House of Flying Daggers (2004), directed by Zhang Yimou

house of flying daggers posterMy wife is an artist and over the years I have developed a strong sensitivity to matters of color, light, and composition. Her technique is original, fusing her own hand-dyed silks to acrylic paints to create dimensional nature images of trees and rocks. What fascinates me, in particular, is how she often will paint only a small part of the tree, and within that fragment will show the infinite variety of design and color that makes for a glorious view of nature, which in her view reflects the infinite wisdom and creativity of God.

Color and composition are at the heart of House of Flying Daggers, a Chinese epic dealing with the intrigues and fighting that went on when the Tang Dynasty was in decline in the year 859 CE. The plot concerns rebel groups such as the House of Flying Daggers which challenge the authority of the government. Indeed, the rebel group is very popular because their agenda is to rob from the rich and give to the poor.

When the local authorities kill the leader of the Flying Daggers, they emerge even stronger and two police captains strategize to kill the new leader. In this conflict, there are three major actors: Jin and Liu, the two police captains, and Mei, a blind dancer who poses as the daughter of the old leader of the Flying Dragons. Mei is perceived by the authorities as the key to finding out who is the new leader so that he can be assassinated. The narrative takes many twists and turns, and not all is as it seems. Characters hide their true motives, switch loyalties, and even fall in love with the enemy. The plot complications engage the viewer who is swept along by the actions and intrigues of the protagonists.

What separates House of the Flying Daggers from other action films is its resplendent use of color and composition. The Chinese dancers wear beautiful garb, rich in color and design. The scenes in the forest capture the beauty of trees swaying in the wind. The fight scenes are choreographed like a ballet. There is fluid motion in nature and in the movements of the soldiers, who literally fly through the air both to attack and to avoid harm.

One particular scene is extraordinary in its visual imagery and its simultaneous metaphorical meaning. Two adversaries, fighting with passion and agility, begin fighting in the autumn when the leaves are turning orange. As their battle continues, snow begins to fall and soon the entire wood is covered in white, suggesting that the ongoing battles between sworn enemies never end until there is a tragic consequence. It is a clever use of imagery and a brilliant commentary on the brutality of war which makes brutes of essentially decent men.

Judaism encourages the appreciation of nature, for nature is, in truth, a window into God’s supernal mind and a reflection of His power and wisdom. Observing a beautiful nature scene is another way of getting to know God. Maimonides observes in his Code of Jewish Law that man learns about God through His words, the Bible, and though His works, namely, through nature. Throughout Psalms, the poet King David reiterates the identification of nature’s beauty with a revelation of God. Psalm 19, for example, dramatically states: “The heavens describe the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.” In fact, Jews say a blessing when seeing a great sea or mountain range, or any great natural wonder.

Sustaining the natural world is one of God’s everyday miracles. House of Flying Daggers is at one level an exciting action film, but its innovative visual style invigorates our perception of nature in ways that make the film a transcendent cinema experience.

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