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HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS – Shigeru Umebayashi

December 3, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

houseofflyingdaggersOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the wake of the success of the Oscar-winning 2000 film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hollywood seems to be in love with Chinese martial arts films. It’s not difficult to see why: with their simple tales of love, honor and revenge, exotic locales and breathtaking scenery, and highly stylized action sequences (which, more often than not, feature characters performing gravity-defying stunts on wires), the genre is inherently cinematic. In 2002, revered director Zhang Yimou made the critically acclaimed Hero starring Jet Li. Having loved the experience so much, he immediately followed it with another film of a similar nature: House of Flying Daggers.

House of Flying Daggers stars Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Song Dandan, and the lovely Zhang Ziyi, who will be familiar to western audiences from her roles in Crouching Tiger, Rush Hour 2 and Hero. Essentially a Macbeth story transplanted to feudal China, it tells the tale of an elite group of warriors – the House of the title – who are fighting the oppressive regime of the Tang dynasty on behalf of the country’s subjugated people. Kaneshiro and Lau play Jin and Leo, two military captains loyal to the dynasty who are sent on an under-cover mission to infiltrate the house and bring it down from within; in order to achieve this, Jin seeks out the affections of Mei (Ziyi), a blind prostitute who he believes is a member of the Flying Daggers inner circle. However, as Jin and Mei spend more time together, he finds his feelings for the beautiful courtesan begin to get in the way of his mission…

Previously, composer Tan Dun has been the musical voice of “wire-fu” for the majority of American audiences, having won an Oscar for his work on Crouching Tiger and having been the recipient of a great deal of critical acclaim for his similar work on Hero. However, for House of Flying Daggers director Zhang turned to Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi to provide a different soundscape. Umebayashi, a former new-wave rock musician who has composed over 50 film scores in Asia, including the internationally successful In the Mood for Love in 2001, has responded with one of the most interesting scores of 2004.

Umebayashi’s work is a compelling mix of east and west, ancient and modern, which combines the traditional sensibilities of the orient with a standard symphony orchestra; the orchestrations and performance techniques are most definitely Chinese, but the musical language and emotions it conveys are universal. He makes wonderful use of an array of exotic instruments, from dizi bamboo flutes and erhu violins to yangqin dulcimers and pipa lutes; in many of the tracks, one or more of these instruments carries the melodic idea, albeit bolstered by the familiar tones of a warm string section. The end result is a magical, enchanting sound which – as regular reviewers of Movie Music UK will know – I personally find irresistible.

Many of the cues are small and intimate, favoring nuances in performance and subtle textures over broad, sweeping strokes. The score’s central theme first appears in “Flower Garden”, a sublime duet between Jia Pengfang’s erhu and Koichiro Tashiro’s guitar that gradually grows to encompass the entire orchestra, and is recapitulated with equally pleasing results in “Lovers”, written for a heartbreaking solo erhu, and “Mei and Jin”, which swells with full, rich orchestrations. Other cues such as “Taking Her Hand”, “Leo’s Eyes”, ‘Mei and Leo” and the titular “House of Flying Daggers” feature passages for soothing woodwinds or expressive guitars.

But this is not to say that there are no deviations. On the contrary, the “Opening Title” is a rather stark showcase for Dai Ya’s mastery of the bamboo flute, “The Echo Game” is a mesmerizing percussion track which accompanies one of the film’s most impressive scenes, and ‘The Peonyhouse’ introduces a set of modern synthesizers to great effect. Similarly, “No Way Out” unexpectedly incorporates what sounds like a sampled uilleann pipe into a strident orchestral march, and ‘Leo’s Theme’ features an almost film-noirish soprano saxophone.

In addition, there are a couple of tracks which feature lovely, moody performances by vocalist Tomoko Kanda (notably “Bamboo Forest”, the film’s impressive set-piece “Ambush in Ten Directions”, and the conclusive “Until the End”) and two original songs with music and lyrics by Umebayashi. The “Beauty Song (Jia Ren Qu)” is performed in Mandarin by actress Ziyi, and although the sounds of the language may be slightly harsh to Western ears, the delicacy and emotional content of her performance transcends the linguistic barriers. The end title song “Lovers”, based upon Umebayashi’s main theme, features a sublime performance in English by Ohio-born soprano Kathleen Battle, and is likely to be a front-runner in the race for the Best Song award at the Oscars.

Anyone who appreciates an Oriental flavor in their film music, or who has previously admired scores such as Rachel Portman’s Joy Luck Club, Kitaro’s Heaven & Earth, Conrad Pope’s Pavilion of Women, or any of Tan Dun’s earlier efforts will undoubtedly find House of Flying Daggers to be a highly satisfying listening experience. Whether Umebayashi will have the opportunity to develop his career beyond the Asian film industry remains to be seen – Tan Dun, despite being an Oscar winner, has been stuck in a genre pigeonhole from which he shows no signs of escaping – but, regardless of future concerns, House of Flying Daggers remains a fitting accompaniment to a film which many critics have hailed as one of the most cinematically beautiful movies ever made.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Opening Title (0:58)
  • Beauty Song (Jia Ren Qu) (written by Shigeru Umebayashi, performed by Zhang Ziyi) (2:32)
  • The Echo Game (1:17)
  • The Peonyhouse (1:22)
  • Battle in the Forest (3:26)
  • Taking Her Hand (1:14)
  • Leo’s Eyes (1:51)
  • Lovers (Flower Garden) (2:19)
  • No Way Out (3:59)
  • Lovers (1:54)
  • Farewell No. 1 (2:42)
  • Bamboo Forest (2:36)
  • Ambush in Ten Directions (Shi Mian Mai Fu) (2:01)
  • Leo’s Theme (2:36)
  • Mei and Leo (3:06)
  • The House of Flying Daggers (1:27)
  • Lovers (Mei and Jin) (4:21)
  • Farewell No. 2 (2:49)
  • Until the End (2:55)
  • Lovers (Title Song) (written by Shigeru Umebayashi, performed by Kathleen Battle) (4:12)

Running Time: 49 minutes 45 seconds

Sony Classical SK-93561 (2004)

Music composed and conducted by Shigeru Umebayashi. Performed by Arigat Orchestra Tokyo. Orchestrations by Shigeru Umebayashi and Sachiko Miyano. Recorded and mixed by Li Yuesong and Minoru Tanaka. Mastered by Kazushige Yamazaki. Album produced by Shigeru Umebayashi.

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