Film Reviews: Wednesday, December 15, 2004
A Zhang’ll do you good. Zhang Ziyi makes with the deadly weaponry in ‘House of Flying Daggers.’
House of Flying Daggers
Starring Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Li Feng, Wang Bin, and Zhang Yimou.
Rated PG-13.
Spies and Swords

Romantic tragedy and martial arts combine in the dazzling House of Flying Daggers.


If House of Flying Daggers seems familiar, that’s because it’s the second large, expensive Chinese martial-arts film directed by Zhang Yimou to hit our theaters in the last four months. Hero has just been released on home video, and even fans of that movie may be forgiven for hearing about the current one and thinking, “So what?”

Well, I’ll tell you what. First of all, this movie looks considerably different. Whereas Hero’s visual palette was full of hot, vibrant, heavily saturated colors, House of Flying Daggers traffics in cool pinks and powder blues, rendered with crystalline clarity by a different cinematographer, first-timer Zhao Xiaoding. Instead of having scenes dominated by a single color, this film is more kaleidoscopic, with jewelry, wall and floor paintings, and the actors’ costumes breaking up the color scheme. The exception to this is a complicated chase sequence in a bamboo forest filled with flying spears, in which the vegetation and costumes are all in the same shade of deep green (an homage to King Hu’s seminal 1969 sword-fighting film A Touch of Zen). Overall, though, the movie’s multi-hued approach proves to be a fortunate change of pace for the director.

More importantly, it also has better characters and a stronger story, and it incorporates swordfighting and romantic tragedy to much more powerful effect. Its plot features as many twists, double-crosses, and conflicted loyalties as a Hong Kong police thriller — which, if you think about it, is essentially what the film is. It takes place in 859 A.D. in a county outside of Beijing, where Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are two imperial government agents trying to deal with the House of Flying Daggers, a shadowy organization that steals from the rich, gives to the poor, and rights the wrongs in a society where corruption is leaking from the top down — corrupt government officials are always a favorite villain in Chinese drama. The group’s activities are continuing unchecked despite the recent murder of their leader, and official suspicion falls on the late leader’s daughter, a blind courtesan named Xiao Mei (Zhang Ziyi). Jin goes undercover to investigate, but he falls in love with Mei and considers switching sides, especially when he sees that his bosses aren’t particular about whether he dies along with the Flying Daggers.

With this plot, the film has more in common with A Better Tomorrow or Hard Boiled or even Face/Off than with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (It’s good that Zhang Yimou has turned into John Woo, since John Woo has turned into a second-rate Hollywood hack.) Viewers with a more Western turn of mind may be reminded of spy thrillers by Graham Greene or John le Carré — the film’s original Mandarin title translates to “Ambushed From Ten Directions.” The cloak-and-dagger dealings between the government and the rebels leave no room for human sentiments. Jin, Leo, and Mei are all asked to betray people close to them for a cause, and the Flying Daggers are no better than the emperor in demanding unquestioning, unswerving loyalty. This leads to situations like the one in a wheat field where Jin is attacked by soldiers who don’t believe he’s a cop, and he winds up having to kill his own men.

This ambiguity is much more fertile ground than Hero’s two-dimensional paean to self-sacrifice, and most of the film’s better qualities grow out of it. The swordplay is choreographed with a feel for the characters’ emotional turmoil by Tony Ching Siu-Tung, an old hand who has recently come back from a period of semi-retirement. (He not only did the fights for this film and Hero, but also for Shaolin Soccer — how’s that for versatility?) The astonishing fluidity of Mei’s assassination attempt on Leo near the film’s beginning is set against the uncontrolled fury of Leo’s fight with Jin at the end on a snowy plain.

The actors are borne up by the material, too. With his volcanic passions hiding behind a steely exterior, Lau makes an excellent contrast with the loose, jocular Kaneshiro, who’s surely Chinese cinema’s favorite half-Taiwanese half-Japanese actor. Still, even these formidable performers pale beside the otherworldly grace of Zhang Ziyi, who can go from radiant luminescence to feverish sexual desire to furious anger, and does it all with a purity that one seldom sees in movie stars. One of her most incandescent numbers comes not during a fight scene but a dance number early on in which she’s encircled by drums and hits them rhythmically with her long, flowing sleeves.

The star wattage on display here, added to the director’s pictorial style, recalls something primal about cinema, a place where even lowbrow entertainment can hold a mysterious, half-understood power to enthrall. Despite the myriad computer-generated effects that contribute to its look, House of Flying Daggers belongs fully to an ancient tradition of storytelling, and it has a timeless quality that makes it a unique moviegoing experience.


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