The trick of watching “House of Flying Daggers” is to remember that it’s porn: You’d better be there for the action, the color, the choreography, the sound design, because there’s sure as hell no point being there for the story.
American audiences go into it with expectations of another “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which provoked rapture arriving here in 2001, becoming the first foreign film to earn more than $100 million in the states and setting a record, with its 10, for most foreign-film Oscar nominations. The fight sequences were astonishing to Americans, who’d never seen anything like them outside of the science fiction ghetto of such films as “The Matrix,” especially legitimized by a complex, emotionally resounding story of love and honor.
And then there’s “House of Flying Daggers.”
After opening with written exposition, a la “Star Wars,” the movie treats the viewer to a few minutes of spoken exposition between two of the main characters, a la “Something Written by a Seventh-Grader.” Moments after announcing he’s never been to the brothel that recently opened in town, Jin shows up there and asks for “the new girl.” That new girl, Mei, is blind, although she’s the worst blind girl ever, since she looks directly at Jin several times while dancing for him.
The movie never quite recovers. We go on to see Mei run full-tilt through a forest, fleeing charging horsemen, without hitting a tree, long before it’s revealed to us that she’s not blind — merely posing as the blind daughter of the old leader of the rebel House of Flying Daggers just in case the emperor ever sends his agents looking for her. And he does, but only because a double-agent who’s really part of the House of Flying Daggers, and wants the House to stay hidden, nonsensically comes up with the idea.
This is the same agent who, during the awful first minutes of the film, boasts of finding and killing the old leader of the House, although at the end of the film we find out he wasn’t involved at all. How could he have found and killed the old leader, since he’s a Flying Dagger adherent? Yet, if he wasn’t involved, why would he have been given the new assignment? It makes about as much sense as the mission being discovered by a general who also wants to kill the new leader of the HFD, but who commands his soldiers to kill Jin and Mei upon sight, even though they’re supposed to lead the soldiers to the rebel leader. Why kill Jin? Because the general doesn’t know he’s undercover to trick Mei. But why would the general know to follow Jin and Mei yet not know Jin is undercover?
Who cares, right? Amid all this contradictory plotting and clumsy dialogue (“I like to flirt with girls!”) are smashing fight scenes, acrobatic and virtually pyrotechnic, intended to thrill us with their skill, vividness and imagination. It almost works, if only because it’s nice to settle into a seat and watch something that isn’t supposed to work as anything but spectacle, but the filmmakers are clearly trying for more, and the gap between intention and execution is pathetic. Watchers cannot be expected to be emotionally invested in a fight’s outcome when their minds are trying to make a synaptic leap justifying a story irreconcilable on almost every other level. Eventually it becomes pointless, and the cinematography, costuming and action become the only aspects of the movie still functioning.
In short, action becomes all, just as in a porn film, and the story is revealed as a flimsy device meant only to lead to more action, just as in a porn film. The ethereal, ponderous music may as well be a classic 1970s bau-chicka-bau-bau.
It isn’t unreasonable to expect more, since there’s a working example for rent, not to mention thriving in U.S. memory: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” itself. But that movie is rumored to have bored Chinese audiences, for whom its action sequences were derivative and dull — an authentic and legitimate reaction. The lie came when “House of Flying Daggers” hit the United States, where critics’ intellectual capacities shut down when confronted with a bad foreign film. This landed the film in art houses, in front of betrayed audiences who could only snicker in disbelief before sitting dazed through the end credits.
If “House” were the product of Hollywood, it would have been instantly rejected and sentenced to the movie-rental shelves where action scenes trump bad writing and leaden acting: the nerd section, kicking it with the collected works of Jean-Claude Van Damme; or the porn section, cozy with the collected works of Jenna Jameson.