House of Flying Daggers and face-stabby narrativism

Having recently playing Mist-Robed Gate, I remembered that there were a number of wuxia films that had come out recently that I hadn’t seen. So, last night I finally got around to watching House of Flying Daggers.

I liked it. I liked it a lot. The martial arts wasn’t quite as over-the-top as it was in Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it still had the poetic cinematography, expository combat choreography, and raw emotional intensity that I’ve come to appreciate from my small forays into the genre.

And, because I was watching the movie partly for roleplaying purposes, I realized that the story slotted perfectly into face-stabby narrativism. Shreyas defines face-stabby as “…having to do with that cluster of emotionally violent things like inescapably compressing situations, ethical dilemmas, etc.” which seems like a good definition to me. And there’s a certain vibe that goes with this style of play. Characters tend to be a bit larger than life, while simultaneously being very human in their emotional bonds and confusions. There is this ongoing escalation during the story, where the stakes just seem to keep increasing, forcing increasingly desperate actions by the characters. Finally, there’s some incredible confrontation, where all the pent-up energy of the conflicting agendas explodes in a violent confrontation of some kind. Then, the audience picks up the pieces and goes home.

In recent days, it seems like face-stabby play has been getting short shrift in the world of roleplaying. We want to make “serious” stories and the like. Now, sure, I think that there’s plenty of room for experimentation and expansion in roleplaying. And, when I was setting up A Flower for Mara at GenCon, I stressed that it was not intended for face-stabby play.

At the same time, I also stressed that I really like face-stabby play. And, honestly, I think that a chunk of our literature would essentially be considered “face-stabby”. I’m thinking here of certain of Shakespeare’s plays, like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. I’m also thinking about Silver Age superheros.

I think that the sort of play/story that we class under “face-stabby” is appealing because it is universal. Its strength rests in issues that are common to all people of all times. Love, hate, revenge, conflicting loyalties: we all understand these things. The travails of the drug war or the Iraq war just simply don’t have the same broad appeal.

So, this is a simple request from a simple guy. In our desire to expand the reach of roleplaying, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There’s still plenty of strength in face-stabby stories; let’s not discard them prematurely.

And now, I have to figure out where to put Curse of the Golden Flower in my Netflix queue.

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5 responses to “House of Flying Daggers and face-stabby narrativism

  • jon

    interesting perspective.

    I disliked the movie when i saw it. I love the genre (in general), i love the choreography, the larger-than-life characters. I was frustrated, however, when the characters all started acting like jr. highers caught in a bizarre love triangle…. with knives and ninja skillz.

    …and the ending?! I don’t like that they leave you to pick up the pieces. I WANT to see redemption. I DON’T WANT to go away thinking that i’m alone in the world and none of it makes sense.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    See, the love triangle is great. That’s the kind of thing that makes the genre.

    And I liked the ending because of the subtle nuances.

    Ahem. *SPOILERS*

    So, Mei threatens Leo that she’ll throw the knife in her chest if he throws the knife at Jin. Of course, that will kill her. Now, each of the characters makes choices.

    Jin starts moving towards Leo to make it impossible for Mei to throw the knife. Why? Because he loves Mei, and he would rather see her alive with Leo instead of being dead.

    Then Leo fakes his knife throw. Why? Because he is testing Mei’s love, and he doesn’t really believe that Mei will throw the knife at him.

    Then Mei throws his knife…to block Leo’s fake knife throw. Why? Because she loves both Jin and Leo, so she moves to save Jin without killing Leo.

    In some ways, it reminded me of Solomon dividing the baby. Which one *really* loved Mei? In the end, who is grieving by her side?

    See, it wasn’t a meaningless ending. Rather, the ending is all about the characters’ love for each other. Love and obsession, you might say. In the end, they are tested. Some pass the test; others do not.

    I also thought that the revelations made towards the end of the movie had interesting reverberations through all that came before. Leo’s constant urgings to Jin to avoid falling for Mei have additional meaning. And what about Leo’s consistent violence towards Mei earlier in the movie? Was he too deep in his cover? Or was that an indication of the truth of his feelings for her?

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Oh, another thought about the love triangle. The Arthurian legend has a love triangle at the core of tragic ending. So, again, it’s another classic theme.

  • jon

    i think i understand what you’re saying and why it’s good… But that still doesn’t remove the fact that i’m more interested in the politics of what they’re involved with more than I am in their stories by the end of the movie. (i don’t remember the name of the lady in green and the other characters, etc.)

    and perhaps that’s another theme… that war and conflict is going on all around, and yet the love they’re involved with is bigger than any of their causes – but i just couldn’t get into it. Maybe i’ll give it another look.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Yeah, in the end, the politics are really almost a MacGuffin, like the Green Destiny sword was the MacGuffin for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Everybody looks like they are motivated by the political situation, but really they are motivated by other things.

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