Review: Shi Mian Mai Fu (House Of Flying Daggers, 2004)

A trip to a land as beautiful as I have ever seen!

Written By: Feng Li, Bin Wang, & Yimou Zhang
Directed By: Yimou Zhang

The moment that the Sony Classics title leaves the screen the colors of Shi Mian Mai Fu kick in. The opening scroll is in vibrant red, so bright that I was reminded of Akuma’s symbol from the old Super Street Fighter II Turbo video game. The colors only get more vibrant and luscious from that time on, never relenting, in some ways it feels like Yimou Zhang has taken a bucket, filled with every bright color he could think of, and thrown it at the screen. During the climatic battle of the film the seasons change mid battle, from a brightly colored autumn to a snow covered fall. While this change is beautiful in its own right, it also serves to further highlight the vividness of the colors being worn by the characters. Each splash of blood is like a stroke of red from a paint brush, the green of Mei’s (Ziyi Zhang) dress is the most stunning in this scene. As she stands there against the snowy backdrop all I could do was marvel at the beautiful way in which Mr. Zhang has brought the colors of Shi Mian Mai Fu to life.

Nowhere in that opening paragraph did I mention the story or plot, there is a reason for that. The word cookie cutter is what I would use to describe the plot of Shi Mian Mai Fu, another word would be nonexistent. At first I held this against the film a lot, sure the moving picture is amazingly beautiful, but what else is there? Then I thought of Mr. Zhang’s Man Cheng Jin Dai Huang Jin Jia, a film that was bogged down by its story and thus some of its beauty was rendered ineffective. Thinking of that film allowed me to better understand the purpose of the lack of story in Shi Mian Mai Fu, to better allow the imagery, scenery, and cinematography to stand out. I’m not fully forgiving Mr. Zhang for the subpar story, but I do better understand why it was so slight, and I’m okay with that.

In addition to the luscious colors of Shi Mian Mai Fu, it also has crisp fight choreography. I will admit to not being a fa of wire fu at first, but a bevy of movies from around the early 2000s impressed me so much that I am now a fan. At first I was convinced that Shi Mian Mai Fu was aiming for a more fantastical style of violence, one where every strike is delicate and soft. Each fight was different though, and each successive fight changed the level of violence so that by the final battle the audience is privy to a full on visceral experience. I appreciated this ratcheting of the action, it always maintained an artistic veneer, but it became grittier all the same.

Shi Mian Mai Fu is yet another winner from Yimou Zhang, the beautiful, almost operatic, nature of the film making makes up for its slight plot. I know there are some people who don’t adhere to the idea of a film being great simply for its visuals, I may even have made that argument myself. If I did make that argument, I’m contradicting myself with what I am about to say, the story in Shi Mian Mai Fu is a minor matter, the power of this film is in its artistic vision. I was swept away by the fight choreography, the vibrant colors, and the cinematography. Shi Mian Mai Fu is a splendid looking picture, I’m glad it made me into a bit of a hypocrite, and that’s not something I thought I’d ever say.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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8 responses to “Review: Shi Mian Mai Fu (House Of Flying Daggers, 2004)

  1. I agree completely. I only have a minor recollection of the story, yet it still made it on to my Top100 just because I will be darned if it is not one of the absolute most gorgeous films I have ever seen.

  2. Well said Adam. Have you seen any other films from Zhang? He has a few that are absolutely gorgeous.

  3. I actually have not, though there have been more than a few on my radar for a while. So many movies to watch!

  4. Cool, I found his most visually appealing film to be Curse of the Golden Flower, if that’s not already on your list I’d add that one. 🙂

  5. So far, this is my favorite Yimou film of the three that I’ve seen in Hero, and Curse of the Golden Flower. I love the visual texture of it as well as the action and dramatic moments.

  6. I haven’t seen Hero, but I do prefer House of Flying Daggers to Curse of the Golden Flower.

  7. Good review. This is a picture I’ve been meaning to watch again ever since I got it on Blu, but I haven’t been around to it yet.

  8. My watch was on a standard DVD, I can only imagine how gorgeous the picture will look on Blu. 🙂

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