The beauty in House of Flying Daggers isn’t much more than skin-deep. But Lord, what skin it has.
Just two years after uncorking a virtuoso interpretation of martial arts action films with Jet Li’s Hero (which only came to the United States last summer), director Zhang Yimou has only tightened his nearly casual mastery over color and motion in another operatic visual spectacle. Though he’s mostly known for nuanced, slightly dull character pieces such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home, Zhang has released two straight pictures marketed stateside in a way that emphasizes their similarities in tone and flair with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—you know, with chiseled warriors of both sexes doing physically impossible stunts in front of breathtakingly beautiful Chinese settings.
But Zhang’s sentimental soul sneaks through the battles and blows in his latest offering, which easily was one of the 2004’s 10 best films despite a lagging pace and a general lack of a dramatic hook. It’s structured like an opera or a Broadway musical, with the plot serving mostly as a slick way to get from one stunning set piece to the next. It’s one of the most fundamentally beautiful pictures of recent years; Zhang and his new cinematographer, Xiaoding Zhao, are effortlessly inventive in putting their characters into extraordinary settings. Zhang also extends the limits of his craft with additional use of CGI, particularly in furious trackings of projectiles thrown or shot at people. Put it all together, and it’s like going to an exhibit by a confident artist. There’s scarcely a moment when you feel safe looking away from the screen.
The film is set in A.D. 859 when the corrupt Chinese government is being undermined by a shadowy group of rebels called the House of Flying Daggers. It’s the story of two policemen, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), who decide to investigate rumors of a House dancer at the local brothel: Mei (Ziyi Zhang, of Crouching Tiger and Hero), a stunning blind performer who turns out to be dangerous to the health of many an anonymous cop. She’s also quite resourceful when she puts on a costume featuring impossibly long arms made of pink silk that can sorta be used as whips. Seriously.
Jin goes undercover to spring Mei from a sticky situation. They make a run for it through the countryside, with Jin hoping she’ll lead him to the House’s leaders. Because they’re two attractive movie characters on the run, they begin to fall in love—but every conventional, melodramatic element of Zhang’s screenplay doesn’t seem so pedestrian when it’s happening in a drop-dead-gorgeous forest of changing leaves, or being performed by actors in confounding green-and-brown outfits that seem sculpted from the earth itself.
From the opening scenes in the ninth century’s most elaborate brothel to the monotone snowstorm of the final frames, Zhang explores the overwhelming intensity of color with a fervor he has shown only sparingly since the hypnotic Ju Dou, another visually fascinating ode to love gone weird. Emotions also are shown in extremes, with a lubricious undercurrent of sexual dominance flowing through every move made by the lovers and Leo, who turns up later in a more sinister role.
The plot becomes needlessly complicated in a third act that’s quite unsatisfying to those hoping for logical resolution and a long-promised climactic battle between the government and the House band. The big fight occurs before the final scenes, as Mei and countless baddies glide up and down towering bamboo plants with a preternatural grace that’s simply glorious. Zhang scales the forest with his characters, and he even delights in the sibilant sounds of snapping bamboo and the delicate whistle of air through the hollow trunks. He’s an artist in control of everything he sees. So what if the lives his characters lead aren’t quite as inspired?
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS ***.5 Ziyi Zhang, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro Rated PG-13