House of Flying Daggers (2004)
House of Flying Daggers (Shi Mian Mai Fu, literally, "Ambush from 10 Directions") is the latest big-budget action spectacular from Chinese director Zhang Yimou. House of Flying Daggers will undoubtedly be compared to Yimou's last epic, Hero, and indeed the two films are similar in many ways. Like Hero, Flying Daggers involves a melodramatic plotline set in a mythic ancient China, built upon spectacular martial arts sequences, dazzling use of colors and natural settings, a haunting musical score (this time by Shigeru Umebayashi), and some of the biggest names in the Chinese film scene, in this case Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro. But where Hero drew to a jingoistic conclusion of clear blacks and whites, a more troubled Flying Daggers never makes clear who the heroes and villains are, and its more ambiguous ending is ultimately more satisfying.
Set in the 9th century, the film traces the efforts of two members of the Chinese constabulary to root out the leader of the eponymous "House of Flying Daggers", a Robin-Hood-like rebel band that "robs from the rich to give to the poor," by tracking a beautiful blind prostitute named Mei (Zhang), who is reputed to be a member of the shadowy group. Inevitably, the plot thickens as Jin (Kaneshiro), the young constable assigned to investigate the young woman, finds himself increasingly allured by her charms despite his better judgment and his duty. His efforts to win her trust without losing his heart are only complicated by the emergence of double agents, a murderous general, and the young woman's feelings for man from her past (Lau).
Flying Daggers has much to recommend it, especially in the department of pure visual delights. Yimou makes nature itself one of the stars of the film, lingering longingly on dazzling wide-angle shots of virgin birch forests, sweeping meadows, and lonely mountain passes filmed on location in the Ukraine. Not to be overshadowed, the fight sequences are superbly choreographed, and played, filmed, and cut with a smooth inertia that builds tension toward a climax and then fades away like an exquisite symphony of flying twisting bodies, without relying too heavily on the sort of obvious piano wire trickery that sometimes made the fight scenes in Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon less satisfying.
Some may find room to quibble with the plot of Flying Daggers, which can at times seem mechanistic in its twists and turns before fading away to near irrelevance as the film's three main characters grow to overshadow it. But if anything it is refreshing in this day and age to see a movie that places its characters before plot. What emerges is an almost-timeless tale of star-crossed love in the grandest tradition of the great Chinese epics like the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". But despite the heavy doses of melodrama, Flying Daggers almost never feels forced, thanks to the patience of Yimou's pacing and the expressiveness of his actors. Most of the emotion and the romance is conveyed in moments of silence - small smiles when no one is looking, brief looks of confusion or sadness or self-doubt, the way Mei's and Jin's hands find each other when they are trapped and facing certain death, or the way they just lie and stare at the sky without daring to look at each other during the film's climax. There is a subtlety here that can't be matched by pithy one-liners or dramatic displays of affection, and if the movie doesn't always succeed in remaining so subtle, it is a tribute to Yimou's direction and the talent of his players that it succeeds as often as it does.
I suppose I should just say it plainly: this movie is better than Hero. This is a much more human story, with a more human ending. The world is larger than life, but somehow the characters are not. They may fly, but they also feel, and thus they can fail. It's a martial arts movie with more than a bit of a soul.
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenplay: Li Feng, Wang Bin, and Zhang Yimou
Original Score: Shigeru Umebayashi
Cinematography: Xiaoding Zhao
Takeshi Kaneshiro - Jin
Andy Lau - Leo
Zhang Ziyi - Mei