House of Flying Daggers/Shi mian mai fu (2004), Zhang Yimou

July 19, 2008 at 2:11 am

Zhang Yimou’s second installment in the wuxia genre, House of Flying Daggers came to the West just a few months after the delayed release of Hero (2002). In this context, the procrastination that surrounded Hero‘s release may have played a positive role in enhancing the impact of this second film. But it can also have been the other way around, as in this instance the second film really came too soon after the first one (between two and four months in different Western countries); Miramax had been concerned about releasing Hero too soon after Crouching Tiger (see my discussion of this here); such fear may have been more applicable in this case with the two Zhang Yimou films. Whereas in real terms there had been a two year gap between the making of the two films, to viewers in the West they came within the same season.

House of Flying Daggers was made for an estimated 100,000,000 CNY (c. $15 million US) and within China it made about CNY 55,000,000 on theatrical release (c. $8.1 million US). Clearly, the film could only make successful business on the realization of international revenues. Distributed by Sony within the USA, by Focus films internationally, and by about another 15 companies regionally, the film made a total of $92,863,945 worldwide during the 18 weeks that the Box Office Mojo has monitored the release in 2005, of which about 88% came from international revenues ($81,813,851) and only 12% were domestic US ($11,050,094 at 1,189 screens).

Judging by these numbers, it appears that the domestic U.S. revenues may have indeed been damaged by the timing of the release, just two months after Hero. But it is also important to note that the gross revenues are at levels similar to those of the other film. Made for about $30 million, Hero made this amount about six times over. Similarly, made for $15 million, House of Flying Daggers also made it about six times over. What is different in the revenue patterns of the two films is the balance between international and US box office revenues.

Set in the time of Tang Dynasty in the 9th century AD, the film evolves around intricate stories of betrayal, romance, and honor, and features spectacular and impeccably choreographed sword fight routines. Zhang Yimou’s love for colors, seen in his early classics like Ju Dou (1990), here comes to full swing; the art directors’ work could easily rival the concepts of top fashion designers. Watching House of Flying Daggers can best be compared to the experience of visiting a Shanghai Tang store.

The film’ reception in China has been quite critical, as reported in the Wikipedia article on the film. The critical reception in the West is more or less summarized by Jason Blake who describes the film as ‘ravishing to look at but dramatically inert’. When the IMDb users are asked to rank the three Yimou recent spectacular epics, almost unanimously the vote goes in favour for Hero, maybe because it is the purest form of an action film. One of the voters says: ‘The second film focused as much on opulence as action, and the third was an exercise in opulence’.

I found myself agreeing with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who assessed House of Flying Daggers contextually as a work of transnational cinema:

Entertainments like this have been criticised as Sino-American inventions, cumbersome magic-realist versions of martial arts, custom built for western audiences, which piously subtract the comedy that Asian audiences have traditionally enjoyed. Added to this criticism is the recent suggestion that Hero, with its bullish theme of Chinese unification, was in tune with a new reactionary patriotism. I can only say that if this Hollywood-ised wuxia is a new form of the genre, it’s all the more exciting for that. As for its alleged chauvinism, this movie’s content is much more ambiguous than that. The government is corrupt; the rebels are virtuous; we hardly know who is on whose side and the disguises and subterfuge are almost a reminder of Andy Lau’s cynical Hong Kong cop thriller Infernal Affairs. House of Flying Daggers is hardly an uncritical piece of cheerleading for the Chinese state.

Most of the crew involved in the making of House of Flying Daggers are Chinese, except crew members from two departments — sound and visual effects. Some of the specialists involved here, also worked on films such as Moulin Rouge, Lord of the Rings, 300, of the World Trade Center. Thus, the film is only partially representative of the tendency to employ transnationally the globally developing workforce in special effects.

© Dina Iordanova
16 July 2008