House of Flying Daggers
2004, PG-13, 119 min. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Dandan Song.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 14, 2005
I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve only recently come to appreciate the gorgeous operatics of Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou – Hero was the first of his films I’d ever seen – but I’ve been cramming him and his 20-year oeuvre (Ju-Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) ever since. Though, to bastardize a UT Athletics slogan, I may have neglected to come early, I fully intend to stay late and be very loud. Zhang’s second martial arts epic in two years, House of Flying Daggers, doesn’t have the grave import, the awesome stoicism of Hero, but I think that makes for a more entertaining picture. Hell, even the title sounds like more fun. It refers to a rebel outfit during the Tang Dynasty of the ninth century, one dedicated to the overthrow of the government. The film begins with two police deputies, the young braggadocio Jin (Kaneshiro) and the wiser, gruffer Leo (Lau), discussing how to ferret out the Flying Dagger insurgents. Knowing that the now-deceased leader of the Flying Daggers had a blind daughter, they think they’ve caught a break when a blind dancer named Mei (a transcendent Zhang Ziyi) shows up at the local brothel. That about covers the film’s first 20 minutes – to give anything else away would be to spoil the film’s myriad twisty pleasures. The puzzle-piece plot is just one in a series of delights here; there’s also Xiaoding Zhao’s lush photography, the adrenal-shot fight scenes (especially one conducted in a dense forest of bamboo), and the wonderfully impish push-pull of Zhang and Kaneshiro’s chemistry. Their star-cross’d attraction, as conceived by Zhang with co-writers Feng Li and Bin Wang, draws masterfully from two B-movie conceits: the rock ’em, sock ’em spirit of a swashbuckler and the weepy histrionics of a three-hanky melodrama. Most movies couldn’t sustain that kind of tonal shift, but then, House of Flying Daggers ain’t most movies. So light on its feet in the beginning, Zhang’s film undergoes an almost imperceptible change. You can see it on Kaneshiro’s face first, as his once graceless and cocky Jin becomes a man in a split-second of bloodshed. His face hardens, and so does Zhang’s picture, seamlessly transitioning from a giddy pop piece into something deeper, fiercer, and practically wailing of Sirkian melodrama. It’s emblematized by a doomsday declaration, "If we meet again one of us will die" – which sounds like a spoiler, but trust me, there are too many double-crossings and duplicitous dealings for anything to be taken at face value. I don’t know if the many plot swerves withstand a second viewing, but I suspect the meat of the matter – the swooning visuals, the expert choreography, the teasing love story – does. It is those elements, at least, that continue to obsessively replay in my head, long after the lights went up in the theatre.