New Book: Cinema at the Periphery (2010)

April 24, 2010 at 12:47 am

A long time in the making, “Cinema at the Periphery is finally out, published by Wayne State University Press in Detroit as part of their series on Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television, under the general editorship of Barry Keith Grant.

Our idea for this project was to explore marginal cinemas from around the world by bringing them together in a comparative perspective. Because, as we see from Iceland to Iran and from Singapore to Scotland, a growing intellectual and cultural wave of production is taking cinema beyond the borders of its place of origin and ventures into exploring faraway places, interacting with barely known peoples, and making new localities imaginable. In an array of films that are made in the context of these traditions, previously entrenched spatial divisions no longer function as firmly fixed grid coordinates, the hierarchical position of place as “center” is subverted, and new forms of representation become possible. Thus, for the project Cinema at the Periphery (first a conference in 2006 and now finally a book), we assembled criticism that explored issues of the periphery, including questions of transnationality, place, space, passage, and migration. The brief to the contributors was to examine the periphery in terms of locations, practices, methods, and themes. The volume includes geographic case studies of small national cinemas located at the global margins, like New Zealand, Denmark or Scotland, but also of filmmaking that comes from peripheral cultures, like Palestinian “stateless” cinema, Celtic-language film, Australian Aboriginal films, and cinema from Quebec. Therefore, the volume is divided into two key areas: industries and markets on the one hand, and identities and histories on the other. Yet as a whole, the project is to illustrate that the concept of “periphery” is not fixed but is always changing according to patterns of industry, ideology, and taste. Most importantly, however, Cinema at the Periphery proposes a workable approach that allows us to link the inextricable interrelationship that exists between production modes and circulation channels and the emerging narratives of histories and identities they enable. It includes some really important writing by leading authors in the field of transnational film studies.

Let me take the opportunity and make an important link here. Back in June 2006, at the inaugural conference that marked the beginning of this project, we recorded the presentations of many of our guests and made them available on-line. Some of these, like Faye Ginsburg (NYU), Mette Hjort (Lingnan), Patricial Pisters (Amsterdam), Sheldon Lu (Santa Barbara), Laura Marks (Simon Fraser), Bill Marshall (Stirling), and Duncan Petrie’s (York) talks became the basis of chapters in the current book. Others, like Dudley Andrew (Yale), John Caughie (Glasgow), Pam Cook (Southampton), Hamid Naficy (Northwestern), Rod Stoneman (Huston Film School), Kristian Feigelson (Paris), published their work elsewhere. While still others, like Lucia Nagib (Leeds), opted to participate in the book but by presenting us with texts on topics that differed from those that they presented. We also commissioned several essays that were added to the two parts of the volume (Industry and Ideology). These included contributions by all three of us — myself and David Martin-Jones (both still at the University of St. Andrews) and Belén Vidal (who since moved to take up a job at King’s College in London) — who acted as editors of the collection. We also included a specially commissioned piece by Kay Dickinson (Goldsmiths) (on Palestinian cinema in an international context). Back then, a number of reviews of the event appeared in the film press. Here is a link to the one published in Senses of Cinema.

Reviews of the book are still to materialise, and I would be most excited to see this volume reviewed internationally, at the periphery and in those locations whose cinematic cultures we aimed to discuss (e.g. Spain, Quebec, Denmark, Brazil, Morocco, New Zealand, Australia, China, Palestine, and others). If you are writing for the film journals in these (or other peripheral) countries, where there is likely to encounter particular interest to the writing included in the volume, for review copies, please be in touch with the Press’s coordinator Sarah Murphy at murphysa@wayne.edu. For the time being, we only have Ruby Rich’s lines that describe the book as a ‘collection of reflections that challenge conventional definitions of national film cultures’ that we can quote.

Screen International: Explanation on Box Office Tables

November 25, 2009 at 12:59 am

I have received two extremely useful reactions from people at Screen International in regard to the posting dated 17 November 2009, related to the tables listing international and global box office figures. As they explain, these are two completely different things and the direct comparison is not adequate.

Jack Warner has explained:

I wish to inform you that your piece contains a fundamental error. It assumes two commonly used film industry terms are one and the same, where in fact one encompasses the other.

In the film industry, the term ‘international’ is used to describes all overseas territories, everything outside North America (’domestic’). In contrast the term ‘global’ is used to signify worldwide, meaning ‘international’ and ‘domestic’ combined.

It should now become clear to you that Screen’s Global Top Ten, as indicated on the chart itself, is a tally compiled from the North America box office chart and the Top 40 International Chart, with which you have been comparing it directly.

Conor Dignam writes:

the two tables you refer to on ScreenDaily and in Screen International are completely different. The international table means films that exclude the US box office – while the global films include US box office. The aim is to give a picture of the box office outside of North America, where the scale of the US skews the figures.

Both comments are made on the blog, and in both cases I am asked to remove the posting and to check with Screen International first before making comments on the information they feature. As the information is clearly erroneous, I would be happy to consider removing it. It seems more adequate to me, however, to leave it with this explanation attached, as others like myself would be misled the same way, provided that the explanation is not readily available.

In fact, I have tried to query the methodology related to compiling the International Box Office figures on several occasions previously with the compiler, to never receive a response. It is a pity it takes a public posting on a blog in order to get a reaction. I hope now that the colleagues at Screen International will be more responsive to queries from academics like myself. I would be more than happy to checking before publishing, assuming that I would be getting a response now. It is something researchers really need and would appreciate.

© Dina Iordanova
25 November 2009

Screen International: International Blockbusters

November 23, 2009 at 1:51 am

I am wondering what the magazine is actually covering by way of reviewing international films. Indeed, there are a number of articles discussing the dynamics in international and particularly Asian film industry lately. When it comes to reviewing concrete films, however, there is a strange discrepancy to be observed. There are always reviews of the American films that are at the top of the international box office, as well as of some of those from Europe. However, almost none of the Asian films that appear in the top forty (or, for that matter, even in the top ten) listings, are being reviewed. Over the past several months, for example, Screen International offered a somewhat belated yet adequate coverage on the Nordic hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a Danish-Swedish co-production, but barely any coverage on the other top-40 European films, which in most cases originate from countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey and Russia. One of the few box office hits from Asia to see a more detailed review was Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, the tale of the fateful dog that waited on the city train station in Shibuya for his dead ‘salaryman’-owner every day for a number of years after his dead. It is a beloved Tokyo story; the statue of the dog can be seen at this most famous intersection in the city.

However, except the brief ‘capsula’ reviews of some of these titles, endurable 2009 box office hits from Asia, such as South Korean Haeundae and Take Off, Indian Kambakkh Ishq, Kaminey, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, or the Japanese 20th Century Boys and April Brides were not written about.

The most endurable Asian presence in the global top ten box office of this past summer (2009), the Japanese baseball drama Rookies, which made nearly a hundred million from its very limited territorial distribution, was not covered either. It is interesting to note that at the time of this writing it appears there is no entry for the film at the IMDb, either. It only lists the TV series on which the film is based.

In my view, the function of the magazine which bills itself as ‘trade’ would be to serve the trade by bringing information on what is hot and what sells. If I am a distributor, I may be particularly interested in knowing more about films that made tens of millions of dollars elsewhere, as they clearly have got commercial potential. Instead, the review section of Screen International offers reviews of small festival films that are regularly assessed as lacking adequate commercial potential. On the one hand, there is information on the performance of global blockbusters but no information on the actual style/content of those. On the other hand, there are reviews of artistically worthwhile (or sometimes disappointing) films that lack in commercial potential. Ultimately, the message as I receive it, is: Only commercial cinema from the US merits coverage and attention, this is the only sphere where money can be made; the only aspect of international cinema that deserves our consideration includes arthouse and indie films with no popular appeal.

© Dina Iordanova
23 November 2009

Screen International: International Box Office

November 17, 2009 at 12:46 am

This post has been removed on request from Screen International, as per the comments below. See also post dated 25 November.

© Dina Iordanova
17 November 2009

From Bollywood to You Tube

August 1, 2008 at 12:54 am



Below is the text of the Press Release that the University’s Press office did on the occasion of the large Leverhulme award I recently received.

From Bollywood to YouTube, an academic at the University of St Andrews is to investigate the ways in which non-mainstream film reaches the masses.

Professor Dina Iordanova, St Andrews’ first Chair of Film Studies and a leading international authority in her field, will receive a prestigious grant from The Leverhulme Trust to carry out the study “Dynamics of World Cinema: Transnational Channels of Global Film Circulation”.

The innovative project will examine the circulation of global cinema by comparing the four main channels: the system of global Hollywood, the international film festival circuit, various alternative production centres like Bollywood as well as internet-enabled channels such as YouTube.

Professor Iordanova said, “We know a lot about Holywood’s global operation, and we have all sorts of box office data and charts on them. But we know next to nothing of the other side of the equation, of those films that are not in the blockbuster sphere, that are distributed via less visible channels but are still popular.

“In the course of our study, we will establish how much money non-Hollywood films actually make and are likely to reveal that they enjoy a growing domestic and international commercial success.

“The study will examine the phenomenal growth of film festivals around the world and will assess if they indeed have become an independent distribution circuit. We will also explore the film distribution for ethnic minorities (for example, Bollywood imports), and reveal that it is an operation of astonishing commercial success.

“Finally, we will also assess the impact that new internet-enabled channels such as YouTube, online forums and download sites, have on the changing dynamics in world cinema.”

The £240,000 grant will allow Professor Iordanova to undertake the pioneering two and a half year investigation into the ways film travels nowadays to reach a growing and increasingly diverse community of viewers that are interested in getting more specific content than the blockbuster playing at the cinema around the corner.

She explained, “What makes us distinct in relation to earlier studies is that we will correlate all those diverse strands of film circulation that are extremely active nowadays but somehow remain below the radar. By putting all information into comparative perspective and by revealing patterns of interaction, we will show the real dynamics of world cinema. We expect to bring to the attention traditionally ignored aspects that will undermine the view of Hollywood’s undisputed global dominance.”

Originally from Bulgaria, and having worked in Canada, the US, and England, Professor Iordanova’s background is in philosophy and aesthetics. Soon after acquiring her PhD in 1986, she realised she needed images to come along with the theoretical concepts. She made a profession out of her habit of seeing a movie a day, and switched to the new field of film studies in 1993. Today, she has numerous publications on in international cinema to her credit. She has recently edited a special issue of Film International dedicated to film festivals, and is now working on a book chapter about recent Asian epic cinema.

She continued, “This is a radically interdisciplinary project, which brings together transnational film and media studies, globalisation and diaspora studies, political economy and humanistic scholarship. Given the Trust’s interest in major issues of contemporary culture, The Leverhulme was the best organization to fund it. We are truly grateful for their recognition.”

Professor Stuart Cunningham from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, a leading specialist in the area of creative industries, is co-investigator on this unique and innovative project. He will spend a month in St Andrews during the second phase of the research. Two post-doctoral fellows, one from Hong Kong and the other one from New York City, are joining the team set to start work in October.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

Professor Iordanova is available for interview on di1@st-andrews.ac.uk or at 01334-467-474 (by appointment).
Her current work is showcased at www.DinaView.com

NOTE TO PICTURE EDITORS:

IMAGES ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE PRESS OFFICE – CONTACTS BELOW.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona Armstrong, Press Officer on 01334 462530 / 462529, Mobile: 07730 415 015 or Email: fa12@st-andrews.ac.uk
Ref: Leverhulme film 240708
View the latest University press releases at www.st-andrews.ac.uk

Snoop Dogg, Akshay Kumar and Singh Is Kinng (2008): More Transnational Film Professionals

July 29, 2008 at 2:02 am

View here Snoop Dogg’s and Akshay Kumar’s video for the still-to-be-released Indo-Australian Singh Is Kinng (2008), posted by johalballin on YouTube. Like is the practice in Bollywood, the music is released before the film to create hype and momentum.

Not just an encounter between Bollywood and Hollywood, the film is yet another prime example of the transnationalisation of highly skilled labor in filmmaking which I have been covering over the past few days. A look at the ‘below the line’ sections of the crew reveal whole teams of non-Indian assistant directors, art designers, and special effects people, who come with background from productions like Inspector Gadget or the Australian Western, The Proposition. The stuntspeople have been not only in Australian and US productions, but also in films made in China, Japan and other Asian hubs, and many of the miscellaneous crew members have Bosnian or Croatian-sounding names, reminding me of the forced dispersal of families from former Yugoslavia to all parts of the world nearly fifteen years ago, just about the time needed for their children to grow up and get entry level jobs in transnational filmmaking.

See also Part I and Part II of Transnational Class of Film Professionals.

© Dina Iordanova
29 July 2008

Transnational Class of Film Professionals II

July 28, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Valley of the Wolves: Iraq (Kurtlar vadisi – Irak) is a Turkish action film made in 2006, set in the conflict zone in Iraq near the Turkish border. The film opens with a reenactment a real incident from the summer of 2003 (pictured), where a group of Turkish border guards are arrested in their own headquarters and publicly humiliated by American troops, who are officially their ‘allies’. The incident leads to the suicide of one of the border officers who feels he has been dishonored by such treatment on the very territory he is supposed to guard and protect. Opening with a set up that clearly questions the nature of the American ‘allied’ involvement with Turkey, the rest of the film pictures in truly dark shades the travails of various shady American figures and mercenaries operating in Iraq, and the resistance they encounter from brave undercover Turkish patriots. There are many action scenes, weddings that end up in bloodshed, blown-up minarets, spectacular fights, suicide explosions, as well as reconstructions of scenes that remind of the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures, smartly interwoven into the plot.

The film made quite a splash internationally, and even though it has not been shown in America, it has been extensively discussed as a work of anti-Americanism. A discussion on NBC even mentioned that American troops stationed in countries where the film was screening have been explicitly prohibited from seeing it, out of fear that they may become subject of attack by enraged audiences. And even if the film was not distributed in the US, the two American actors who were cast in it, Billy Zane and Gary Busey, were publicly denounced for taking part, and declared anti-patriotic racist mercenaries, like in this image seen at a blog-site called ‘Villagers with Torches‘.

It is not my intention to go into this controversy here, as I have discussed it elsewhere (BBC World Service, December 2006). My interest in Valley of the Wolves is in relation to the emerging transnational class of film professionals, and it is this film that gives me the chance to most powerfully illustrate my point. The stunts, for example, were handled by a group of Czech-born professionals, who mostly work in Hollywood but also have regular international outings. Dusan Hyska, the stunt coordinator for the production, comes with credits from films such as Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and has worked on productions by directors like James Cameron (Titanic) and Scorsese (Gangs of New York). His fellow-stuntsman Jiri Horky was in Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and, more recently, in the second installment of the Chronicles of Narnia (2008) while Jan Petrina, Billy Zane’s stunt double, has also been in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). If we move on to the special effects department led by industry veteran Mark Meddings, one discovers a wealth of overlaps with key American films by directors Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg and Oliver Stone. Employed on Valley of the Wolves as coordinator of special effects, Meddings comes with credits as senior special effects technician on Saving Private Ryan (1998), and has to his credits films such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003), and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). The project that immediately preceded his involvement with Valley of the Wolves was Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a film showing the clash of Christian and Islamic civilizations.

Here is a clip of the film. The Hollywood touch shows; the style seen in this sequence is reminiscent of the bazaar scene in Indiana Jones (I believe it was in Raiders of the Lost Ark), mixed with sequences from Black Hawk Down.

In the ‘bonus’ section of Valley of the Wolves DVD, Meddings and his colleagues are seen setting up scenes of destruction with dummies, bloody body parts, artificial severed limbs and a variety of other props and prosthetics. Watching the ‘Making of’ documentary I could not help a feeling of a ‘deja vu’, thinking of many other similar ‘Making of’ documentaries found on the DVDs of Hollywood action epics, showing teams of equally committed special effects professionals engaged with setting up the pyrotechnics, the stunts, and the prosthetics for each new film. The plastic severed limbs and the little pumps that splat blood used in the Valley of the Wolves clearly have their prototype in the well-familiar bloody body parts and guts scattered all over Omaha beach in the famous scene that created the memorable heart-wrenching reaction on seeing Saving Private Ryan‘s opening scenes.

The bottom line is that the creative specialist force behind this epic entertainment is the same, and it operates transnationally. The same people whose skills and ingenuity helped create the unforgettable visceral images that enhanced American patriotism in Saving Private Ryan can happen, on occasion, to apply those same skills and wit in the context of productions that may encourage a very different view of the world. It is not realistic that the special effects profession or the stunts people, many of whom may be working in Hollywood but are often not even Americans, could be bound by patriotic loyalties or political allegiances that would bar them from taking on assignments across the world. It is an aspect of globalization that needs to be acknowledged and reckoned with.

For Part I of his post, click here.

© Dina Iordanova
29 July 2008

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

The Emperor and the Assassin/ Jing ke ci qin wang (1998) Chen Kaige

July 20, 2008 at 9:54 pm

The Emperor and the Assassin, a co-production between China, Japan and France (with some German participation), preceded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s success, and thus remained somewhat less visible than it would be if it had been released in the aftermath of Ang Lee’s phenomenal success. It was directed by another Fifth Generation figurehead, Chen Kaige, whose credits also include the beautiful Life on a String (1991) and the Cannes winner Farewell My Concubine (1993). Like Curse of the Golden Flower, it also stars Gong Li and has been similarly described as a ‘compelling epic’ an as ‘Chinese history with a Shakespearean twist’.

The film is set in 3rd century BC and features court intrigues related to the establishment of Ying Zheng, heir to the Kingdom of Qin, as powerful emperor whose ambition is to expand his rule beyond his immediate kingdom.

It was shot entirely on location in China and is one of the first productions meant for distribution abroad that clearly took advantage of the fact that labor was so much cheaper in China. In newsgroup review Edwin Jahiel estimates the budget between $10 and $30 million. If this indeed is the case, it is likely that the film was not particularly successful commercially; while it has probably returned the investment, it is not really likely that it has surpassed it more than twice. There are very limited data on its box office, and it is not clear what it made in territories in Europe and Asia. Released December 2000 in the US where it played at a handful of screens (maximum 37) its gross reached $1,328,435. There are no data on revenues from the DVD distribution, even though this is probably a key potential source of revenues. Like many other of these epics, the film, even though it is available on DVD, is also an easy target for pirated Torrent download.

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

Curse of the Golden Flower/ Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (2006), Zhang Yimou

July 20, 2008 at 3:27 am

Based on a classical Chinese play and set around the end of the Tang Dynasty of 10th century AD, Curse of the Golden Flower is the most lavish of Zhang Yimou’s costume epics, featuring more than 1000 extras along the world’s most bankable Chinese-language stars (Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li), extensive battle scenes and superbly elaborate sets and costumes. It is the film that comes the closest to the Western concept of an epic film in that it places large-scale historical movements in direct relation to the intrigues and the intricate relations of the royal court, and in that its plot is most directly reminiscent to a classical Western-style tragedy. With the density of emotion and feeling confined within the closed world of the family, the story is reminiscent to ancient Greek dramas, or it can be directly compared to Shakespearian tragic plots.

And indeed, in an interview at the film’s world premiere (notably taking place as part of the AFI fest in Hollywood), actor Chow Yun Fat articulates clearly that the film’s team were conscious of how close this film is to classical Western narratives, by comparing it to tragedies like King Lear and Hamlet.

In this reportage realized by Asia Pacific Arts (with the reporter making the remark that the premiere does not seem to have received much coverage from the mainstream networks), director Zhang Yimou is seen claiming that the absence of China-specific historical and cultural background knowledge should not impede the Western viewers’ reception, as they will undoubtedly be able to appreciate the epic tale simply as a profound human drama.

The utterings made in the context of this reportage are really noteworthy in that they reveal important aspects of the dynamics of transnational considerations in filmmaking: clearly, the film was pitched to investors as a project of great commercial potential precisely because of its dramatic/tragic plot (comparable to the very popular Shakespeare) that would make the culturally specific background irrelevant and thus supply it with the cross-over potential for a commercially successful project.

According to the (incomplete) data made available at Box Office Mojo, the film’s worldwide gross was $78,568,977. US domestic revenues are about 8.4% ($6,566,773) while the international ones account for an even bigger proportion of 91.6% ($72,002,204). Handled by Sony Classics, the film had a run of about 14 weeks, between January and March 2007, reaching its widest US release at 1,234 screens. Internationally it has played in theatrical distribution across 35 or so territories, in North and South America, Asia and Europe. About a dozen or so companies were involved in the film’s international distribution, half of which are overseas arms of Hollywood players such as Buena Vista International (Singapore) or Columbia TriStar (Argentina).

The revenues from the film look good, but this changes as soon as one realizes that the budget of Curse of the Golden Flower is actually at about 50% higher than that of Hero (at the time the most expensive Chinese film). Hero was made for about $30 million, whereas the estimated budget for Curse of the Golden Flower is $45 million. Thus the revenues that the film has realized, less than 200% cannot really compare with the 600% that the two other previous epics of Zhang Yimou brought in.

Like the previous two epics, the credits for the sound effects and the visual/CGI departments are heavily populated by Western names of professionals belonging to the growing class of transnational specialists working in these industries.

What I find particularly striking in the case of Curse of the Golden Flower is that while being the film that comes the closest to what a Western costume epic is like in plot and style, this is also the film that is least commercially successful of the three. Is this indicative of a wider trend when ‘foreign’ epics are concerned? It may well be the case, so this will be a question I will be asking myself in looking at another Chinese epic that did not seem to do very well, either, Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (1998).

This entry is part of my investigation into international epic cinema, which also includes entries on other films from China (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Emperor and the Assassin), Thailand (Suryiothai), Kazakhstan (Nomad), India (Asoka, Jodha Akbar), and elsewhere (Mongol).

© Dina Iordanova
20 July 2008

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