the movie and when this is revealed, the viewer is never offered anything to fall back on. You don't know who they are and can't feel any sympathy for them. Their very bad behavior, after the "big reveal," makes this even worse--by then, you're actively disliking them and before the movie is over, you just wish everyone would die. Further crippling this entire stretch of film is the Spielbergian structure adopted by the director which is constantly telling the viewer he's supposed to care about them.
Then there are the set-pieces. HERO was packed to the gills with fantastic set-pieces; during its running time, you were faced, on perhaps dozens of occasions, with astonishingly original and beautiful images which floated around in your mind long after the movie was over. HOFD has much more action than HERO--there seems to be an action sequence every three minutes or so--but it doesn't manage a single such image. Not one. The action sequences, in fact, were, almost without exception, blandly choreographed exercises in unbearable tedium. More than once during HOFD many dull donnybrooks, my finger crept toward the fast-forward button and at two different points, I was unable to resist the temptation. In HERO, the fights were highly stylized; lots of wirework, emotion, close-ups. It wasn't supposed to be "realistic." It was like a cinematic adaptation of a feeling. It was like a dance. It was like an opera. Beautiful wuxia. In HOFD, it's like a really silly cartoon, full of awful, awful, awful CGI-"artist" masturbation of the kind that have rendered Hollywood's "summer blockbusters" unwatchable. Every battle in HOFD sees scores of badly-computer-generated arrows, swords and daggers cut around corners, and bounce off targets only to reset themselves in midair and try again. They behave in more ridiculous fashion than the JFK "magic bullet", and the movie exploits every visual cliché in the book in displaying them--for what seems like hundreds of times, you get the standard traveling shot following a CGI weapon in the foreground to its target. HERO had a few moments where fights were ill-conceived (the chess parlor fight and the fight over the lake) or dragged on a bit too long (like the incredible fight in the autumnal forest). All of HOFD's fight sequences were like this.
The conclusion of this mess is just awful in every possible way, and is not in the least camouflaged by the inexplicable snow-storm Zhang threw in to try to confuse the matter. It's the sort of ending you tack on when there's no real point to anything you've just seen. There's no way to create a real ending, because, the film having told no story, there's no story to play out. Throw in some more fighting and a sudden snow-storm and maybe no one will notice (Zhang foolishly draws attention to the Flying Dagger plot he'd so abruptly abandoned for soap by tossing in a shot of the soldiers creeping up on Flying Dagger HQ near the end--should have let us forget about them, Zhang!).
In short, HOFD looks exactly like what an upbudget Hollywood attempt to duplicate a film like HERO or CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON would look like. Its remarkably positive critical reception in the United States is a very damning comment on the state of contemporary film criticism (but then again, what isn't, right?). I don't deal in thumbs, and don't like numerical ratings for films. I suppose one measure of a movie's impression is whether you find yourself looking at it again. I've seen HERO a few times now--I don't anticipate I'll ever be sitting down to HOFD again.
 The "big reveal" makes rubbish out of several things you've already seen--this one would hold up really badly on subsequent viewings, when the viewer is aware of everyone's real agenda beforehand.
 "Unfortunately," because at least it would have given the film some point.